18th of February, 2010: talk by Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature, Columbia University - "Crisis of an Islamic Republic"

In his talk, Professor Dabashi discussed the way in which that rare non-violent movement, the Green Movement of Iran, could succeed. In doing so, he recognized the structural flaws which have blighted the nation, these in his view making change favorable - although "favorable" is not "inevitable," and the Green Movement faces many challenges, not least of which is Washington's meddling on the nuclear issue.

To lay the stage: the Green Movement is very young, both as an establishment and in its constitution: 50% is under the age of 25. It is an amorphous movement, something Dabashi likened to the "blind men and an elephant". It faces opposition from without, from both monarchists and Islamists; there are fears that it could be a Velvet Revolution.

Dabashi claimed that Iran has been mismanaged: instead of investing in universities and creating jobs (although that has not been as much the fault of the leader as it is the oil-based economy), they have chosen to develop their security forces, these forces as a result becoming structural to Iranian economy and polity. In speaking of the Iranian people, then, it is not accurate to conceive of them as poor, or stupid, or religious - they are merely economy-driven.

He chose to portray the Green Movement as resembling the American Civil Rights Movement - it is "as if they are looking for their MLK". This comparison is apt in that it has been a matter of pitting the best of political culture against the worst of political culture: the Movement's slogan of "where's my vote?" having occurred nowhere else in the region (the former cries often being, "where's my gun?"). It connotes a desire for civil liberties, democratic government. It connotes desire for women's rights and that of minorities. Still, lest we mistake these as a people heady for freedom, Dabashi noted the presence of underlying economic causes: seen in, for example, labor unions coming forth to support the Movement.

At the same time, Dabashi provided a glimpse of Iranian political culture, and its polyvocal, multi-faceted nature. Although a binary between the secular and the religious has been contrived, with people defining themselves as, for example, "secular intellectuals,"he asserted that the binary was an artificial one. There are many ideological terms at play in Iran - third world socialism, anti-socialism, Islamic republicanism being but several instances - and these have, rather than existing as ideal types in vacuum, influenced one another greatly. The deceased leading cleric Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri was entirely socialist in economic thinking; the nationalism of the oil industry in the 1950s was anti-colonialist; the 1971 uprising was part of the rising guerilla movement of Marxism. As for the history of the mujahideen, it too is polyglot, with influences from the Cuban Revolution, and also mysticism.

Therefore, Iran is cosmopolitan in the sense that it stands at the crossroads of history. Lying in the center of the region, it is influenced by not only the typical "east" and "west", but also Russia from the north, and Islam from the south. As a result, the secular is neither pro-religious nor anti-religious, and Islam is integral but not definitive.

In Dabashi's assessment of the Green Movement, he posited the belief that it was a return of the repressed. From the American Hostage Crisis in 1979 and 1980 to the elections of the 2000s, there have been consistent attempts to eliminate all alternative voices. While the former lead to the first ever presidential and parliamentary elections, dissenting voices had been taken down via the one-sided decision on the laws of assembly (it was determined by a lawyer, whereas the draft of constitution had been circulated in Tehran University, and its items much discussed), as well as the 444 day incarceration of the Americans. Following that was the Iran-Iraq War, with the concomitant invasion of Lebanon by Israel, causing Iran to be drawn into the geopolitics of the region; and, subsequently, the creation of Hamas, with Iranian assistance. Still, as much as the multi-faceted political culture had been repressed, Dabashi pointed to the presidential election of 1997 as the first sign that the processes of control were not entirely effective: two years into Hotame's presidency, there were protests by students (July 1999). Even so, in the parliamentary election of 2000, control of presidency and parliament, this time by supposed "Reformists," entailed more of the same inflexibility.

Other forces playing into this moment are the long-existant state violence, now coming into the open - the kidnapping of people off streets, the incidence of death from torture, rape of young men and women in prisons, etc. was recently admitted to by the leader of the Islamic movement in Parliament. As Dabashi said: "the halo of sanctity created over the last 30 years has dissipated." Now, there is suspicion among leading intellectuals and activists, of Islam's ascendancy: Dabashi pointed to the "theology of torture", which argues for a link between the religion-based government and the prison: I quote, "the truth of this regime is what the torturer is trying to prove to the victim."

In an interesting move, Dabashi also criticized US concern with Iranian nuclear forces. To the U.S., he said, there are two ticking clocks: one being the nuclear question, the other being that of the Green Movement. Right now, Obama is meeting with the Green Movement leaders in Washington, and he has has also talked with Ahmadinejad on nuclear arms. Yet his performance of the latter was simply not credible, according to Dabashi, for Ahmadinejad did not have the support of people in the streets. But even so, Dabashi claimed that Iran as a state should be perfectly entitled to nuclear arms; it is after all a signatory to NPT requirements. The success of the Green Movement cannot and does not preclude the nuclear state. To bear down upon Iran for its possession of nuclear arms smacks to some extent of hypocrisy, diminishing Obama's credibility as a negotiator.

Ultimately, Dabashi construed the challenge of Green Movement as "Can Iran speak? Can the Green Movement speak?" Noteworthy Americans such as McCain currently sport the green wristband in support of Iranian human rights, and a new liberal language is beginning to emerge. The question is, however, how can a new movement speak in the context of powerful languages that make listening to a polyvocal movement impossible? For this, Dabashi had the following answer: one must change the interlocutor. For him, the Green Movement must have horizontal conversations, and not simply deal with the fictive "white guy." Perhaps Iran will one day have its Edward Said; in search of this eloquence, the Green Movement must be linked to civil rights movements all over the world.

For a far less optimistic outlook, I refer to analyst and Iranaffairs.com blogger, Cyrus Safdari: "Washington's endless hostility and pressure on Iran for the last 30 years, especially but not limited to the nuclear issue which enjoys massive popularity across the political spectrum in Iran, has so polarized the atmosphere, narrowed willingness to explore options, and created a siege mentality in the public that there is no room for a "third movement" to arise in Iran that has the credibility and the popular trust to accomplish everything." To him, nothing that has arisen is credible. Much as outsiders might tout the popularity of the Green Movement, regime change seems a distant possibility.

- Rennie Whang (CAS '11)