The Iranian Revolution Didn't Die with Michael Jackson

Make no mistake about it; the revolution in Iran has passed a tipping point and entered into a new phase. In this period, the worst thing that the Western media can do is to allow itself to get distracted.
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The Iranian election was a critical point in the post-revolution history of the country. After Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmadinejad's organized coup d'etat and hijacking of the election, the world watched in positive amazement as brave Iranians took to the streets by the millions to stand up for democracy in the face of threats from one of the most horrific regimes on earth.

However, as it often happens, as soon as the protests lost some of their intensity for a few days, the Western media began to lose attention. This trend was intensified when the king of pop, Michael Jackson, died last Friday. As tragic as the death of this young and phenomenal pop star has been, it has led the media to fall into its usual ADD pattern of losing all sense of balance and over-cover the latest and most glamorous story at the expense of all others.

But perhaps another reason for this distraction is not the death of Michael Jackson, but Americans' understanding of what is really going on in Iran. In hundreds of conversations on the airwaves about Iran since the election, the speakers have identified the events in every possible term--"uprising," "revolt," "protests,"--but what it actually is: a revolution.

Most who refuse to call this a revolution invariably cite three reasons, none of which stands in the face of reality. One is that a revolution often has violent connotations, and the fact that Iranians have not picked up arms indicates that this is not a revolution. But that is a false assumption about the concept. A revolution is, according to the Marriam Webster dictionary, an "activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation." There have been many nonviolent revolutions around the world, including the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004), OTPOR movement in Yugoslavia (2000), Workers' movement against Pinochet (1983), Solidarity Movement in Poland (1980), Gandhi's Revolution (1947), Saffron Revolution in Burma (2007), and last but not least, Iran's own Revolution of 1979. A revolution is not violent by definition.

Second reason that many cite in defense of not using the term "revolution" in Iran's context is that the protests seem to have subsided, and some have even begun to talk about events in Iran in a postmortem way. But just because the Western media stopped covering the events in Iran with the rigor that it was and it should, it doesn't mean the movement has ended.

I have been talking with activists in Iran on a daily basis, and their accounts of everyday street protests, organized actions and long-term planning indicate a much higher--not lower--level of energy, enthusiasm and determination. For example, when the Guardian Council certified the pre-arranged results of the election on June 29, tens of thousands of people filled their rooftops in Tehran and chanted "Allah-o Akbar" in a voice that, as an adviser to the Mousavi campaign described to me Wednesday morning, "was deafening and shook the buildings to their foundations." Protests have persisted every day, and so has regime's brutal response. The violence has thrown the cities of Shiraz and Isfahan into humanitarian crises. And I got a word from both Mousavi and Karoubi campaigns that they expect millions of Iranians from all sectors and industries to engage in massive strikes nationwide in the coming days.

Each of these events is truly historical for Iran, and they are happening on a day-to-day basis. People who believe the events aren't happening fast enough to qualify Iran as a revolution need to understand that radical revolutions in repressive countries never happen in forty-eight hours. They take months, and sometimes years. A lot of people in the West--including President Carter himself--were surprised about the last Iranian Revolution, but that revolution did not happen in a short period of time and through spontaneous demonstrations of millions either. It took years for Iranians to organize, distribute tapes with recordings of Imam Khomeini's instructions from exile, protests and strikes of Iranian Oil Company that eventually led to the Iranian military's declaration of neutrality and success of the revolution. It seemed sudden to the West because the media ignored it for months before reporting on a single protest. Similar to that revolution, the events in Iran do not make up what many seem to consider an accidental uprising, but only the latest stage of a revolution that has been brewing for at least twenty-five years.

But perhaps the reason that analysts have cited the most to argue against the idea of using the term "revolution" here is the belief that Mousavi--the challenger to President Ahmadinejad who has refused to accept the results of the election--wants to work within the system and has not called for end of Islamic Republic or clerical rule. But understand Iran's context within which the events are brewing.

Mousavi and other reformist candidates know that blatantly calling for an end to the Islamic rule will give the Revolutionary Guard, Basij and Ayatollah khamenei the hard evidence and legitimacy to suppress the protesters ever much more violently as infidels against the Velayate Faghih--rule of the clerics--and Islam itself. So Mousavi has been strategic in constantly praising Ayatollah Khomeini--the founding father of the Islamic Revolution--and framing the developments in the movement in Islamic terms. But what's critical to see is that in contrast to his words, his demands are fundamentally incompatible and inconsistent with the constitution of the Islamic Republic. For example, in the current system, the Supreme Leader has the absolute last word in all matters of the state and immune to criticism. In that context, continuing to deny the result of the election that Khamenei has specifically endorsed is a revolutionary act. Asking his followers to gather on their roofs to chat "Allah-o Akbar" is also a revolutionary act; this practice is not a random act of dissension, but was the signature act of civil disobedience during the last revolution. Mousavi understands that calling on people to engage in the same practice helps to frame the current events as another revolution.

The revolution in Iran may not come to fruition in the next week or month. But make no mistake about it; it has passed a tipping point and entered into a new phase marked with a sharp increase in both the rate and intensity of dissension from the bottom and deep infighting among the factions and the ever so used-to-be cohesive confidants of Ayatollah Khomeini--the founder of the Islamic Revolution of 1979--at the top. In this period, the worst thing that the Western media can do is to allow itself to get distracted by relatively trivial issues--like the details of Michael Jackson's will--instead of restoring a sense of balance, amplifying the voices of Iranians and throwing light on the dark alleys of Tehran with a more consistent and educated coverage.

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