The breathtaking, unprecedented displays of dissent throughout Iran—most notably by the mostazafeen or the traditionally ‘downtrodden’ base of support for the regime—are important. They are important to the Iranian people who brave imprisonment and torture as they struggle for their livelihoods, their freedom, their dignity, and the futures of their children. But they are also important because they offer a glimpse of a more liberal, more peaceful, and more prosperous Middle East—a region at last open to the world, ready to move forwards not backwards, and to prosper rather than terrorize. Belief in such a prospect cannot be scorned as naïve, nor offered as an act of mere charity. Without such a future for Iran, the turmoil of the Middle East and the exodus of refugees to the shores of the free world will continue.
Polarization of American politics and civic discourse has left the struggle for freedom in Iran almost exclusively within the purview of the political Right, where the threat posed by Islamist ideas and terrorism have always been taken more seriously. But the yearning for liberal values—nowhere more apparent than in Iranian women’s radical rejection of four decades of forced hijab and gender apartheid—has also been embraced by the Right because the universality of the feminist cause has been abandoned by large segments of the Left. The old, global sisterhood has retreated into tribal complacency, preoccupied with insignificant issues like micro-aggressions. Such trivialities do not even speak to the real concerns of women here in the US, much less to those of women in the world’s many unfree societies.
Many Western feminists, in particular, have been shamefully reluctant to amplify the voices of those struggling for their most basic rights in places like Iran. Protecting those who wear the headscarf is now considered ‘progressive’ in America. This position has been adopted by large swathes of the Western Left, with scant regard to the denial of freedom, equality, and fairness that inform that so-called ‘choice,’ even among Muslim women in liberal democracies. American media, think tanks, and policy experts are not paying heed to Iranian women’s courageous rejection of the veil, nor are the luminaries of Hollywood or the intelligentsia ensconced in the universities. They deferentially applaud Javad Zarif’s marathons of lies, but they will not listen to Iranian women.
Such people are on the wrong side of Iran’s struggle for freedom. The revolution now underway there is a fight for liberalism, decency, fairness, and individual rights, and a rejection of the medieval tyranny that seized the country in its jaws in 1979. The revolution of 1979 was anti-Western, anti-modern, anti-liberal, anti-secular, anti-woman, and anti-Iranian. But that did not prevent radical political theorists led by Michel Foucault from venerating a theocratic system of government that many on the Left still have difficulty condemning today. And why? Because Khomeinist totalitarianism is a totalitarianism rooted in Islam, and the fortunate beneficiary, therefore, of inane progressive assumptions about its ‘authenticity.’ And where are the Foucaults of today, once so eager for the vicarious thrill of someone else’s populist insurrection? They are either silent or scornful, even as Iranians risk their lives for the freedoms those intellectuals are fortunate enough to take for granted.
For nearly 40 years, the regime has ruthlessly subjugated the women of Iran; it has executed countless innocents; it has persecuted the Baha’i; it has stifled every creative impulse and free thought; it has plundered the economy so that regime families may drive Ferraris while even educated Iranians struggle to make ends meet; it has paid for the annihilation of Muslims in Syria, Yemen, and beyond with the Iranian people’s money. But about such horrors, the Western intelligentsia have had little to say. Instead, they have fawned before the smile and the forked tongue of Javad Zarif, because his regime is misperceived as a noble bulwark against Western arrogance. It wears the garb of authentic faith, it speaks the language of anti-imperial and anti-American ‘resistance,’ it vows bloodthirsty vengeance in the name of Palestinian liberation, and it offers empty promises of justice to the downtrodden.
Nor does the Left seem to care about the working class in Iran. It will not raise the voices of countless factory workers who have not been paid in months, nor those of families and farmers with no water, and common merchants who cannot keep pace with a plummeting currency. The Left will not recognize, much less support, the wholesale rejection of every part of the regime, including—or especially—the so-called ‘moderates’ the Obama administration and its media supporters so recklessly indulged.
This is not 1989. There is no wave of countries falling toward liberal democracy, free markets, and open societies. Instead, there is a global democratic recession many years in the making, with Russia, China, Venezuela, and Turkey consolidating their fiercely undemocratic rule. The leaders of these embattled nations help, learn from, and embolden one another, and their ideas are seeping into our open societies in ways never imaginable during the Cold War.
The backdrop of this authoritarian resurgence ought to bring the Iranian people’s lonely determination and courage into sharp relief. For many years now, the regime has brought slaughter to hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian children even as it warns its own population to submit to the ‘stability’ of its rule, lest Iran becomes another Syria. Implicit in the regime’s patronizing fear-mongering is a threat: we will kill you just as we have relentlessly killed Syrians for the last seven years.
The Iranian people are capable and deserving of a democratic polity. All those who understand the value of human freedom should echo their voices and make clear our position: the Islamic Republic must fall.
Mariam Memarsadeghi is co-founder and co-director of Tavaana: E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, a virtual institute offering secure democracy and human rights educational opportunities. A 2017 Presidential Leadership Scholar, she is an outspoken advocate for the principles of liberalism, women’s rights, civic education and internet freedom, particularly in Islamic contexts. You can follow her on Twitter @memarsadeghi