Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 19:52 pm (KSA) 16:52 pm (GMT)

The Demise of Iranian Apathy

Rochelle Terman

Four years ago, when I travelled to Iran for the first time as an adult woman, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was just elected president, my cousins were working at good-paying jobs, and hardly anyone in my mother’s hometown of Isfahan had home Internet. The political atmosphere was still benefiting from former President Mohamed Khatami’s open policies, and many of the women’s rights activists with whom I was working enjoyed their own legal publications, organizations, and networking activities.

When I returned four years later, every cousin had been laid off and were unable to find new jobs due to the economic debacle (mis)managed by President Ahmadinejad. Food was remarkably more expensive, a sign of the disabling inflation that was plaguing the market. Women’s rights groups, as well as many other reformist groups, were now working clandestinely, their publications and organizational licenses revoked and shut down. At the same time, the Internet burgeoned. Almost every household in Tehran and other major urban centers such as Isfahan and Shiraz had access to Internet, sometime high speed DSL, and young people were now fluent in Internet and communication technologies. Thirty-five million cell phones were in use, and bluetooth was becoming a popular tool to spread information, including criticisms of the government and particularly Ahmadinejad.

 Hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets, peacefully, silently, and with determination to change their country 

Perhaps most remarkably, the political apathy that had consumed many Iranians has disappeared. Before, when I asked if they felt oppressed by the government, many Iranians said yes, but what could they do? If they protested it, the government would use all their force, including that of the basiji (militia), to squash their dissent. Besides, many Iranian families felt they could be free inside their own homes, whether that meant drinking alcohol, socializing with members of the opposite gender, discussing politics openly or watching satellite television. Why risk it?

But now, we are seeing a very different picture of grassroots Iranian politics. Four years ago, the only dancing I saw was behind closed doors; so imagine my surprise when a week before the election, the streets of Tehran had turned into an all night discothèque. In Isfahan, thousands poured into the streets promptly at midnight, after each televized debate ended, screaming, “only Mir Hossein!” Young men stopped at the windows of each car stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic: “What does two times two make?” The passengers in the car all yelled “ten!” facetiously, in reference to Ahmadinejad’s dubious economic charts and figures.

Surely this was a new country, as one reporter claimed she fell asleep in one city and woke up in another. Hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets, peacefully, silently, and with determination to change their country. And although I left the country a day before the election, I wasn’t worried. From what I saw, it was clear Ahmadinejad would lose; or at the very least it would go the second round. All the while I could only begin to imagine what would happen if those late night parties went from peaceful optimism to ugly rage.

And of course now we know that’s what happened. But many question the timing: Why are Iranians voicing their long-held dissent now? Is it just a small minority of “Gucci wearing North Tehraners?” Is Moussavi the long awaited for charismatic leader that could lead the Iranian population to express their voice to power? Because after all, this is just another ’79 revolution, right?

 As one commentator put it, the devil would look like a reformer compared to Ahmadinejad 

In short, the combination of Ahmadinejad’s catastrophically failed economic policies, a wave of reactionary crackdown on all civil society, unemployment and new technology tools provided an atmosphere in which long held political discontent could explode. The impetus for protest was always there, but with the disgustingly obvious rigging of the 2009 Iranian election, the Iranian public became fed up. And with large numbers of youth technologically and socially connected with one another, with no job to distract them and plenty to be angry about, the time was ripe for what we are seeing now: a historical moment for people of the Islamic Republic.

Many will argue that the individuals taking to the streets represent a very small minority of the Iranian public at large. After all, Iran’s evil right? The pro-democracy, peaceful, American-loving demonstrators must be a minority in compared to the death-to-Israel shouting Islamic fundamentalists. But this assumption is wrong. Anyone strolling around the streets of Tehran could not help but notice the ‘sea of green’ -- Moussavi posters on car windows, green ribbons around wrists, and the audible shout “Liar, Liar” signalling the massive disdain of Ahmadinejad among the general population. And this signalling of reformist support was not limited to Tehran, nor was it limited to Moussavi. In Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, and every urban center, the reformist sentiment was known, whether for Moussavi or the other major reformist candidate, Karoobi. As one commentator put it, the devil would look like a reformer compared to Ahmadinejad.

It is important to realize the emergence of Facebook and Twitter did not cause Iranian dissent, but rather provided it was a unique avenue for expression. Iranians are indeed utilizing the Internet and communication tools in remarkable ways, but they are also going into the streets, despite terrifying violence, and in a conflicting image to the stone-throwing Islamic fundamentalist that saturates Western media. Although we heard silence four years ago, today the silence is deafening, emanating from massive numbers in the streets, and showing anything but apathy.

* Written for Al Arabiya. Rochelled Terman is a human rights activist and researcher based in Canada.

Comments »

Post Your Comment »

Social Media »