One of the enduring images from the protests in Iran (photo: faramarz)
There’s an old story from The Arabian Nights that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It tells the story of an ox and a donkey and is one of the stories that comes from the original texts, unlike other stories (like Aladdin and Sinbad) which were added later. It’s told by the vizier to his daughter, Shahrazad, to warn her not to marry the King, but it’s really a warning about what manipulation can cost you in the end.
Once there was a wealthy merchant who lived with his wife and children in the countryside and tended to a farm. He had many servants and workers who helped to make the farm prosperous and Allah had given the merchant a great gift: knowledge of the language of animals, although no one else could know of his gift under punishment of death. And so one day the merchant sat with his wife and children and heard an ox and donkey talking while they fed.
The ox, tired from his hours of ploughing the fields and bleeding from where the ploughman’s whip had split his side, said how he envied the comfort of the donkey, resting all day and feeding from a full, clean trough. The donkey, who thought himself clever and wise, turned to the ox and said that he should not exhaust himself for others; instead he told the ox to feign being sick and refuse his beans until they took pity on him. Life would be kinder to him afterward.
The ox thought this was good advice and thanked the donkey profusely. And so the next morning, when the ploughman led him away to the fields, the ox stumbled. His legs would not carry him; no matter how many times the ploughman tried to urge him on, the ox kept falling and lagging behind. That night when the ox was tied to his trough, he slept without eating. And in the morning when the ploughman returned, he found the ox lying on his back with all four legs raised in the air. He pitied the animal and immediately told his master. The merchant, knowing what had happened, told him to take the donkey to plough the fields instead. So it was that the ploughman took the donkey and put him to work, driving him with the fierce crack of the whip until his side bled and his neck was flayed and his ears drooped in exhaustion. Meanwhile the ox rested and ate, giving thanks for the donkey’s advice.
Finally, at nightfall, the donkey returned from the fields. The ox rose to thank the donkey for taking his place but the donkey ignored him, he was so angry. ‘All this happened to me because of my miscalculation,’ the donkey thought to himself. ‘I would be sitting pretty if not for my curiosity. If I don’t find a way to return the ox to his former station, I will perish.’ He went to lie down, scheming, while the ox continued to thank him and Allah for his good fortune.
Thousands gather in Isfahan in a rally to support Mousavi (photo: faramarz)
Like everyone I’ve been following the events in Iran closely this past week and I suppose it’s because I’ve always liked allegories that that story has stuck in my mind. It’s not hard to see the protesters as the ox, desperate for change, and the Iranian authorities as the donkey, more concerned with their own self-interests. It’s probably also because I’ve always interpreted this story a little differently than other people; where most people see the donkey as trying to help the ox (at least at first), I think he was just trying to show how clever he was, believing he was more important than all of the other animals. That was the donkey’s miscalculation; he overreached and lost his position. That’s true of Iran as well; the authorities are still clinging to the old ways, even when for many people the old ways are gone.
I think that’s why the protesters are so angry, that unwillingness to adapt when society is moving forward, and I admire what the protesters are doing. It’s believed that more than two-thirds of Iran’s population is under the age of 30; these are people my age, standing up for a cause they believe in, and challenging not just their government and supreme leader but their very social system. For that they are being shot at, beaten, arrested, killed; and still they manage to get news out to the world; still the cries of Allahu Akbar ring out each night. I can only imagine the courage they’re showing; to go from being afraid to hold hands in public to openly defying Ayatollah Khamenei, just a few weeks ago it would have been unthinkable. But the crackdown is getting much more violent and I fear it will only get worse again in the coming days.
What is happening now in Iran is inexcusable. Whether the election was stolen or not (and we may never know for certain, although there is mounting evidence, as the Washington Post alleged), no government should turn its forces on its own people, let alone on unarmed innocents involved in a peaceful protest. Suppressing ideas doesn’t make them go away; they are only forced underground to spread in different ways. The use of force only shows the true colours of the Iranian government and what little respect it has for its own people. The world is watching events unfold and while that may mean little to the authorities, their actions won’t soon be forgotten.
Much of what’s happening reminds me of Tiananmen Square. Not just the scale of the protests and the demand for change but the students and intellectuals forming the core of the rallies, the role of new media in spreading news as it breaks – with faxes and mobile phones in Tiananmen, with the Internet and social networking in Iran. It’s becoming a similar standoff that neither side seems willing to budge from; but no matter what happens with the crackdown, you get the feeling that culturally Iran has passed a point of no return, whether the authorities admit it or not.
A fire burns in the streets of Tehran after a rally to support Mousavi (photo: faramarz)
What’s been interesting about the protests is how the demands of the protesters have evolved as the situation has deepened. There was an interesting commentary by William Pfaff last week, during the start of the mass rallies, which offered a good analysis of what the protests were about at that time. It was what I felt as well. Watching the protests and following the tweets from Iran, it didn’t feel like the movement was a threat to the Islamic Republic itself; some figures in the government (like Ahmadinejad and others allied with the Revolutionary Guard) were under threat but what was being challenged by Mousavi and his supporters was more the form the system had taken in the last decade than the system itself.
It stated as more of a revolt about the role the Islamic system should have in modern society, and the main issues for the protesters were the legitimacy of the election and the points the opposition had contested the election on – mainly democratic freedom, for young people to be able to enjoy more individual and personal freedom without fear of reprisal. The debate was as much about reform within the system as democracy.
But as the crackdown has escalated and the bloodshed and outrage have spread, the demands have intensified. Now the protesters want justice for the dead as well as democratic freedom and they are defiant, resurrecting the chants from the 1979 revolution and even calling for the death of Ayatollah Khamenei, a man who has been untouchable in Iran for 20 years.
Likewise there are signs of cracks appearing in the system as some of the senior clerics are divided. Today Grand Ayatollah Montazeri warned that the continued suppression of the protesters would create frustrations which could lead to the overthrow of the government and endanger the Islamic Republic. Though a critic of Khamenei, Montazeri is considered the highest authority of Shi’ite Islam in Iran and his word carries considerable weight.
That the protests have evolved this far in such a short time is remarkable. I still don’t think another revolution in Iran is likely – I’ve yet to see the protests reach the kind of critical mass amongst the rest of Iran’s populace for that to be possible and given the reliance upon state-run media, it’s unlikely that will happen – but that it even seems like it could be possible, after so many years of repression, is more than anyone could have predicted. The supreme leader and the government have been challenged in a way that has severely damaged their authority and, regardless of what happens, Iran won’t be the same.
A man bleeding after the violent crackdown on protesters (photo: faramarz)
How much longer the government will allow that divide to be visible, though, is unknown. The crackdown is already taking a toll on the opposition movement and it’s feasible that a further push by security forces could seriously damage it; there were reports of smaller crowds recently but of particularly brutal clashes near parliament, while others who have been arrested have reportedly recanted after being threatened and one former presidential candidate has also withdrawn complaints he made about the electoral process. Some people, like the New York Times’ Roger Cohen, are calling it the end of the first phase of the uprising and given the overwhelming forces the protesters are now facing, you’d have to think he’s right.
I think whatever happens the opposition movement will survive in some form and the culture in Iran will gradually begin to shift (as I said, you can’t suppress an idea when it has spread to so many people), but in the short term the protesters will have to change their tactics. Their only option now is a more cautious approach and to remain unified; they have to clearly distinguish between what they and the authorities stand for and they need to be prepared for a war of attrition. That may mean calling for national strikes, overwhelming the bazaars, and abandoning many of the symbols that have come to be associated with the protest to become less identifiable.
In the end the only way for a movement to have any success against an oppressive regime is to fully commit to a prolonged campaign of non-violence, to not engage the regime on their terms. That means knowingly placing themselves and their families in danger day after day and finding new ways to protest, and that takes immense courage and perseverance. But some in the opposition, like former President Khatami, seem to have recognised that if they’re to continue then that has to be the next phase. Facing overwhelming force, it’s either that or back down.
Riot police watch over a group of protesters in Tehran (photo: faramarz)
I think that’s why it’s important that the rest of the world continues to show its support as well. The gestures of solidarity, particularly on Twitter and Facebook, have been overwhelming during the last week and have also been helping to keep people informed. Some people have been deriding that as largely meaningless but I don’t agree. While I agree it’s a simple thing to change an avatar or post a comment, for most people the gesture means something more; it shows people standing together and saying that you’re not alone, that your rights matter as much as ours.
But it will become even more important if the protests wear on. No protest, no matter how significant, can produce real social change in 12 days; the civil rights movement didn’t change attitudes in days, nor did South Africa overcome apartheid in weeks. Real change takes time and there will be times when the protesters will need to know the world hasn’t forgotten them. It’s important that we don’t. While the world is watching Iran, there’s still some hope for a resolution and an end to the violence.
It’s also important, though, that we are responsible and don’t lose our judgement. I’ve seen people on blogs and Twitter blaming Islam for what’s happening in Iran, which is totally unacceptable and reminds me of the ignorant reaction after 9/11. I’ve also seen people demonising those who disagree with them. We need to remember that while what the authorities are doing is terrible and there are serious questions about the legitimacy of the election, there will still have been millions of people who voted legitimately for Ahmadinejad. If this is a truly democratic movement, those people also deserve to have a voice and don’t deserve to be shouted down by Westerners. Likewise we (both individuals and governments) need to be careful not to directly interfere in the democratic process that’s taking place; we can support the protesters and condemn the violence, certainly, but the future is in the hands of the Iranian people; we’re just observers.
And if we truly care about democracy, we also need to remember that there are other injustices in the world as well. I wonder how many people are also aware of Liu Xiaobo’s arrest in China or know the full details about the protests in Peru which are also happening at the moment? At least 50 people have been killed and over 100 injured so far, although the death toll could be far higher. The indigenous people of the Amazon are one of the oldest civilisations of the Americas and they have been exploited throughout history. It’s hard to believe it’s happening again. But it barely makes news.
A young woman flashes a green victory sign (photo: faramarz)
I’m not sure what will happen next in Iran. I still hope it may reach a more peaceful resolution, with either a new election or a compromise, but after the violence has escalated I’m not at all optimistic. I also think the one thing that is making it difficult for the Iranian government to put down the protest is the world’s attention and I’m concerned that our interest will wane over time, as it has with other issues. If that happens then the situation really might become another Tiananmen.
For what it’s worth, though, I want to add my voice to those supporting the protesters and condemning the violence. I’m just one person, one voice, but I believe that democracy and freedom are universal rights and I’ll always stand with people to defend them.
I am also planning to write to the Australian government to urge them to accept protesters and their families into the Australian embassy in Tehran. There were reports during the bloody June 20 protest that the Australian embassy gave aid to protesters but there’s been no confirmation from our government. Personally I think it’s the least we can do.
Click on an image to download from Flickr
If anyone would like to show their support as well, I’ve made some badges which you can put on your blog. I wanted something which I could use more long-term than the Twitter avatars.
There is also a petition at Avaaz if you want to do something more practical, and several sources from within Iran are asking people to write to the United Nations to request a new election for Iran. Amnesty International is also urging people to write to the Iranian Ambassador in their own countries.
There is also a Bloggers Unite event planned next week, to help raise awareness about the situation and offer support for a free Iran. I’ll be taking part in it (I’ll most likely be writing a poem) and have done a couple of these before. If you’d like to take part, it’s a great way to show your support.
Bloggers Unite for a Free Iran: Monday June 29th
I thought I’d finish with one of my favourite videos from YouTube. It’s a cover of Stand By Me by singers from many different countries and is part of a multimedia project called Playing for Change, which promotes peace and understanding around the world through music.
I think it’s something we could all use at the moment.