The Donkey and the Date

On December 15 Iranians will cast their ballots for municipal elections. Reformist candidates across the country, particularly in Tehran, have a credible opportunity to win, if their constituents emerge from their hibernation and actively participate in these elections. The government has hindered the domestic media’s attempt to generate a celebratory environment for the electorates to exercise their constitutional right. Iranian media around the world need to realize that a dampened down election will only perpetuate the status quo and will reinforce a growing messianic belief that Iranians need to be rescued.

The famous American sociologist Harold Garfinkel observed that people become conscious of the order of things around them only when that order is disrupted. The taken-for-granted thus exists invisibly until its existence is breached.

Since his election in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,’s administration has ceaselessly restricted civil liberties and political rights. Numerous opposition parties and personalities rightfully publicize these violations, and emphasize the importance of legal and political protection of civil liberties as the foundation for any future transformation of the Iranian society. But many of these same groups have been relentlessly denying the existence of these liberties in the Islamic Republic in the first place. If the Ahmadinejad administration has banned the publication and the reprint of numerous books, if they have reinstituted secret prisons, if they refuse permits for demonstrations, if they close newspapers indefinitely without a court order, if government officials have refused to be accountable for their actions to the Majlis, if all of these changes are indeed happening don’t they suggest that there had been a different political configuration in place before they were effected? Could it be that the Khatami presidency accomplished things that are now being disrupted? We become more aware of the achievements of Khatami when we witness their disappearance.

In his first interview after leaving office, in response to a reporter who asked about his best moment as president, Khatami referred to his address at Tehran University on the occasion of Student Day in 2004. During his speech, enraged students interrupted and denounced him for yielding to the conservative judiciary in pursing his project of strengthening the institutions of civil society. He listened quietly with open displeasure and left after hearing out his opponents. He told the reporters, that was his finest moment in office! For the first time in the country’s history a leader faced shouting critics in an open forum and not a single person was arrested afterwards. Before Khatami, this would have been unimaginable in Iran, and is perhaps no longer possible even in the United States today.

There is an expression in Farsi that describes people who want contradictory things: those who want both the donkey and the date. These are people who are never mistaken, and see all situations in the context of their own interests. Iranians and their Euro-American supporters, those who advocate boycotting every election in the Islamic Republic, cannot have it both ways. They cannot argue that the office of the president (and all other elected offices) is politically impotent, while also lamenting the repressive nature of the Ahmadinejad presidency and how he is taking the country back to its early postrevolutionary period. This poses a dilemma for these universal boycotters. If elected officers make a difference, for worse or better, in the Islamic Republic, then why shouldn’t citizens vote? There are many different positions on this question ranging from single-minded abolitionists, whose agenda is regime change in Iran, with or without the help of their neocon brethren, to those who recognize the differences between different factions, but argue that participating in elections legitimizes authoritarian institutions such as the Guardian Council. Although the reasons for boycotting elections may differ, the result is the same: low voter participation has devastating consequences for reform candidates.

The boycotters, the civilized ones, believe that the only path to change in Iran is through a general referendum on the constitution of the Islamic Republic. When asked how this might be possible, regime-change advocates outline a program of civil disobedience which, if massive, would coerce the ruling coterie to relinquish its power and accept the terms and results of the referendum. Unfortunately, tark-e `adat mujeb-e maraz-ast, old habits die hard. One of the principal shortcomings in Iranian political culture is the lack of enduring, persistent, and patient mobilization from below. The old political left (Islamic or secular) subscribed to a Jacobin form of politics, passionately believing that social change could only be realized top-down by decapitating the state’s head. While many boycotters don’t endorse violence, they still hold out hope for the single blow, the referendum, that would terminate the Islamic regime. Piecemeal transformation does not exist in the political lexicon of the Iranian left (or right). Politics Iranian style borrows heavily from Bazaari culture: Herculean in the wholesale, horrendous in the retail.

As for me, I oppose any party that hopes to claim victory in a not-so-likely-referendum in a not-so-possible-future. I know this because contrary to those who believe that the chief problem in Iranian politics is that the wrong people are in power (that might as well be true), the real problem is structural: power corrupts its wielders. There is only one way that this predicament can change: expanding the formal and informal institutions in which citizens participate actively and regularly. Politics does not begin and end with voting. Nor is civic participation monumental or spectacular. Citizens practice their economic, political, and social responsibilities in countless ways: in their workplaces, professional associations, neighborhoods, and schools. Along with the criticism one might make of President Khatami’s weakness, naivete, or passivity, those citizens of the Islamic Republic who themselves failed to institutionalize political reforms in myriad municipal and professional organizations should also be held culpable for failing to strengthen civil society.

Iranians have another chance on December 15 to practice their rights and responsibilities in municipal and city council elections around the country. In order to defeat reformist candidates who have somehow survived the disqualification procedures and still appear on the ballot, the Judiciary, the ministries of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Information, and Domestic Affairs, the state-controlled radio and television, and the conservative newspapers have all been mobilized to ensure low participation of the electorate. The judiciary spokesperson has threatened the newspapers that run front-page news of the election with closure and censure.

Iranian expatriates with access to mass media should counter this strategy by turning the municipal elections into a welcome political event. It is imperative for Iranians at home and abroad to participate in these elections. The more engaged people remain with these processes, the harder it becomes for any institution in society to trample on their wishes. An empowered reformist city council in Tehran, or any other municipality in the country, could achieve modest, but genuine changes in the way the city is managed and the way its residents live. While most Iranian expatriates remain impervious towards modest changes in daily life, we should realize that what seems negligible to us often has remarkable consequences for our fellow citizens inside the country. Incremental changes are only irrelevant to those whose lives are untouched by those changes.

BEHROOZ GHAMARI is a professor of history and sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Islam and Dissent in Postrevolutionary Iran. He can be reached at bghamari@uiuc.edu



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