As I have been following the election protests in Iran over the last week or so, I can’t help but feel inspired by the movement’s energy. Long a polarizing global political figure, Iran now has everyone fixated on the unrest in its streets. For those of us who grew up only knowing Iran as an “evil” place with religious dictators who present death doctrines for anyone not supportive of the ruling regime, it has been an eye-opening experience seeing first-hand the cultural importance Iranians place on personal freedom. While the Ayatollah inevitably holds much of the power , this movement has brought to the surface defenders of political freedom who are literally willing to die for their cause.
The burgeoning “underground” movement that led to this activist campaign is more likely representative of many Iranians’ desire to be included on the world stage, to no longer be cast as a rogue Islamic nation with leadership that does not have enough capacity for compromise to be included in international relations. While there is still substantial support for the current leadership in Iran, many of those supporters are acting only partially out of free will.
Years of forced religious extremism can lead some to unknowingly enable oppression by simply going with the flow. Bob Marley said it best: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind”. In the case of Iran, where most people identify as being religious, the presence of Islam in politics and social policy is not the basis of this movement. Adversely, it is the misuse of Islamic principles to back up extremist policy that has Iranians openly calling for revolutionary change, as it limits Iran’s growth economically and culturally. When folks question a government’s interest in their own well-being, it leads to unrest and inevitably, institutional change.
I should note that all of this is based only on my own interpretation of the news, via various media outlets. I can’t say one way or another what an Iranian person feels or thinks or why they would join a movement to protest an election. On top of it all, there are some who wonder how much difference Moussavi would actually make in the grand scheme of things, because of his ties to the same elite, religious conservatives that stand by the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad.
To me, it is not actually the politics that matter here. I am envious of what is going on right now, mostly because we here in the “land of the free” had the same opportunity in the aftermath of the 2000 Presidential election and completely missed the boat. I don’t know if anyone remembers now, it being a few wars and a few presidents ago, but that was the year that George W. Bush stole the election from Al Gore. And here we are, in 2009, asking Barack Obama to fix the economy, protect our country, reform health care, and clean up the environment for future generations – things that a Gore-Lieberman Administration might have been able to at least start doing almost a decade ago.
I was only sixteen at the time, and couldn’t vote. So you could of course argue that being a teenager at the time made it impossible to understand the implications of the election. Nonetheless, there is no way I can forget the disappointment in my community – amongst teachers, amongst parents, amongst writers, amongst everyone – at literally having an election stolen from them. Being sixteen does make it hard to focus on things that matter, what with all the gossip and keggers going on around you, but it is also a time of transformation. Some of the things I learned during that period have inevitably shaped me into who I am today, even though I didn’t realize it then. One of those things, unfortunately, was an understanding that apathy is a driving force in American society.
As the “hanging chads” were debated and word started to get out that Republicans had used bullying, misleading tactics to prevent minorities from voting in Florida, people got mad. Heating mad. But the mobilized protests that organized, angry activists used to hold, like OB in the 70’s, were just not coming to fruition. Instead, the most important “protest” of that election was a Republican scheme some call the “Brooks Brothers Riot”, a small, violent action funded by Bush’s recount committee that prevented an important recount in Miami and inevitably lead to a Supreme Court shutdown of the recount.or
Looking back, I wonder if maybe a little bit more public protest might have changed, well, EVERYTHING. Imagine that, instead of Bush and Cheney making up lies to bomb Iraq and steal all their oil, environmental geek Al Gore instituted federal regulations on automakers that forced hybrid technology, better gas efficiency, or **GASP** subsidized public transportation to improve availability and service for our ever-growing, sprawling metropolises.
As a detached and easily influenced teenager, there was nothing going on around me that screamed “WE NEED YOUR VOICE”. In contrast, a sixteen year old living in Tehran is getting an education in the power of free will, the institutions that limit that freedom by force, and the power of media as a voice for oppressed people. I didn’t get that kind of education in 2000. Instead, I had to seek it out during my upperclassmen college years – after wasting a few semesters sleeping in and drinking cheap beer.
Though there was a notable youth movement that injected much needed energy into electing President Obama, my generation seems to be apathetic, spoiled, and mostly apolitical. The activism of old has transformed into a quasi-nihilism, where being “politically active” is cliché and electing the first black President is “good enough”. But at a time when unemployment is high and everything seems to be in “wait and see” mode, where is the anger, outrage, and mistrust that typifies people living in an unstable and ever-changing world? We have a lot of change left before this ship can be righted, and as evidenced by the past few months, we can’t even trust President Obama to follow through on all his promises. After all, he is a politician.
If you are the type of person who is glued to the news about Iran, but can’t figure out why, you may be afflicted with apathy. Even as someone who complains about a lack of political interest by people my age, I can’t tell how unrest in Iran will affect me directly. There is no guarantee that these events will change diplomatic relations between Iran and the rest of the world, nor is there a guarantee that the people who were murdered at the hands of thugs loyal to the ruling regime will have died for a winning cause. But by following and supporting facilitators of change on the street level, you are educating yourself on the strength of protest and the power of free will. One can only hope that if in the future we need to call upon that strength ourselves – to stand up and defend free will by taking to the streets and demanding change – that we can look back on these agents of change and embody their fighting spirit in a movement of our own.
One of my personal heroes Abbie Hoffman once wrote: “Revolution is not something fixed in idealogy, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit”. While I find myself part of an apathetic generation spoiled by decades of emptiness and consumerism, I can’t help but be optimistic for the future. We can look to our President as an example of someone rising to the highest office in America from humble beginnings, and to the streets of Iran for inspiration in fighting for our personal beliefs. Let us not be complacent at a time of transition; instead, we should be basking in the opportunity to be agents of lasting change.