We watch protests in Iran and hope, but false optimism may cloud our eyes | Jason Burque
In the second week of December 1978, between 1 and 2 million people marched peacefully through Tehran to call on the Shah to leave. Between a fifth and nearly half of the city’s population was on the streets. The CIA, warily eyeing opposition from a key regional ally and US arms customer, noted that one man was “the focal point”, providing “advice and support to the movement acting on its behalf in Iran”. . It was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then thousands of miles away in exile in Paris, although his portrait was carried by many walkers.
Decades later, the regime established by Khomeini is still in power in Iran. Crowds are once again on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities after the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, arrested by vice squad, who accused her of breaking laws on wearing a hijabs introduced by the Khomeini regime in 1981. Women threw headscarves at fires, huge posters celebrating the regime were torn down, police stations were set on fire. The unrest looks set to intensify.
Could this finally be the spark that leads to massive change in Iran, as many hope? Some think a fuse has been lit. The oppression of women is an existential problem for the regime, but perhaps also a fundamental weakness. The powerful and awe-inspiring images that run through our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and reproduced by the mainstream media, might lead us to believe they’re right.
Does history repeat itself? Certainly, some demonstrators invoked parallels with the tumultuous events of 1979, chanting: “Death to the oppressor, be it the shah or the supreme leader!” There are many reasons to be impressed by what is happening in Iran. Protests of this magnitude sparked by anger over violations of women’s rights are rare anywhere. Men are also on the streets, and those involved in the unrest are said to be more demographically diverse than attendees of similar events in recent years. No one can doubt that the protests are also tapping into deep wells of discontent over the manifest economic, political and moral failures of the repressive theocratic regime.
But we may be letting our hopes get ahead of reality. What we see is very far from a complete picture of events. Reports from the field are extremely limited. After a decade of exposure to the extraordinary impact of contemporary media technology, we have seen time and time again how a single clip downloaded from an individual’s cell phone can be broadcast to hundreds of millions of people via social media, then amplified by mainstream media. We see something happening on a street in a city in a province – but it’s not always representative of events across a vast and populated country. In Iran now, it is difficult to determine exactly the extent of the unrest. Journalists, academic experts and government intelligence analysts will seek to supplement inadequate visual evidence, but their conclusions very often have little impact compared to emotive images. Populist politicians know this, as do terrorists of all ideologies and beliefs. We prefer to believe what we want to be true.
Forty-three years ago, the Shah was ousted not only by Khomeini and his clique of radical clerics, but by a broad coalition of opposition groups, which mobilized diverse constituencies: secular urban liberals, old-school communists , New Left Fedayeen, Islamo- Marxist guerrillas and nationalists who revered the memory of Mohammed Mosaddegh, the Prime Minister deposed in 1953 in a coup backed by the United States and Britain.
There were also the young men from the sprawling new slums on the outskirts of Iranian cities or provinces who provided the shock troops for the radical clerics and who, having grown old, cling to the power they won at the time. .
Among those who witnessed the unrest in Iran in 1978 and 1979 was Rzyard Kapuściński, the famous Polish journalist, who described a massive march in Tehran as “a human river, wide and seething, flowing endlessly, rolling down the main street of dawn to dusk. A flood, a violent flood that in an instant will swallow up and drown everything. The crowd took eight hours to cross the city center. There are no more Kapuścińskis in Tehran, and we can be sure there are no eight-hour marches either.
The harsh truth is that although these are significant protests, they risk being crushed by the still powerful regime.
Our enthusiasm for the moving images we see of protests not only often leads us to exaggerate the breadth and depth of a protest movement, especially when those on the streets seem to share many of our own values and aspirations , but also to underestimate the strength of their enemies too. Those who opposed those currently protesting in Iran are still very formidable.
The problem of interpreting distant events is obviously not a simple consequence of smartphones and the Internet. The 1979 Iranian Revolution was covered by hundreds of journalists around the world. In the few months that Khomeini was in Paris before returning to Tehran, he granted 150 interviews. Even the tough guys were fooled by Khomeini’s words about democracy, women’s rights and tolerance. The US ambassador to Tehran decided that the statesman Khomeini would most resemble after taking power was Gandhi. Within two years of taking power, Khomeini had ruthlessly eliminated nearly all opposition, filled the prisons, and introduced laws that required women to wear the hijab.
But the ubiquity of information today, how it reaches us and how it is consumed, and the primacy accorded to the image by technology carry a particular risk. The passage of information is often described as a flow, which implies something continuous, regular, rhythmic. In reality, it’s completely jerky and irregular and as we work to build what we hear and see into something with enough unity to make sense, we fill in the many gaps ourselves. Some deploy prejudice and fear, creating elaborate conspiracy theories. Others complete the incomplete picture with dreams and hopes, a more positive reaction to be sure, but which can also do harm.
This does not mean that those on the streets in Iran should not be admired and their example celebrated. But that when we think about how we can help and support them, we must be careful to do so with clear eyes, not clouded by false optimism. This will make our support even more valuable.