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July 23, 2003

People's Demands: Retrospect
Babak Seradjeh  [info|posts]

striking TV workers just before the fall of monarchy in Tehran, 1979. A real plague that confronts us as a result of the lack of freedom of speech in Iran is an irritating vacancy of independent (objective) and reliable means of gauging people's demands and opinions. This is at the core of the continuing suppression of the press and polling institutes happening now and almost without exception throughout different eras of Iran's recent history. This is what allows many to act as the self-proclaimed voice of the people, which is not only commonplace among many government officials, especially hard-liners, but is also ubiquitous in ordinary people's commentaries on events, so much that it appears to me, in my bitter moments, as a collective trait of Iranians in general.

Here I essentially want to put forward a question as to what people's demands are, and make a few comments on that, but let me start with what people's demands were 25 years ago when they rose up against the monarchy.

Yasser commented on a previous post of mine by saying that a desire for the rule of Islamic laws was one of the main reasons people participated in the revolution of 1979. That is an opinion that I am personally not opposed to. Nevertheless, I have talked to many a revolutionary as well as ordinary people involved in the protests, who either did not have such a reason, or were disappointed by the take-over of the government by the clerics in the few years that followed the 1979 events. Many of them fled Iran in hundreds of thousands (if not millions), and I think that should only be a fraction of the real number of such people, most of whom probably could not or would not flee their homeland. The point here is that their side of the story was crossed out, never really documented, and it's not quite clear how big this group was.

Like any one of us, I have my own personal collection of second-hand accounts of the story. As such, I don't give this collection much credibility when it comes to objective reasoning of people's demands and movement. So the question remains: what did really happen and what did people really demand? Unfortunately independent sources on which answers to these qestions could be based are scarce, since the mainstream account of the history is of course written by one of the involved parties, leaving out—and crossing out—many details deemed undesirable or sometimes merely unimportant. For instance I have never read anywhere, but only heard, that the national TV building was first conquered by one leftist guerilla group who lost their commander in the operation.

The only sort of independent sources I can think of now are:

  1. unbiased outsiders, like Michel Foucault,

  2. the slogans (as a whole) that people used in their protests and demonstrations,

  3. the photos of the events.

I have especially chosen Foucault since he is a well-known philosopher and was particularly in favour of the religious theme of the revolution; he drew conclusions about the outcome and the nature of the revolution based on his observations, which he had to later change (read André Gluckmann's answer to the first question). His observations thus appear to me not to be biased by opposition to religion, or involvement in the events that are the common causes of bias regarding the 1979 revolution. His opinions could be found in his two books published in Persian in recent years, `What dreams do Iranians have in mind' (Hermes Press) and `Iranians, the wandering spirit' (Nei Press), and in English in his book Power: Essential Works of Foucault, Vol III.

`What's passed is past,' some may say, `let's be concerned with now and the future.' As much as I agree with the last part, I can't help worrying about the first part: not knowing what went wrong in our (recent) past may cause us to stumble on a trap, or go in one of the vicious loops of history, and be ourselves passed in the future's past.

Gauging people's demands in conditions like those of Iran, especially today, is one paradoxical dilemma, whose solution can open the way to a better understanding of events, and ultimately to preventing one group from casting out others in Iran's political scene.

Kaveh at July 23, 2003 11:37 PM [permalink]:

I know this is a big cliche: Even if we clearly understand what people (or groups of them) want, what course should they take?

It is easy to philosophize over social/political goals, but most of the time these goals are so idealistic and the "bad situation" that we are stuck in is so practical and commonsensical that people are tempted to give away goals and demands and simply ask for something that is just a bit better.

The fact is that even this "a little better thing" did not happen in Iran.

michelle at July 24, 2003 11:22 AM [permalink]:

You make an interesting point that a lack of reliable information about what people want allows political figures to arbitrarily claim that they are representing the national will. But I wonder why you are emphasizing the need for "independent" and "objective" sources in assessing what Iranians' desires actually are (or were). While the perspective of an "outsider" can sometimes be useful in analyzing a situation, the opinions of "insiders" are useful, too-- particularly when the motivations of those insiders are the subject of your study! Are there, for example, any good autobiographies or memoirs from those times? Or collections of interviews of revolutionaries? Or is your point that anything of this sort has been completely suppressed by government censorship of the press in Iran?

BHS at July 24, 2003 02:27 PM [permalink]:

Kaveh: the method by which Iranians should reach their demands is very important in my opinion; but I'm only concerned about the demands here since they make the basis for that method. If I advocate a democracy, for instace, I won't attain it by violent methods I believe. And yes, highly idealistic demands can drive the movement astray. My point is this: after six years of the so-called reform movement, it seems to me that Iranians don't know what they want as a society. We think the majority is in for reforms, but we don't know what kind. Do they want the Supreme Leader or not? Or maybe they just want him to be there to give the government a religious outlook/spirit but not do anything, a kind of constitutional Rule of Jurist (Velayat-e Faqih)? [I will write on these in the second part of this post, hopefullt] I believe the ambiguity around people's demand has directly led to the current bewilderment and passivity in the reform movement.

Michelle: I emphasised `independent' since I wanted to get away from the this-is-the-truth-and-the-whole-thruth mood that prevails in Iran's political language. In fact memoires and autobiographies are available, though affected by the censorship, and could be used as you pointed out. But they should also refer to documented facts for their claims, unless they are making claims on personal encounters, secret meetings, etc. But those kind of things are not so relevant when talking about what people's (main) demands were (or are), are they?

Ghazal at July 26, 2003 01:50 AM [permalink]:

Realizing what people's demands are, as you say, is a very delicate issue. I think most of us just know we are not happy with the present situation but don’t have a clear picture of what kind of democracy and for what price we are hoping for. if we get a chance, which as kaveh points out is such an idealistic view, setting a goal on a long term democratic system seems better to me than setting a goal on people's present demands because it isn't such a well-defined function of time. Looking back at the revolution and considering that having an Islamic republic wasn't the only favorite choice, what were the other favorite alternatives among people or at least those who were leading the revolution? Becoming another Cuba or Having Ragavis as our leaders? Do you think that would have made people happy today?

yahya at July 30, 2003 10:30 PM [permalink]:

Being an independent observer is no guarantee for getting correct information. For example, Michel Foucault, the person that you mentioned in your article as an unbiased source of information, was the one whose eyewitness account contained misleading information. He visited Iran after the 1978 Zhale Sq massacre in Tehran by Shah regime. He reported what revolutionaries claimed to be the number of dead, 3000 people, as truth. Now, Emad-o-din Baghi, the famous investigative journalist, has dug up the right number, 68, which was in fact the number reported by the government of the time. ( reference in persian )

Nonetheless, Focault is admirable because of his self-critism and self-correction of his perspective of the events.

BHS at July 31, 2003 05:25 PM [permalink]:

Ghazal: I agree that people's demands are not such a well-defined function of time, as you say, and that setting a gaol on a democratic governmet is more important. But knowing people's demands is a vital piece of information: it shows the level of maturaity for any social change in the first place, and serves as a kind of initial condition for any reform program. Your concluding questions are vague to me. I don't know what would have made people happy today. What we have now is little better than Cuba, and in some respects even worse; they have a social system to boast to at least, with 0% illiteracy, etc. As to Ragavis and MKO, I can only be happy they seem to be far from getting to power.

Yahya: Getting the numbers right is very difficult. We should admire Mr. Baqi for his courage and exactitude. Being an independent outsider can only help get rid of the deep-lying biases insiders are commonly subject to.