Some protests are so gentle, so subtle in Iran, only a native or Persian cognoscente could catch them. Let’s take the color green. Normally just a word to describe envy or Queen Esther’s face, during the 2009 election, presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi transformed green into the hue of freedom still adorning posters, chadors, faces, and wrists, to this day.
Besides fashion, one’s phone is also a political statement. In the wake of the 2009 election, wholesale vendors in Tehran reported a rapid decline in Nokia sales, resulting from calls to boycott Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) for providing the Islamic Republic with communication monitoring systems.
In the more official realm, an artist in Iran must legally obtain permits from the Ministry of Islamic Culture in order to work as a “professional”. Nonetheless, many have snubbed restrictions, giving rise to the most vibrant underground counter culture in the Middle East. Not too far away, in a pre-2011 Mubarak Egypt, the government adopted a belying form of cultural repression; the regime oversaw music and film production, yet left room for modern creativity, effectively turning artists into state propaganda pawns. Strict Iranian censorship however, leaves artists with no choice but to search for the most innovative forms of expression, decked in onion-like layers of symbolism.
Fast forward two years. Witnessing this past week in Egypt through news reports, Facebook pages, twitter accounts and enter the latest social media platform here, begs me to ask: Perhaps the most sudden uprisings make for the least productive form of change? A brief look back at history makes the answer quite obvious. Like the Arab Spring, the Russian and French revolutions similarly arose from Utopian dreams, only to end in calamitous nightmares. Both nations’ attempts to overturn the status quo produced a rush of carnage, terror and suppression of human rights.
So what is the difference between the Arab Spring and the Iranian Winter? Why should we not be concerned that Cairo, Damascus, and Ankara are monopolizing the headlines, seemingly leaving the initiators of current Middle Eastern revolts in the Persian-carpeted dark?
The answer lies in each nation’s relationship with time. Iranians follow a Maimonidean perspective, that time is sine qua non for social transformation, that all natural processes must undergo a gradual evolution. In The Guide for the Perplexed the medieval Jewish Philosopher argues:
It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other. It is therefore, according to the nature of man, impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed.
The recent election of Hasan Rouhani is Iran’s evolutionary (from the Latin evolutio meaning “unfolding”) as opposed to revolutionary (from the Latin revolutio, “a turnaround”) trajectory par excellence. Something of a post-Islamic revolution wonder, Rouhani stems from trifecta roots: one embedded near Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, one implanted in his time leading Iran’s National Security Council, and a final root which sprouted from seeds of the reform coalition.
In contrast, much of the Arab Spring seems to follow a failing system viewing truth as timeless, or as Hegel and Marx like to call it “historical inevitability”. Inevitably, this method will only “force men to be free” — a blatant inconstancy, and the unfortunate reality back in the USSR. As evidenced by past and present revolutions, ousting one dictator for another is not the way to go; instead, we can only hope that implementing steady cultural and institutional modifications over time will lead to stronger democratic states by and for the people.
When Israelis now ask me “what happened to Iran”, I share the stories of Elham, The Yellow Dogs Band, Azar Nafisi, Kiosk, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Shirin Ebadi, and Amir Ghassemi – while reconsidering my own aversion towards the color green against my tawny Jerusalem sun-soaked skin.