Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Neda Agha-Soltan and the Price of Liberty

by Michael Kaplan

This past spring (Monday June 14) HBO showed a documentary For Neda that explores the life of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman who was brutally murdered by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s thugs last year. Like so many people throughout the world I was horrified and filled with awe at the sight of this brave young woman who paid the ultimate price standing up for liberty. Unlike most of us who, whether out of fear or inertia, talk about liberty but don’t do much about it, Neda did something. She would not let those who’ve enslaved her country bully her. She would not let the theocratic tyrants control her mind or soul. In 1775 Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty, or give me death.” In 2009, in a country halfway around the world from Henry’s Virginia, Neda took up his challenge; she was going to be the mistress of her own destiny, wherever it might lead. And in doing so she became a martyr—a true martyr, a martyr for the liberty of all human beings, not one of those false martyrs who die for the jihad in hopes of finding 72 virgins in the afterlife.

Now, more than a year after Neda’s tragic death I have to ask the question that the makers of “For Neda” asked at the documentary’s end: “. . . did she die in vain?” Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris in 1787 during the debates on the ratification of the Constitution, what he believed to be the price of liberty: “What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure.” Jefferson said many brilliant things as well as some contradictory and ridiculous things in his long public career. Some of them would outrage polite opinion in the twenty-first century. But the Sage of Monticello was on the mark here. Liberty is a hard won prize. Jacksonians understand that liberty is always easy to lose and once lost is very hard to regain. Which is why the right to bear arms, enshrined in the Second Amendment, is so important to them as the very bedrock of liberty. Declarations and constitutions are just beautiful words without the willingness and ability of the people to stand up for the principles they proclaim. It is almost impossible to win liberty from a tyrannical government that possesses a monopoly of fire power. The people of Iran have paid for that lesson in blood.

So far, a year and a half after Neda’s martyrdom, the prospects for liberty in Iran are not good. The Green Movement, driven underground, is down, though not out. The Islamic regime has, for the moment, survived the crisis. Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the mullahs are using the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia as their iron fist to crush any protesters brave enough or foolhardy enough to raise their heads. The Basij, many of whom are nothing more than street thugs, have been especially brutal, consistently engaging in the rape and torture of arrested protesters. The blog Islamization Watch posted (on February 21) a video and transcript of one Basij member who protested against the abuse of a group of children, all younger than 14, who had been taken into custody, stripped naked, and confined in a container. “What was this path that we’d taken,” he asked, “that it is an Islamic directive that people’s wives and children are being raped?” For his trouble this basiji with a conscience was himself arrested and tortured and driven into exile. This is just one example of the forces those Iranians yearning for liberty have to face.

Neda's death captured on video, June 20, 2009.

Neda Agha-Soltan and her fellow urban, educated, Iranians, who are the base of the Green Movement, are not, however, representative of Iran as a whole. Hard as it may be for Americans to believe, the Islamic regime does have considerable public support, especially among rural, traditional, religious, less educated, conservative Iranians—Iran’s counterparts to America’s Jacksonian conservatives you might say. Juan Cole, the Middle East scholar and far left pundit, calls Ahmadinejad “the Middle East’s populist answer to the American tea party. Except that these Iranian “Jacksonians” want a strong, intrusive Islamic government to tell them how to live their lives and provide for their basic material needs. Iran, like China and Russia, is a low-trust society that values security over liberty. Fareed Zakaria has pointed out in Newsweek and on his CNN show why comparisons between Iran’s Green Movement and the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe in 1989 are off the mark. Polish, Czech, Hungarian, and East German anti-communist dissidents had three forces on their side: nationalism (communism was imposed by Russia), religion (the Catholic Church was anti-communist), and democracy. In Iran the Islamic regime has nationalism and religion on its side. The Green Movement only has democracy, and it’s not enough. Ahmadinejad, populist deamagogue that he is, has also been able to win over Iran’s populist nationalists by massive government spending on social programs for the poor.

Americans have a recurring fantasy, Zakaria observes, “that all good things always go together and all bad things go together, that men like Ahmadinejad are evil, also have no legitimacy, are also unpopular, and preside over a fragile regime about to collapse.” According to Reza Khalili, though, this is not just a fantasy. Khalili, a pseudonym for a former Revolutionary Guard turned CIA spy, insists, contrary to Zakaria, that the regime does not have a large base of support with the Iranian public, the overwhelming majority of whom “want to be free from the tyrannical rule of the mullahs.” Divisions within the regime’s establishment have been growing sharper and coming out into the open. Khalili reports that in July there was dissension within the Revolutionary Guards serious enough to prompt the Guard’s commander, Mohammed Ali Jafari to admit thatThere are ‘agent provocateur’ among the guards. . . .” Jafari proceeded to purge those guards whose loyalty was suspect. Khalili also talks about growing unrest in all sectors of Iranian society, even among the Tehran bazaar merchants who have been the financial backbone of the regime.

Melik Kaylan, writing in Forbes, has also reported on unrest among Bazaaris in Tehran, Isfahan, and other Iranian cities. These Bazaaris are really angry with Ahmadinejad for trying to impose a 70% tax hike on them. (Tea Party in Tehran anybody?) They are also displeased with the shift in power in the Islamic regime from the mullahs to the Revolutionary Guards, who they think act outside the law and are bad for business. “The Bazaaris,” Keylan notes, “Iran’s highly conservative merchant class, the backbone of the retail and wholesale economy, were the pivotal force in collapsing the Shah’s rule.” Their defection from Ahmadinejad, perhaps even from the entire Islamic regime, would pose the most serious threat the regime could face. An alliance between the Greens and the Bazaaris (and perhaps dissident elements in the Revolutionary Guard and reformist mullahs) is probably the only way to successfully confront and defeat the Islamic regime. Whether such an alliance will materialize remains to be seen.

Khalili writes: “The Islamic rulers are losing control of their people and their economy. . . . All we in the West need to do now is become more vocal in our support of the Iranian people and their aspiration for freedom.” Unfortunately I think Khalili, a frequent guest on the John Batchelor radio show, is engaging in wishful thinking designed to appeal to an American audience. As the purge of dissenters in the Revolutionary Guard indicates, the regime can still keep a lid on unrest. While Americans and other supporters of liberty throughout the world should be vocal in their support for the Green Movement, we should be under no illusions that the road to freedom in Iran will be quick or easy. Regime change in Iran will be a long, drawn out, and bloody process. Please refer to the Jefferson quote above.

Iranian woman protester, June 17, 2009.

Meanwhile, Iran’s women continue to endure the restrictions on their liberty imposed by a patriarchal mullahocracy. Though, truth be told, Iranian women are less restricted than women in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and many other Muslim nations. Iranian women, unlike their Saudi sisters, can drive their cars and interact more freely and naturally with men in public. Persian culture has long tradition of sensuality which the Islamic Revolution has not been able to suppress. Robert Kaplan, travelling through Iran in the 1990s, wrote that despite their headscarves and chadors, Iranian women found ways to indulge their sense of style and fashion.
Some women displayed bits of forbidden hair, along with flashy earrings; others wore kohl beneath their eyes, and, in not a few cases, lipstick. Many had finely manicured hands with long red fingernails. Many women also used perfume; occasionally I noticed an expensive French scent, which, unlike flowers in the cheap odor of incense, gave off a provocative animal aroma. . . . Iranian women would not be turned into peasants.
(Robert Kaplan, The Ends of the Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy [New York: Vintage Books, 1997], pp. 180-182.)

Neda, whose name means “divine voice” in Persian, was just such a woman. Her formal portrait in chador (at the top of this post) matches Kaplan’s description. With eyeliner and lipstick highlighting soulful dark brown eyes and full sensuous lips, Neda’s face radiates classical beauty and intelligence. The casual photo above captures a pensive and more whimsical Neda. How different from the video images of her death. Like any twentysomething woman anywhere in the modern world, Neda enjoyed wearing the latest fashions and makeup. She also loved working out in the gym, dancing, and Emily Brontë’s tragic romance, Wuthering Heights. She carved out whatever space she could to be herself, an independent, sensitive, and fun loving young woman who engaged passionately in the adventure of life.