Originally published in Foreign Policy Association Blogs
by Reza Akhlaghi
Under the thick smoke billowing from toppled and burnt motor cycles used by the militia forces in the tumultuous streets of Iran lies a strong narrative: a 104-year-old struggle for democracy and social justice.
This struggle started with the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the first of its kind in the region, which led to the development of modern civil institutions in Iran and paved the way for what many hoped to be a democratic future. Nearly eight decades later, it became crystal clear that the monarchy, despite its penchant for economic modernization, had little if any stomach for political participation and dissent. The monarchy’s lack of respect for political pluralism led to growing disenchantment with the Shah’s regime and its eventual collapse in the 1979 revolution.
Fast forward three decades and in the waning days of 2009 what the world is witnessing is a truly historic realization by Iranians that in order to build a secular state, there is no need for heroes to rely on and that they are their own heroes. It is a tectonic cultural shift on the part of Iran’s young generation that makes up over 70 per cent of the country’s population. This shift can be termed as ‘the grand detachment’.
A sense of constant search for a hero has been a long-standing trait embedded in Iran’s social political psyche. Central to this detachment is the abandonment of search for heroes; idolized figures whose job it is to emancipate Iranians from their social and political malaise with promises of prosperity, freedom, equality, and social justice for all. Chief factors behind detachment from this search include unmasking of the tall façade behind the clergy’s claims to Islamism, social justice, and moral values embedded in Shiite branch of Islam. An immediate reflection of this detachment is seen in the absence of a clerical figure leading today’s masses in the streets of Iran and the shrinkage of Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karrubi into nothing more than symbolic figures with no significant impact on the movement’s direction. This shift carries enormous significance in a traditionally religious society built on ethos and themes of Shiite Islam that chiefly include struggle for egalitarian values and social justice.
Iranians appear to have come to the realization that behind their rulers’ claims to all aspects of religiosity and social justice lies nothing but utter disdain for human dignity and lack of respect for people’s social and political aspirations. The latter has been on display lately by the Islamic regime’s unbridled bloody violence unleashed against ordinary Iranians. With the regime’s unmasked face in public open, the current struggle for democracy is bound to get more violent.
Traumatized by their exposure to the unmasked face of their rulers and subsequently emboldened by the above grand detachment, Iranians feel reinvigorated and confident of their ability to confront Iran’s weakened theocracy and its multilayered security forces. Organizationally, the struggle in Iran has a completely flat structure with no central figurehead. With a traumatized mind but reinvigorated determination, Iranians appear to be on a path to chart a new role for them in the 21st century. And they appear unyielding in charting this new role based on recognition of and respect for human dignity without dependence on heroic figures.