Given the election-related turmoil in the Islamic Republic of Iran, can democracy ever take hold in a theocracy? How should the Obama administration respond to the disputed election and to Iran’s ruling clerics?
Theocracies, as long as they are supported by the military, are always intractable dictatorships. I never had much hope that, if the opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a strong showing in the Iranian elections, the nation’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would let the outcome stand. Religious men who call themselves “supreme leaders” are not in the business of presiding over fair elections that give a sporting chance to opposition politicians who say, for example, that people should be allowed to run their own lives instead of being guided by the divinely inspired fiats of old men with beards. They are not in the business of supporting an educated politician who says that his country must no longer be isolated form the rest of the world. Isolation, paranoia, and ignorance are the basic governing tools of theocrats. It makes me sick at heart to think of the brave Iranians, men and women, who are marching in the streets, speaking out against tyranny and making themselves targets by not covering their faces.
I should emphasize that as I write, the situation in Iran–as far as we can tell from the dispatches of correspondents who are still there–remains fluid and combustible. We know that the election was a fraud, since there is no possible way that paper ballots could have been counted quickly enough to declare Ahmadinejad the clear winner in a few hours. We know that the “supreme leader” must be nervous, because he is trying to buy time for things to calm down by ordering a partial recount of some disputed ballots. And we know that the only way a revolution could succeed is if the army joined those who dispute the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s rule.
What we don’t know is whether Iran would cease to be a theocracy if there were another revolution, following the one that put the ruthless fanatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in power in 1979. One can only hope that Iranians have learned something about the dangers of making religion the supreme arbiter of politics from what has happened under Islamic rule in Iran.
Those who have criticized President Obama for not making a high-profile statement condemning the election results as a fraud, and supporting dissenters, are mistaken. They are ignorant of history. The old Soviet theocracy (with communist ideology the “supreme leader”) used tanks to crush the Hungarian revolt in 1956. Statements by American politicians, and broadcasts by Radio Free Europe, misled the Hungarian freedom fighters into thinking that they could expect military support from the United States if they continued their defiance of the Communist regime. We were not about to confront the Soviet Union in Hungary, any more than we are about to send troops to Iran. We had blood on our hands in Hungary for mouthing off when we had no intention of actually taking action, and we could have blood on our hands in Iran if our president says anything to make those courageous people in the streets think that they are going to get any practical help from the United States. I am particularly glad today that John McCain, who has called for Obama to speak out forcefully, is not our president.
But let there be no doubt that Islamist theocratic rule is at the heart of what has gone wrong in Iran. This is a country in which clerics have the political right to issue decrees about everything from women’s dress to what people can say and write. There can be no guarantee of individual rights or democracy under religious rule. Never has been, never will be. What the clerics can’t do, it seems, is control what everyone thinks.
“Supreme leader.” What a ridiculous concept. It nauseates me to hear international newscasters use this title as if it were legitimate.
LAST WEEK IN REVIEW
Some of you seem to view last week’s shooting at the Holocaust Museum as primarily an issue of anti-Semitism. I said in my post, written just ten minutes after news of the shooting broke, that the only thing we knew about the man, given the location he picked, is that he must hate Jews. As the police looked over his personal papers and web site, they found (as is almost always the case) that the shooter’s anti-Semitism was inseparable from his views about white supremacy. He not only hated Jews but blacks, Catholics, immigrants, a justice system that had already sent him to jail once, and–naturally–the government. The man had both the National Cathedral and the offices of that neocon flagship, The Weekly Standard on his hit list. You think this doesn’t qualify him as a general lunatic and hater as well as an anti-Semite?
We are seeing a definite rise in venom on the part of all homegrown right-wing extremists, whoever their target is. These people are all conspiracy theorists and their sense of rage has been abetted by right-wing loonies, like Rush Limbaugh, with a national podium. We have heard talk in recent months that FEMA is planning to build concentration camps for Americans who dissent from the policies of the Obama administration. Limbaugh actually implied that the combination of Obama’s speech in Cairo with his visit to Buchenwald was in some way responsible for the shooting at the Holocaust Museum. How’s that for rational though? In this wacko universe, the president is too soft on both Muslims and Jews. Right-wing extremism in America always includes anti-Semitism, but it is a much larger phenomenon. (Farnaz, don’t bother to say again that there’s no such thing as a “semite.” Anti-Semitism is the standard term used by historians to describe what you prefer to call Jew-hating. You’re entitled to your preferences, but I generally follow standard scholarly usage.)
There is no evidence that anti-Semitism in America is any more virulent than other forms of political, religious, and class hatred. The FBI hate crimes report for 2007 (the last year for which statistics are available) shows that there are more than nine times as many hate crimes against blacks, and nearly three times as many against gays and Hispanics, as there are against Jews. Of course, it’s all part of the same package–and that must be the focus of Americans as a people and of decent political leaders. I was encouraged by the fact that the lines of visitors to the Holocaust Museum on the day it reopened after the shooting were much longer than usual. This is not Europe in 1938, and comparative victimization is a bad way to address the larger threat from the violent right, embodied as fully by the assassination of Dr. George Tiller as by the killing of an African-American security officer at the Holocaust Museum.
For those of you who think guns are beside the point, all I can say is that it is much harder for lunatics and haters to acquire guns in Europe than it is here. The haters are always going to be with us and we’re not going to change their so-called minds. We can, however, keep guns out of more of their hands. If the shooter at the Holocaust Museum had been in possession not of a rifle but of a knife, Officer Stephen Johns would probably be alive today. It is much easier to kill people, especially trained security officers, with guns than with knives. That’s why guns were invented.