As the streets of Tehran fill with demonstrators and blood, there is the potential for historical change, not only within Iran but the region. The current protest goes beyond the fairness or lack thereof in the recent sham elections where all of the candidates had to be approved by the ruling Guardian Council. At that, it seems the most moderate of the permissible candidates would never have won. The Council, made up of Islamic clerics, the de facto dictators of Iran, wanted only one candidate, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come out on top. If you’re the guys pulling the strings you want the most compliant of the available puppets. Though there is division within the Guardian Council itself, Ahmadinejad is the hardliners’ obstreperous voice to the world.
The dissent it appears is against more than just the predictable outcome of a rigged election. Although for the reformers protesting and dying in the streets, the vote was to have been another step, however measured, towards freedom from theocratic tyranny, the ultimate goal is to wrench power away from the all-deciding autocratic regime. In a country with a youthful population, many of whom seek to join the modern world, the option of the slightly more moderate former president, Hossein Mousavi, restricted in his ability to affect change as he would have been, was at least a symbolic move towards emancipation. The fact that the vote was so obviously tainted triggered the fury of those Iranians whose hopes of modest progress were stifled. The religious oligarchy is heaven bent on maintaining their smothering grip on the nation.
Giving the people a glimpse of control over their own lives before snatching it away is standard operating procedure for the religious addicts in Iran. Except this time they overplayed their hand. When even a pageant masquerading as choice was manipulated, the fraud became the call to action for millions of frustrated Iranians whose larger goal is casting off the yoke of old men who use myth to justify their existence. Islam does not recognize any law except god’s law. For those who have read the Old Testament from which Islam has cherry-picked the passages it likes and glossed over those it doesn’t, it is apparent that that any society based on god’s law is going to be severe, austere and reactionary. Science and progress are forces to fear and defeat.
The protesters will not easily go away now. Patrick Henry, chafing under British rule in the American colonies, cried “Give me liberty or give me death.” It is towards this purpose that the people of Iran now fight. Ultimately the police and military may prove too strong to overcome, but this genie is not going back in the bottle.
Nor is it likely to stop at the borders of Iran. Pakistanis, who want to be part of the world as it moves ahead, have taken up arms against the theocrats. Everyday citizens of Pakistan, who have no use for extremism but nonetheless co-existed with the Taliban, are carrying the fight to their would-be oppressors. The absolutists had attempted to claim more territory and spread their influence across the country. The Pakistani people, especially the women, were mad as hell and not about to take it anymore. What was once easy picking for the madmen has become a hornet’s nest of trouble.
I once worked in a large office in a country where diversity was common, where Muslims worked with Jews and western Christians and atheists, where people from every part of the globe, many who under different circumstances, in a different place, might oppose or be opposed by the person in the next desk, worked side by side, played sports side by side, celebrated festive occasions side by side. When they left the office they were more likely to associate with those from similar backgrounds, but at that, it wasn’t to plot against their office neighbor whom they had come to accept if not respect.
It would be nice to say that this just happened magically once the various antagonists were taken from the hot zone of hatred from whence they came. But to a large degree that is not the case. The reason that people of different religions, races and cultures get along in multicultural societies is the rule of civil not religious law. No matter the hatred spewed by anti-western clerics, the western world has created an albeit imperfect society of acceptance and tolerance, built on law common to all. You can be a Muslim in the U.S. or Britain or Canada. You can build a mosque. You can speak on street corners or in parks or hand out pamphlets and engage in other forms of proselytizing. You can stage marches against the foes of your former land. You can even have the leaders of your countries, in times of crisis, stand up and defend your rights. But you cannot cut off the head of someone of a different group, build a fence around his land to control his movement or even speak hatred against him.
For every religion there is a different god, a different book, a different set of rules, a different chosen people. Rule of god is tribalism and can never be anything but mistrustful and hateful. Civil law says that you are welcome to practice the religion you choose but you cannot impinge on the right of those who don’t believe as you or who don’t believe at all. It is the rule of Civil law that protects the very freedom that allows people to practice what their god’s law would take away from others.
What is happening in Iran and Pakistan is an understanding of the need for the law of man not the law of god. It is the appreciation that we must all have an equal chance to live our lives under laws that protect the right of individuals to believe and act as they choose as long as those actions don’t encroach on the freedom or happiness of others.
Iran may well be history in the making. Though the movement may evolve rather more slowly than what began in Poland twenty years ago and which ignited the fall of that godless theocracy, it is the beginning of the end of the new caliphate, the beginning of the end of those nations who choose to define themselves in narrow religious and racial terms.
Harold Bloom, the eminent literary critic, lamented what he saw as the coming theocracy and with much justification. It is still a threat. But what perhaps what he and most of us underestimated, was the burning desire for freedom that has been a rallying cry since one man first enslaved another.
On a personal level, we grow up wanting to climb out of the playpen, extend the curfew and finally, flee or get kicked out of, the nest. As we age, we strive for financial freedom and feel less the need to belong to those things that once seemed so attractive from the outside and so common on the inside.
As persecuted people, the Jews freed themselves from Egypt, the Greeks from the Persians. Spartacus fought against Rome, Luther against the tyranny of another all-controlling and corrupt church. Country by country, Latin America battled for independence from Spain. Much of the world fought against 20th century totalitarianism that came dressed in black and in red. India and Pakistan broke away from centuries of British rule. Vietnam threw out the Chinese the French and the Americans in their quest to control their destiny. Blacks overcame their enslaved lot in South Africa and the United States. No one is more targeted or out front in the engagement against theocratic despotism than the oft and still repressed homosexual populace.
The battle against religious fundamentalism has been global and historical. Before finally overcoming the scourge of fairy tale fanaticism, Europe was scarred by countless god wars at the cost of millions of lives. I have come to believe, though the struggle against theocracy rages yet at home and abroad, that the will to be free is more powerful. It is a charge as central to our being as the need to eat and breathe. I believe that the impulse for self-determination is stronger than those who seek to deprive us of it. I believe that the pursuit of choice is a force much greater than faith in a god. The courage of the citizens of Iran and Afghanistan gives renewed vigor that ignorance and autocracy will not prevail against an idea whose time has come again.
To steal and alter the words of Martin Luther King on behalf of the people of Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and all those enslaved by religious tyranny around the world, let it be proclaimed, “Free at last, free at last, that god’s not mighty, we are free at last.”