Originally published May 8 on Jadaliyya.
[This article is based on a talk given at the United National Anti-War Coalition (UNAC) Conference on 24 March 2012 in Stamford, Connecticut. It was part of a workshop called, “Solidarity Not Intervention,” organized by Raha Iranian Feminist Collective. Just before this workshop, the conference overwhelmingly voted down a resolution put forward by Raha and Havaar: Iranian Initiative Against War, Sanctions, and State Repression that read: “We oppose war and sanctions against the Iranian people and stand in solidarity with their struggle against state repression and all forms of outside intervention.”]
The popular struggles against dictatorship known as the Arab Spring have transformed the notion of self-determination for people in the Middle East from an abstract ideal into a concrete reality. This ideal has long inspired anti-war activists in the US who have worked to expose US claims of spreading democracy, liberating women, or relieving humanitarian crises through military intervention. When organizing against justifications for war in Afghanistan and Iraq that centered on the oppressive policies of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein’s rule, we have argued: the people can liberate themselves and will be more able to do so when sanctions and bombs don’t threaten their very existence. Of course, it was hard to sway many people who ended up supporting these invasions as a painful but necessary form of “liberation,” as some kind of lesser evil to local forms of oppression.
Most recently, in the case of Libya, we saw some sections of the anti-war movement embrace the idea that Western bombs could be used to support self-determination—at best an oxymoron and at worst a plan for more civilian deaths and the reassertion of US control over the direction of popular rebellions. In Syria, this debate continues to rage, with the US already providing forms of support for some opposition groups. In this context, an anti-war movement that wants to oppose all forms of foreign military intervention—including wars in the name of democracy and human rights—must have something to say about the state repression that greets any genuine struggle for self-determination if our support for this ideal is to have any concrete meaning.
The increased sanctions and growing threats of military intervention against Iran—all those options President Obama keeps reminding us are “on the table”—demand that we rise to the occasion and urgently rebuild an anti-war movement that can resonate with millions of people in the US, in Iran, in the Arab countries, and around the world. This article offers perspectives for not just opposing war but also standing in solidarity with a new wave of popular struggle.
The Green Movement and the Arab Spring
To many ordinary Iranians, the link between the Green Movement and the Arab Spring was immediate and obvious. “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s time for Sayyed Ali,” was the chant that echoed in the streets of Tehran on 14 February 2011, when Iranians risked their lives to demonstrate in solidarity with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. “Sayyed Ali” is a reference to the Supreme Leader of Iran, and they were calling, not for new elections as in 2009, but for altering the very foundations of the government. That same government paid lip service to supporting uprisings against US-allied states, but sent riot police and militias out to prevent its own citizens from taking that support to its logical conclusion. Unable to gather in central squares as they did in the summer of 2009, protesters took to the streets in neighborhoods around the city. The neighborhoods that saw the most activity that day were in the poor and working class sections of southern Tehran. This should be no surprise: ordinary Iranians have been suffering from neoliberal austerity measures, high unemployment, inflation, government corruption, censorship, and the brutality of security forces—a list that could just as easily describe the conditions that led to revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.
We need to write the story of the Green uprising back into the story of the Arab Spring in order to understand the internal dynamics of Iranian society and to see clearly where the lines of solidarity must be drawn. Most media coverage hasn’t made this link; instead, reporting has tended to reflect the nationalist divisions in the region and to assume there is a hermetically sealed entity called the “Arab World.” Any mention of Iran during the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions was made only in regard to the Iranian state and debates over its relative influence in the region; Iranian people have been rendered invisible.
But the reality is that when millions of Iranians took to the streets in 2009, the election results were just the latest outrage; they provided an opportunity for people to demonstrate their frustration with the overall conditions of their lives. At this time, there was already a student movement, a women’s movement, a labor movement—all struggling to survive. The popular uprising of that summer was not controlled by any politician; it was not funded or controlled by US agencies or any other outside power (accusations that Mubarak made as well, and that the Egyptian military continues to make). Imperialist countries always have their spies and covert operations, but it would be a travesty to the Iranian people, or the Egyptian people for that matter, to credit foreign governments with having that much power and to so grossly distort what actually happened—and the lasting impact on Iranian society.
The Green uprising was a collective decision to resist, a decision to face down fear of police and prisons and torture and death, a willingness to risk everything for the chance to transform an intolerable present into hope for a very different future. It drew in people from the working and middle classes, in cities across the country, and it shook the government to its core. In response, the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown of arrests, lengthy prison sentences, gang rapes and other forms of torture, expulsions of students and faculty from universities, curriculum purges, and executions. Many activists have been forced underground or into exile.
In short, the crisis within Iranian society led millions of people to want to do, to try to do, what Tunisians and Egyptians have since done; the difference in Iran is that the movement was crushed. It is our hope that this is temporary, and that the Iranian people have the chance to try again.
The Green Movement and the Arab Spring derive from the same crisis: the nation states that came to power after the decolonization movements of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s maintained class, gender, and other hierarchies and enriched a ruling clique at the expense of the majority of people. The hopes and promises of decolonization have largely been deferred, as people have had to face the double burden of national dictatorships and the relentless interference of the US (among other imperial nations). The Green uprising and the Arab Spring are post-colonial revolts and we have think through how to relate to them. We have to ask: what are the continuities with the past and what are the new conditions we face? The continuities are easier to see: we have the ongoing aspirations and violence of US imperialism and we have growing inequality driven by capitalist competition and crisis. What is new is the form resistance has taken: in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, the popular revolts that emerged have largely targeted national governments, not imperialism. They have not been led by traditional political parties and have opened up space for mass participatory democracy and new forms of organizing. Neocolonialism and neoliberalism have created new splits within different sections of local ruling classes (see, for example, Paul Amar’s analysis of the Egyptian military’s business interests), and made it possible for the grievances of poor, working, and middle class people to coalesce in mass movements against authoritarianism.
Formal, national sovereignty failed to meet people’s needs and the long-deferred demands for democracy, dignity, and equality are back on the agenda. We also have new possibilities for solidarity, as we have never before had so much potential for interconnection and identification among and between our different struggles. Who would have thought union activists in Madison, Wisconsin or anarchists in New York City would cite Tunisian and Egyptian people as their inspiration for a renewed resistance to oppression and inequality in the US? Since September 2011, Occupy Wall Street has carried the message of a conflict between a global one percent and a global ninety-nine percent into the mainstream, evoking Tahrir Square again and again to legitimize its own tactics of taking public space.
What Kind of Anti-War Movement?
In many ways, it was easy to support the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, whether you were a long-time leftist or someone watching the news who found the power and dignity of the protestors deeply compelling. Because these revolts were massive, non-violent, and against corrupt US-backed dictators, solidarity was instinctive and immediate among those who consider themselves part of the anti-war left in the US. The question of whether or not to take a position on an internal struggle within a country not our own was not an issue anyone raised.
However, this does become an issue, it seems, when the dictatorship people are resisting is not a US ally. Many of the activists who work together in UNAC have made precisely this argument when it comes to the case of Iran, that we should simply say “US hands off Iran” and leave it at that. But it is precisely in these cases, where things don’t line up so neatly, that one must put formulaic responses aside and apply some fresh thinking.
Given that US imperialism is often packaged as an intervention on the side of the oppressed, I very much understand the recourse to a position that we should simply stay out of other people’s business and focus on the actions of our own government. People will liberate themselves, period. Of course, even non-military forms of western “aid” can work to undermine self-determination. The complicity of many NGOs, of the Peace Corps, and of other organizations originating in US Cold War foreign policy has been well documented. Supporting these “soft” forms of interventionism, however, is entirely different from offering solidarity to an indigenous, grassroots movement. Solidarity has long been a slogan among labor and the left. The case of Iran tests our ability to make this word meaningful.
I want to challenge, from within the anti-imperialist left, the idea that we, activists based in the US, shouldn’t take a position on internal affairs of Iran.
If we don’t support Iranians struggling in Iran for the same things we fight for here, such as labor rights, abolition of the death penalty, and freedom for political prisoners, we risk a politically debilitating form of cultural relativism. At best, we are hypocrites; at worst, we show an inability to imagine Iranians as anything other than passive victims of western powers. Ironically, this echoes racist and Orientalist stereotypes of the kind that most anti-war activists would hasten to decry. And yet, by what name do we call this refusal to recognize the full humanity of Iranian people and their heroic struggle against state repression? How do we say we are against imposing the privations of sanctions, against subjecting the Iranian people to the violence of US/Israeli bombs, but are willing to take no position when those same people are subjected to violence by the Iranian government? This would make us an anti-war movement disconnected from social justice and life on the ground for ordinary Iranians; it would mean we have lost our moral compass.
At a time when America’s overseas empire is threatened by popular uprisings in West Asia and North Africa and is trying to figure out how to regain control over the region, we can no longer formulate our position solely in national terms, solely in relation to the US state; this is a cop out and it is not an adequate response to the actual demands of global solidarity.
The phrase “solidarity” is empty if we are not permitted to imagine or care about the lives of people different from ourselves, if their lives and struggles and aspirations can never become as real as our own. This is not about mapping our political programs or cultural biases on to anyone else; it is about recognizing that you may be different from me—I may be in the belly of the beast and you may be in a country targeted by the US—but our liberation is inextricably linked. As you go, I go, and even if I don’t know you and can’t pretend to fully represent you, I am as responsible to you as you are to me as we are to that very notion of basic human dignity that governments everywhere trample upon daily. It means that the outrage I feel when an Egyptian woman is stripped and beaten in Tahrir Square is part of the outrage I feel when an American woman is beaten into a seizure by the NYPD in Zuccotti Park. And this is part of the outrage I feel when Iranian women’s rights activist Bahareh Hedayat is sentenced to nine and a half years in prison. Solidarity means acknowledging that, even though we are all different, none of us can absolve ourselves of the responsibility to fight for a world where no one is imprisoned for resisting inequality and oppression.
If we agree with this perspective in principle, we then have to think strategically about the best way to build a large and effective anti-war movement. Some people think the way to do this is to have points of unity that cater to the lowest common denominator. This is sometimes called the united front approach. But when it comes to Iran, we have an example of how any strategy, when undertaken without thinking through the actual politics involved, can produce the opposite of its intended results. By voting against standing in solidarity with the Iranian people’s struggle against foreign intervention and state repression, UNAC has prioritized unity with supporters of the Iranian government (such as the American Iranian Friendship Committee and the Workers World Party) over the potential to build a broad anti-war movement. Refusing to say anything about repression in Iran cuts the anti-war movement off from the majority of Iranians (in Iran and in the diaspora) as well as the majority of people in the US who will need an answer to their concerns about human rights violations in Iran that is more compelling than the one coming from pro-interventionist circles. UNAC’s application of the united front keeps the movement small by ceding the moral high ground of human rights to the same forces that used this human rights rationale as an excuse for occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, unity with supporters of the Iranian government means that every anti-war rally is turned into pro-government propaganda broadcast on Iranian state television—a slap in the face to millions of Iranians whose resistance and suffering both become invisible once again.
In 2009, when many Iranians and others in the US came out in solidarity with the Green uprising, we in Raha saw our role as doing all we could to channel that solidarity away from support for any outside intervention on behalf of human rights, freedom, or democracy. We argued for the need to free all political prisoners, from Guantanamo to the Iranian prison Evin; to end the death penalty in the US and in Iran and everywhere; in other words, to build solidarity between our movements here and the movements there. Our role was to always point out that the best way to support women’s rights in Iran, for example, is to build a thriving movement for women’s rights here that will then be in a position to do joint, grassroots solidarity, rather than looking to the UN or NGOs or any government. That summer, the US had engineered a coup in Honduras, so we went on the green solidarity marches in New York City with signs that said “No to militarism from US to Iran to Honduras” and a banner that read “Liberation Comes from Below.”
We believe there should be some relationship between an anti-war position and social justice. For example, Ron Paul is against war on Iran, but we probably wouldn’t consider him welcome in UNAC. We cannot say we don’t want people to be starved or bombed, but if they are imprisoned and tortured we have no comment.
We need to connect with the concern and outrage that millions of people, from all backgrounds, feel about the repression in Iran and channel it away from intervention into solidarity. In order to develop a political perspective adequate to the challenges we face, we must draw from our theoretical traditions and adapt them to the present.
Nothing Less Than Liberation
For ordinary people throughout the Middle East, there have long been two sources of oppression. Throughout modern Iranian history—from the Constitutional Revolution beginning in 1905, to the movement for nationalization of oil in the early 1950s, to the Iranian revolution in 1978-79—Iranians have had to fight against both colonialism, or “estema’ar,” and despotism, or “estebdaad.” Often imperialism and despotism work hand in hand, as in Egypt under Mubarak and in Iran under the Shah; but sometimes these interests conflict over who will primarily benefit from the exploitation of the people and resources of the nation and region.
As a feminist collective, Raha stands in another long tradition of women of color feminists, in the US and around the world, who have faced multiple sources of oppression that are not the same but that are both intolerable. Women have had to resist male domination coming from imperialist and state policies that affect our most intimate relationships. For example, just because we don’t think the solution to patriarchal violence against women in the US can be found in the prison-industrial complex doesn’t mean we should silently submit to it either. Feminists have had to think dynamically about the connections between different forms of oppression, and have refused to accept that they must settle for any of them.
The unfinished struggle for national liberation that began with movements for decolonization and that continues today is also the unfinished struggle for women’s liberation. Women played a central role in overthrowing the Shah but were then told that their equality was secondary to the fight against imperialism. Over and over again, women have been told to wait. But we have seen that when national sovereignty is consolidated at the expense of women, we are no longer talking about a project of self-determination, but instead, of transferring power to a new patriarchal ruling class. Anti-imperialism has since become the cynical rhetoric of the Iranian state; thus, this rhetoric alienates the majority of the people who suffer under its rule.
If anti-imperialism is going to become meaningful again to people in the region AND to people in the US—and indeed it must if there is any hope for genuine democracy—than it cannot be severed from the larger struggle for human liberation.
A feminist anti-imperialist perspective maintains that it is not only possible, but imperative, to simultaneously stand against all forms of outside intervention in Iran and against all forms of domestic oppression targeting ordinary Iranian people. We are committed to building the broadest movement possible to stop the US government, the European Union, and any other foreign power from further destabilizing and threatening the lives of our brothers and sisters in Iran. But this must be an ethical movement that makes no apologies for the torture and imprisonment of dissidents and that expresses solidarity with popular resistance in Iran. Here and everywhere, we must oppose militarism, prisons, censorship, torture, and the death penalty. In Raha, we believe that genuine liberation comes from below—from the self-activity of masses of ordinary people—and that this is the broadest, most compelling starting point for organizing an effective opposition to empire.
Manijeh Nasrabadi is a PhD student in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. Her essays and articles have appeared in Comparative Studies of the South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Social Text online, About Face (Seal Press, 2008), Hyphen Magazine, Tehran Bureau, Callaloo, and vidaweb.org. She is a member of Raha Iranian Feminist Collective in New York City.