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Nov 13 2012

Iran: two sides to the story

Jafar Panahi’s “This is Not a Film” provides an important glimpse into the extent and nature of the Islamic regime of Iran’s oppression and the injustices of Sharia law.

His entire film-making career has been – in his own words – “constructed around the notion of restriction, limitation, confinement and boundaries”.

Take any week in the life of this regime and its true nature becomes as clear as daylight.

This past week, at least 22 people were executed in Tehran, Shiraz and Kerman. Every single one of them – as WH Auden has said – was someone’s north, south, east and west.

One of those killed under torture was 35 year old blogger Sattar Beheshti who was arrested a week earlier on bogus “national security” charges and whose parents were called yesterday and told: “prepare a grave; your son is dead”. His parents were not even allowed to prepare his body for burial – the regime did it for them – to prevent his tortured body from being seen.

Under totalitarianism and dictatorships like that of the Islamic regime of Iran, one eats “fear for breakfast, fear for lunch and for dinner, fear” as Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano says. That’s how the system works; how it maintains itself. You cannot rely on anything; and you can never be sure if you will survive a run-in with the authorities.

The best way I can describe it is that it is how things are under an Islamic inquisition

But fear and repression are only one side of the story.

It is in Panahi’s film. If Panahi is forbidden from making a film, them he will be filmed describing the film he is banned from making. And this refusal is as much a part of Iranian society – and even more so – than the repression.

There are countless examples – from the protests post 2009 fraudulent elections; the constant battle over the veil; regular labour strikes and sit-ins; the fight back from political prisoners and mothers of those killed or imprisoned…

And I think that is the very human and inspiring other side to the story that’s visible in Panahi’s film. It’s the refusal to submit and the extraordinary courage of sometimes very ordinary people.

And whilst we are getting more of a glimpse of this refusal and resistance throughout the Middle East and North Africa, thanks to social media and citizen journalism, Iran has for a very long time been both a pillar of Islamism and medievalism on the one hand and a stronghold of a very immense and modern resistance and dissent on the other. Don’t forget 70% of the population is under 30.

But this dichotomy confuses some – though I know fundamentally it’s a political perspective – in that it results in a defence of the Islamic regime of Iran, which is in my opinion nothing short of scandalous.

You will often hear people say that Iran is so much better than let’s say Afghanistan, implying that credit must be given to the regime. But if there is any positive difference it is in spite of the regime and because of people’s dissent.

I believe multi-culturalism in Britain and the west which sees “Muslims” as one homogeneous community and society blurs this distinction between the oppressor and oppressed and makes it seem as if people get what they want and deserve.

Multi-culturalism – not as a positive lived experience but as a social policy – portrays and legitimises Islamist sensibilities as the offended sensibilities of all ‘Muslims’. And it does this with regards Iran as it does it with Sharia courts right here in Britain.

There is always an assumption that everyone is a Muslim and that the authentic Muslim is reactionary, pro-Islamist, pro the veil, pro sexual apartheid, pro Sharia courts… But this is Islamism’s narrative.

When you give group rights to a ‘Muslim community’, you basically give further power to the dominant elite – the imams and Islamic ‘scholars’ at the expense of dissenters, women, and many others.

Conflating Islamism with Muslim is part of the effort of feigning representation and is the narrative peddled by Islamists. In fact Islamism or political Islam is part of the project for controlling the population at large and is not an exercise in people’s rights and choices.

To accept the Islamist version and narrative is to hand over countless individuals – many of them dissenting – to the far-Right Islamic movement and to ignore the resistance, the political, social and civil struggles, and class politics.

And this viewpoint has a very clear effect on free expression with its adverse effects in Iran and the Middle East and North Africa.

In Europe – Islamism’s Sharia laws and fatwas of censorship and death for everything from blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy become secular ones – where the artist or dissenter is not routinely imprisoned or killed (even if the threat is always there) but proclaimed ‘guilty’ of offence, disrespect, intolerance, and Islamophobia, thereby making censorship and self-censorship ‘justifiable’. Where it rules, Islamism forbids you to dissent; here, it convinces you that dissent is impossible.

And of course any discussion on the violations of the Islamic regime of Iran and Sharia law succumbs to what we have come to call ‘whataboutery’. Someone somewhere must always bring up some statistics about the West’s failings. For example, if we highlight executions in Iran, we are reminded about executions in the USA and asked what we are doing about them. That we might be long-term anti-death penalty campaigners or that this demand is never made of anti-DP campaigners in the US are side issues.

The thing about this sort of comparison (apart from being patronising) is that the reason behind it is not a real concern about the death penalty or human rights. Rather it is an attempt to promote a hierarchy of rights and wrongs – with the US always in the lead, thereby trivialising and dehumanising the lives of ‘the other’ and also their forms of resistance. If it’s not somehow holding the US culpable for everything, then it’s not the time and place.

Also, speak of rights violations in Iran and you will be accused of promoting an attack on Iran or more sanctions. It is like people telling campaigners in Iran to stop opposing US-led militarism because it supports the ‘Islamic regime of Iran’s propaganda!’ Absurd!

And whilst in my opinion US-led militarism is the other side of the coin of Islamism, are we not allowed to focus on the executions in Iran without someone telling us what is more important to condemn?

The problem with this perspective is that it is looking at the issue from the prisms of regimes and states and not that of people.

Given all these, I do sometimes worry about how we can mobilise international solidarity for the people of Iran. Not bombs, not economic sanctions, but good old fashioned international solidarity like that which helped bring an end to the apartheid regime of South Africa.

To do this, we need to begin to look through the prism of humanity and not that of the Islamic regime of Iran or the US government…

3 comments

  1. 1
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Thank you for posting this.

  2. 2
    Stephanie Zvan

    Hear, hear!

  3. 3
    NoCrossNoCrescent

    But Maryam, the economic sanctions were part of what brought down apartheid in South Africa…

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