Time to join forces for nonviolent change in Middle East

Chibli Mallat, Wednesday 15 Feb 2012

Letter to Iran's nonviolent revolutionaries on the eve of announced silent demonstrations

It is time to join forces for nonviolent change. Iran’s freedom is stirring again, and we are humbled by your courage and determination. The Arab Spring would not have taken place without your example in 2009, both in the massive popular demonstrations in Tehran, and in the absolute and sustained nonviolent character to date of the Green Revolution.

The nonviolent revolution in the Middle East is at risk from several quarters: from the old military regime and establishment, as in Egypt, from the misuse of tradition to exercise brutal power, as in the Gulf monarchies, and from chaos following the violent change in Libya. Our revolution is also at risk from authoritarian practices by religious extremists under cover of Islam. These ghulat forcibly subordinate the massive majority of Muslims who share with all human beings a democratic, non-repressive view of the faith, and brutalize non-Muslim groups in their daily lives, including by severely limiting their participation in government.

Ghuluww has tragically grown in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The tolerant, open society which prevailed at the start of the 1978 Revolution was slowly undermined by the sustained drift to autocracy. First came the radicalization forced upon it by Saddam Hussein’s invasion in September 1980. It was followed by boundless violence from vindictive, brutal oppositional groups who espoused the Rajavi cult, culminating in the indiscriminate bombings of June 1981. Then the regime thugs took over.

Since 1981, unchecked violence by the Iranian government has been systematically exercised against all forms of dissent, most conspicuously against students and minorities, women refusing to wear the chador, and Baha’is, Sunnis, Christians and Jews each practicing their faith. The baltajis of Egypt, the shabbihas of Syria, the matawi‘a of Saudi Arabia, and the chomaqdars of Iran are one and the same; the thuggish expression of oppressive, violent rule under the command of a dictator-for-life.

For a while, President Khatami represented the humanist side of Iranian society and government. His reforms were undermined by ‘Ali Khamene’i and his aides. The rigged election of Ahmadi-Nejad in 2005 and 2009 brought the best of Iran in open, nonviolent opposition, including such heroic figures and pillars of the anti-Shah revolution as Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Kharrubi, and now their brave families. The sustained nonviolent demonstrations since 2009 have shown how fractured the religious dictatorship has become. You are taking the lead again, and we are wholeheartedly with you.

Religious dictatorship is the most appropriate description of how revolutionary Iran has morphed into an Inquisition state. While the popularity of Ruhullah Khumaini was real, Khamene’i fails on all accounts. Other than a coterie of aides who benefit from his distribution of oil money, he has little support within Iran and across the Shi‘i world. His scholarship in law is close to nonexistent in comparison with the scholars of Qum and Najaf. All know how he surreptitiously benefited as the president in 1989 to move into the position of Leader against a far more learned scholar, the late Hussein Montazeri, whom he confined to house arrest until his death.

Rahbar/Leader Khamene’i, not president Ahmadi-Nejad, is the problem. This was the early mistake of the 2009 Green Revolution: instead of directing its anger from the very first day against the Leader, it chose a secondary target. Both under the constitution and in practice, Khamene’i is ‘Leader for life’, similar in this to the cohort of Gulf satraps and the military dictators from Sudan to Algeria. Ahmadi-Nejad is a footnote.

Within the Middle East nonviolent fight against dictators, Khamene’i is now trying to show that the people in revolt are emulating 1979 Iran. Nothing is further from the truth; witness his open and unqualified support to his genocidal ally in Syria. You have fought his replication of Arab dictatorship Iran in its now established pattern: the ejection of peaceful demonstrations despite their enshrinement in the Constitution, the adamant pursuit of former colleagues in Stalinist-like trials, the attempt to push one’s son to political prominence in preparation for dynastic succession, the veto by way of the Council of Guardians of parliamentary and presidential candidates, the destruction of any political opponent by violence and physical threats, and the rigging of elections.

Iran is key to the success of our revolution. We need to work together for the next, essential step to liberate our region from dictatorship, and from the particularly sectarian tone that the Leader of Iran is instilling in the region. His last supporter in the Middle East, Bashar al-Asad, is unlikely to survive, but the acceleration of his demise can start tomorrow on the streets of Tehran,

We stand with you, the free people of Iran’s Green Revolution, in whatever nonviolent way you bring dictatorship to an end.  And while we know that the repression unleashed against you since June 2009 has been absolute, even small demonstrations will show how close in our means and objectives we stand across the Persian-Arab Gulf. We wish you well for tomorrow.

Chibli Mallat is Chairman of Right to Nonviolence, a lawyer and law professor. He has written extensively on the Iranian Constitution.

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