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<nettime> The Tragedy of the Left's Discourse on Iran - by Saeed Rahnema
Gita Hashemi on Wed, 15 Jul 2009 04:18:29 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Tragedy of the Left's Discourse on Iran - by Saeed Rahnema

saeed rahnema's analysis of the response of "the 
left" in the west - including a critique of 
zizek's article which was distributed earlier on 
this list - is a very worthy read...

yeah, i know, iran is old news, so are honduras 
and pakistan... and michael jackson is dead and 
all that...

be well.




The Tragedy of the Left's Discourse on Iran

July 10, 2009 By Saeed Rahnema

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The electoral coup and the subsequent uprising 
and suppression of the revolting voters in Iran 
have prompted all sorts of analyses in Western 
media from both the Right and the Left. The 
Right, mostly inspired by the neo-con ideology 
and reactionary perspectives, dreams of the 
re-creation of the Shah's Iran, looks for 
pro-American/pro-Israeli allies among the 
disgruntled Iranian public, and seeks an Eastern 
European type velvet revolution. As there is very 
little substance to these analyses, they are 
hardly worth much critical review; and one cannot 
expect them to try to understand the complexities 
of Iranian politics and society.

As for the Left in the West, confusions abound. 
The progressive left, from the beginning openly 
supported the Iranian civil society movement. 
ZNet, Campaign for Peace and Democracy, Bullet, 
and some other media provided sound analysis to 
help others understand the complexities of the 
Iranian situation (see, for example, here).  Some 
intellectuals signed petitions along with their 
Iranian counterparts, while others chose to 
remain silent. But disturbingly, like in the 
situations in Gaza or Lebanon, where Hamas and 
Hezbollah uncritically became champions of 
anti-imperialism, for some other people on the 
left, Ahmadinejad has become a champion because 
of his seemingly firm rhetoric against Israel and 
the US. Based on a crude class analysis, he is 
also directly or indirectly praised by some for 
his supposed campaign against the rich and 
imagined support of the working poor. These 
analyses also undermine the genuine movement 
within the vibrant Iranian civil society, and 
denigrate their demands for democracy, and 
political and individual freedoms as middle class 
concerns, instigated by western propaganda (a 
view shared by Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and his 

MRZine and Islamists

The most bizarre case is the on-line journal 
MRZine, the offshoot of Monthly Review, which in 
some instances even publicized the propaganda of 
the Basij (Islamic militia) hooligans and 
criminals. The website has given ample room to 
pro-Islamist contributors; while they can hardly 
be considered to be on the left, their words are 
appreciated by the leftists editing the site. One 
writer claims that the battle in Iran is about 
"welfare reform and private property rights," and 
that Ahmadinejad "has enraged the managerial 
class," as he is "the least enthusiastic about 
neo-liberal reforms demanded by Iran's corporate 
interests," and that he is under attack by 
"Iran's fiscal conservative candidates." The 
author conveniently fails to mention that there 
are also much "corporate interests" controlled by 
Ahmadinejad's friends and allies in the Islamic 
Guards and his conservative cleric supporters, 
and that he has staunchly followed 
"privatization" policies by handing over state 
holdings to his cronies.

During the 1979 revolution, the late Tudeh Party, 
under the direction of the Soviet Union, was 
unsuccessfully digging deep and looking hard for 
"non-capitalists" among the Islamic regime's 
elements to follow a "non-capitalist path" and a 
"socialist orientation." Now it seems that MRZine 
magazine is beginning a new excavation for such a 
breed among Islamists, not understanding that all 
factions of the Islamic regime have always been 
staunch capitalists.

Azmi Bishara's imagined Iran

In "Iran: An Alternative Reading" (reproduced in 
MRZine), Azmi Bishara argues that Iran's 
totalitarian system of government differs from 
other totalitarian systems in two definitive 
ways: Firstly, it has incorporated "such a high 
degree [of] constitutionally codified democratic 
competition in the ruling order and its 
ideology." Bishara does not explain however that 
these "competitions" are just for the insider 
Islamists, and all others, including moderate 
Muslims or the wide spectrum of secular liberals 
and the left are excluded by the anti-democratic 
institutions within the regime.

The second differentiation Bishara makes is that 
"... the official ideology that permeates 
institutions of government ... is a real religion 
embraced by the vast majority of the people." He 
is right if he means the majority of Iranians are 
Muslim and Shi'i, but it is wrong to assume that 
all are religious and share the same obscurantist 
fundamentalist version as those in power. He also 
fails to recognize the existence of a large 
number of secular people in Iran, one of the 
highest percentages among Muslim-majority 

He praises "such tolerance of political 
diversity," "tolerance of criticism," and 
"peaceful rotation of authority" in Iran. One 
wonders if our prominent Palestinian politician 
is writing about an imaginary Iran, or the real 
one. Could it be that Bishara has not heard of 
the massacres of thousands of political 
prisoners, chain killings of intellectuals, and 
silencing of the most able and progressive voices 
in the country? Doesn't he know that a 
non-elected 12-member conservative body (The 
Guardianship Council) only allows a few trusted 
individuals to run for President or the 
Parliament, and that the real 'authority,' the 
Supreme Leader, does not rotate, and is selected 
by an all-Mullah Assembly of Experts for life? 
The unelected Leader leads the suppressive 
apparatuses of the state, and since 1993 has 
created his own "Special Guards of Velayat" 
(NOPO) for quick suppressive operations. So much 
for tolerance and democracy.

Bishara undermines the genuine massive reform 
movement and claims that "expectations regarding 
the power of the reform trend ... were created by 
Western and non-Western media opposed to 
Ahmadinejad...." Had Bishara done his homework, 
he would have learned about the massive campaigns 
led by large number of womens' organizations, the 
youth, teachers and select groups of workers. He 
warns us of "elitism" and of having an "arrogant 
classist edge," and implicitly dismisses these 
movements of "middle class backgrounds" and 
claims that "these people are not the majority of 
young people but rather the majority of young 
people from a particular class." It is unclear on 
what basis he makes the assertion that most of 
the youth from poor sectors of the society 
support Ahmadinejad.

James Petras' message: freedom is not "vital"!

One of the most shocking pieces is by the 
renowned controversial Left writer and academic, 
James Petras. In his piece "Iranian Elections: 
'The Stolen Elections' Hoax," Petras conclusively 
denies any wrongdoings in the Iranian elections 
and confidently goes into the detail of the 
demographics of some small Iranian towns, with no 
credibility or expertise in the subject.

The abundant facts pointing to massive electoral 
fraud speak for themselves, so I will not waste 
time refuting his evidence and 'sources,' but 
will rather focus on his analysis. The most 
stunning aspect of the Petras piece is the total 
absence of any sympathy for all the brave women, 
youth, teachers, civil servants and workers who 
have been so vigorously campaigning for 
democracy, human rights, and political freedoms, 
risking their lives by spontaneously pouring into 
the streets when they realized they were cheated. 
Instead we see sporadic references to 
"comfortable upper class enclave," "well-dressed 
and fluent in English" youth, etc.  Women are not 
mentioned even once, nor is there any recognition 
of their amazing struggle against the most 
obscurantist policies such as stoning, polygamy, 
and legal gender discriminations. Neither is 
there any reference to trade union activists, 
writers, and artists, many of whom are in jail.

Instead, the emphasis is on crude class analysis: 
"[t]he demography of voting reveals a real class 
polarization pitting high income, free market 
oriented capitalist individuals against working 
class, low income, community based supporters of 
a 'moral economy' in which usury and profiteering 
are limited by religious precepts." Petras could 
not be more misguided and misleading. Of course 
this would fit well within the perceived 
traditional class conflict paradigm (with an 
added touch of imagined Islamic economics!). 
However, the reality is far more complex.  The 
Ayatollahs on both sides are "market-oriented 
capitalists," so are the leaders of the Islamic 
Guards, who run industries, control trade 
monopolies, and are major land developers. There 
are also workers on both sides. Failed economic 
policies, the rising 30% inflation rate, growing 
unemployment and the suppression of trade unions 
turned many workers against Ahmadinejad. The 
communiqu?s of Workers of Iran Khodrow (auto 
industry) against the government's heavy-handed 
tactics, the long strikes and confrontations of 
the workers of Tehran Public Transport and the 
participation of workers in the post-election 
revolts, are all examples of opposition to 
Ahmadinejad by workers. It would also be 
simplistic to talk of the Islamists' 'moral 
economy,' when both sides have been involved in 
embezzlement and corruption, much of which was 
exposed during the debates fiasco in which they 
exposed each other.

On the basis of his limited understanding of the 
situation, Petras declares that "[t]he scale of 
the opposition's electoral deficit should tell us 
how out of touch it is with its own people's 
vital concerns." Firstly, like many others he 
cannot distinguish among different groups and 
categories of this "opposition," and worse, is 
telling Iranian women, youth, union activists, 
intellectuals and artists, that their demands and 
"concerns" for political and individual freedoms, 
human rights, democracy, gender equity and labour 
rights are not "vital."  It seems he's telling 
the Iranian left: rofagha (comrades), if you are 
being tortured and rotting in prisons, your books 
are burned and you are expelled from your 
profession, don't worry, because the "working 
class" is receiving subsidies and handouts from 
the government! Professor Petras and those like 
him would not be as forgiving if their own 
freedoms and privileges were at issue.

The left has historically been rooted in 
solidarity with progressive movements, women's 
rights and rights for unions and its voice has 
been first and foremost a call for freedom. The 
voices that we hear today from part of the Left 
are tragically reactionary. Siding with religious 
fundamentalists with the wrong assumptions that 
they are anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists, 
is aligning with the most reactionary forces of 
history. This is a reactionary left, different 
from the progressive left which has always been 
on the side of the forces of progress.

Zizek also misses an important point

In a much admired and distributed piece, Slavoj 
Zizek, the prominent voice of the new left, 
refers to versions of events in Iran. Zizek 
explains that "Moussavi supporters... see their 
activity as the repetition of the 1979 Khomeini 
revolution, as the return to its roots, the 
undoing of the revolution's later corruption." He 
adds "[w]e are dealing with a genuine popular 
uprising of the deceived partisans of the 
Khomeini revolution," "'the return of the 
repressed' of the Khomeini revolution."

Zizek does not differentiate between the 
"partisans of Khomeini" during the 1979 
revolution, and the non-religious, secular 
elements, both liberals and Left, who actually 
started the revolution and in the absence of 
other alternatives, accepted Khomeini's 
leadership. Lack of recognition of this reality, 
that sometimes draws us to despair, is a big 
mistake. Along the same line, Zizek, wrongly 
attributes all of today's movement to support for 
Moussavi: "Moussavi ... stands for the genuine 
resuscitation of the popular dream which 
sustained the Khomeini revolution." On this basis 
he concludes that "the 1979 Khomeini revolution 
cannot be reduced to a hard line Islamist 
takeover." To substantiate his point, Zizek 
refers to the "incredible effervescence of the 
first year of the revolution...." In fact much of 
the 'effervescence' of the first year, or before 
the hostage taking at the American Embassy, was 
because of the actions of the non-partisans of 
Khomeini; from the workers councils movement, to 
confrontations of Fedais and other left 
organizations in Kurdistan and in Gonbad, to the 
women's and university-based movements. It was a 
period when Khomeini and his supporters had not 
consolidated their power. After the hostage 
crisis and beginning of the Iran-Iraq war "the 
Islam establishment" took over.

All these draws Zizek to conclude that "what this 
means is that there is genuine liberating 
potential in Islam." Zizek does not recognize 
that Moussavi is a conservative Islamist, and 
this "liberating potential" can hardly be applied 
to him. For sure, there exists a new breed of 
Muslim intellectuals, the likes of Mohamad 
Shabestari, Mohsen Kadivar, Reza Alijani, and 
Hassan Eshkevari, who believe in the separation 
of religion and state, and can be the champions 
of such liberating potentials, but definitely not 
the likes of Khomeini and Moussavi.

There is no doubt that the Iranian 1979 
revolution is an unfinished business and its main 
demands for democracy and political freedoms, and 
social equity have remained unfulfilled. But 
these were not Khomeini's demands, in the same 
manner that not all today's demands are those of 

What is happening in Iran is a spontaneous, 
ingenious and independent revolt by a people 
frustrated with thirty years of obscurantist 
tyrannical religious rule, triggered by electoral 
fraud but rooted in more substantial demands. 
Much to the dismay of the clerical regime and 
their supporters inside and outside the country, 
the ever expanding Iranian civil society 
brilliantly seized the moment of the election to 
take strong steps forward. They have no illusions 
about the Islamist regime, or about their own 
capabilities. Their strategy is to gradually and 
non-violently replace the Islamic regime and its 
hegemony with a secular democratic one. This is a 
hugely significant, delicate and protracted 
confrontation.  It is essential that they get the 
wide-ranging effective support from the left in 
the West so that they don't fall prey to the 
misleading conception of the left not having 
concerns for democracy and civil liberties.

Saeed Rahnema is Professor of Political Science at York University, Canada

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