Sunday, June 21, 2009

Obama, Iran, and Founding Mythologies

In the United States, we don't often view ourselves through analogies with other nations. This is mostly a result of American military and economic power. We make other countries respond to us. We don't respond to them. Other countries have to think about us. We don't have to think about them. It's hard for American conservatives to even recognize that the French, Greeks, or Iraqis would value their own country over ours. Given that it's often hard for progressives to get beyond reacting to the dangerous blustering of the right, American politics tends to be myopic in the extreme.

But I believe the best way to think about events in Iran is in relation to American developments. This is part of the point that Mir Hossein Moussavi's spokesperson made the other day when he stressed that Moussavi was Iran's Obama and Ahmadinejad equalled Bush. In Moussavi's view, what's happening in Iran is not a replay of the Iranian Revolution or the Velvet Revolutions in the former Soviet bloc. If anything, it is a replay of last year's American election.

As America goes, so goes Iran

I would argue that the Iranian/American analogy goes beyond our 2008 election and last week's Iranian election. The best way to understand the Iranian situation is that protesters are trying to give the Islamic Republic what Abraham Lincoln famously called a "new birth." Much of what Moussavi brought out in his statement yesterday was the inspirational role of the 1979 Revolution in the current protests.

The spontaneous movement of the people chose the color green as its symbo . . . And the generation that was accused of being far from religious roots, arrived at Takbir among its slogans and leaned against "Victory Comes from God and an Opening is Around", "O Husayn" and the name of Khomeini to prove that this fine tree brings similar fruit whenever it bears fruit. Nobody had taught them these slogans except the Innate Teacher [God].
For Moussavi, the current protests recall the Revolution of 1979 on two levels. Symbols of the current protests like the color green and the name "Khomeini" point back to the birth of the Islamic Republic which was ". . . a revolution for freedom, a revolution for the rekindling of the compassion of human beings, a revolution for truth and honesty." More importantly, the symbols are inspired directly by God. "Nobody had taught them these slogans except the "Innate Teacher." Like the 1979 Revolution, Moussavi views this movement as divinely inspired.

The protesters want a new birth of Shia Islam and a government and religious hierarchy that is responsible to the people and based in freedom. They want the freedom, compassion, truth, and honesty promised in 1979. They also want to end confrontation with the West. If successful, the protesters will have established the 1979 Revolution, Shiite Islam, and Iran's system on a new footing. The founding of modern Iran in the original revolution will then be interpreted through the lens of their own revolt against election fraud.

If Moussavi represents the rebirth of the Islamic Republic in Iran, Barack Obama should be seen in terms of the rebirth of the American Republic. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln viewed the Civil War as a "new birth of freedom" which meant that government "of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the face of the earth." But the United States had been constructed in such a way that it promised a general freedom but excluded a vast majority of the population from most if not all of the freedoms being promised. African-Americans were either enslaved or subject to harsh proscriptions, women were denied rights to vote and hold office, and new immigrants were subject to various exclusions.

The Civil War promised "a new birth of freedom," but freedom would have to be "reborn" many times in the United States before anyone could see that promise being fulfilled. The Civil Rights movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's, the opening of immigration to non-whites, the women's movement, the counter-culture, gay rights movement, and other smaller movements have all been new births of American freedom. It goes without saying that all of those rebirths have not happened without determined resistance. The conservative movement in the United States coalesced in opposition to the activism of the 60's and had been politically dominant for most of the last 40 years. But the new births of American freedom have gone forward despite a string of Republican presidents and the election of Barack Obama in 2008 is best seen as a manifestation of the new political power of all the groups that have been invested in the growth of American freedom.

In other words, Obama's election was another new birth.

In his comments yesterday on the Iranian government's violent response to the demonstrations, President Obama quoted Martin Luther King's statement that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Because of the many rebirths of American freedom over the last fifty years, most Americans now view the founding of the American Republic, the Civil War, and keystone American events through the lens of Martin Luther King and the African-American civil rights movement. As contemporary Americans, we look at the original founding of the Republic from the perspective of the rebirth and we assign the original founding patriotic meanings that we have achieved in our lifetimes.

In the United States, we have been engaged in a fifty process of giving "new births" to the freedom we view as our "sacred" birthright. One of the reasons that the Iranians compare Mir Hossein Moussavi to Barack Obama is that they sense the momentousness of their movement as being very similar to the progressive social movements most powerfully exemplified by the Civil Rights movement. In a similar way, we can understand ourselves better and gain renewed energy for the process of expanding freedom in the United States if we reflect on the many ways in which the Iranians are like us.

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