Sunday, 19 July 2009

Riding to the rescue on a secularist hobby-horse

Francis Segemore's blog is a good one. It's got a scientific bent, which appeals to me because I know little about science and he's a good explainer. It's also often funny and politically engaged. Francis is wise and perceptive, in the sense that I tend to agree with a fair bit of what he says, quibbles aside. However, his latest recommendation - to sign up to the Iran Solidarity campaign - is one I won't be following.

I've signed up to a couple of things he's recommended in the past. And if you're familiar with my blog you'll also know that I support the Iranian protests, for what it's worth, and have been avidly following what's been going on there. Believe me, I would like to do more to show my support and hate being dog-in-manger on this issue especially. So what's not to like?

The approach of the Iran Solidarity campaign seems to me to be seriously flawed, in that it's based on a militantly secular and liberal world-view. From what we know of Iran, I feel sure such a view would not be subscribed to by the majority, probably the vast majority, of the protestors and their sympathisers. The calls of Allahu Akbar from the roof-tops are just one staggeringly clear indication that this is the case. Unfortunately, couching support in the terms chosen by Iran Solidarity negates the validity of its assumptions and intrudes destructively into its stated demands

The opening proposition is tendentious in that Iran Solidarity states that it stands with the people of Iran in opposition to the Islamic Republic. I think it's clear that Moussavi and other leaders of the protests are most definitely not calling for the end of the Islamic Republic. This may or may not be justified, or even genuine, but surely suggesting otherwise is potentially damaging to the opposition's appeal to the widest possible constituency. It's their protest, and we have no right to misrepresent it.

Of Iran Solidarity's ten demands a few in particular are likely to be of doubtful appeal to the majority of Iranians and, for that matter, to people in many countries that are a long way from being beyond the pale. A few examples:

Part of the fifth demand calls for the abolition of the death penalty. What makes anyone in the West think that this could be a pertinent and legitimate demand in this instance? It forms part of the judicial system of the United States and I understand it has majority support in opinion polls in the UK.

Until a few years ago the death penalty was legal in Turkey, a country that Iran would do well to imitate but is a long way from catching up with on the road to liberal pluralism. Personally, I oppose the death penalty but in the world we live in it provides no sort of sine qua non of civilisation, or even democratic pluralism. It's just beside the point, a distraction and irrelevant to the protests.

Part of the sixth demand calls for the unconditional freedom to strike, something we don't have in the UK and, surely, even more besides the point.

The second demand, in part, wants the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for killings and atrocities committed during the last thirty years. What business has anyone in the West to ask for this? It's certainly not the road chosen by South Africa and most of Eastern Europe in trying to heal the wounds inflicted during their periods of dictatorship. Indeed, such a demand if consistently applied could well cover members of the opposition who had served in previous governments, including Moussavi, who was Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic in the 1980s, during which time many Iranians were executed. So quite a bizarre, meddling demand and surely self-defeating.

The final demand wants the complete separation of religion from the state, something our own established Church of England would take issue with.

A good number of the demands seem to me, then, tendentious, irrelevant, unreasonable, insensitive and unhelpful. So why make them? Far from empathising with the protestors, Iran Solidarity appears to want to impose on them the values of a vocal group of Western secularist radicals. Why isn't it enough to support them in their demand for a representative, tolerant government and a state that's under the rule of law? That's going to be difficult enough, without shoe-horning the rest in.

I suspect that for signatories such as AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins the situation in Iran presents an opportunity to further their overarching project to get us all to stop believing in God and become as modern, liberal and free-thinking as them. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with having this as your goal. But choosing this moment and this means to advance your cause seems self-indulgent and cynical. Given the largely religious basis of Iranian society it's also, of course, tactically counter-productive. This consideration doesn't seem to weigh in the balance when there's a bigger crusade to be preached.

In short, Iran Solidarity's platform is spoilt by a form of instrumentalism carrying a strong whiff of a sort of colonialist, know-better-than-thou attitude. Sadly, this approach reminds one of nothing more than those missionaries to the developing world whom the secularists would surely deplore. It's with a heavy heart I write this, but it's necessary, chiefly because I believe Iran Solidarity's campaign will prove counter-productive.


Francis Sedgemore said...

Gareth - It's interesting to see the various criticisms of Iran Solidarity from non-Iranian leftists and liberals (or at least the ones who aren't up the arses of domestic Islamists).

On the one hand we have ultra-left opposition to what they regard as an unsound popular front with support from Iranian monarchists and other counter-revolutionaries. And on the other there are those uneasy with the radical secularist nature of the Iran Solidarity campaign.

Iran Solidarity is a creation of the Iranian exile community in the UK, and the reality is that this is a coalition of mostly secular left supporters of the 1979 revolution who were then stabbed in the back by the ayatollahs. This Iranian left continues to enjoy a good deal of support, both within and without Iran.

I would imagine that the majority of Iranians are at least mildly religious, but it would be a mistake to think that they will be scared off by the likes of Iran Solidarity: a campaign designed to attract support from secular westerners.

Regarding the cries of Allahu Akbar from the rooftops of Tehran, does this really mean that the protesters are primarily Islamists? From a secular perspective it makes sense to subvert the regime by recourse to religious slogans such as this. I'm sure the Iranians do irony as well as the rest of us.

As for the death penalty, this is an important issue, and it should be raised. Judicial killing in Iran is widespread, and it's no wonder that the opposition see it as important to campaign against the death penalty.

You see Iran Solidarity as a effort by westerners to impose their vision of secular humanism on Iran. It isn't. Iran Solidarity is an Iranian-led call for solidarity. It may not represent the opposition in its entirety, but the history of popular fronts shows that to attempt such would be futile.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Gaw makes a lot of good points here, Francis. I broadly agree with what I know about Iran Solidarity movement, but "the left" - howvere fine it's ideals are - has no better claim to being a creator of good societies than do religious movements, and people who regard themselves as intellectuals would do well to remember this. Pluralism should surely be the key demand.

Gadjo Dilo said...

p.s. I hope people realised that I meant a rather harder left than Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and several characters in Denmark that I supported and repeatedly voted for, for what it's worth :-)

Francis Sedgemore said...

Pluralism is the key demand.

At the same time this is an anti-fascist struggle in which the democrats of the left, centre and right should be joining hands, even if they have conflicting political ideologies, and voice their opinions in different ways.

If you cannot lend your support to Iran Solidarity, there's nothing to stop you organising an alternative, and publishing your own statement of support for the people of Iran. The important thing is that you do it.

Sean said...

Yup, its a feeling good about feeling bad kind of set up.

Gorilla Bananas said...

How typical of Dicky Dawkins to overreach in this way. I have warned him before that attempting to convert people to atheism might be counterproductive.

Gaw said...

Francis: I don't think that the Iranian protestors, in couching their demands in religious language, are doing so for tactical reasons or being ironical. Surely we should take them as we find them? I would also make a strong distinction between Islamist and Islamic, and would not wish to suggest that the rooftop calls are Islamist.

You say Iran Solidarity (IS) is a campaign designed to attract support from secular westerners. Fair enough, but why couch the demands in such stridently secular terms? And why be so prescriptive?

IS is in danger of showing solidarity with the Iranian protestors as IS would like them to be, rather than as they really are.

This approach seems therefore tactically self-defeating. It's likely to alienate, and for no good reason other than for some people in the West to promote their pet causes.

It's particularly problematic given Britain and Iran's relationship during the colonial period: even someone who didn't believe in the Iranian Government's anti-British propaganda might be suspicious about the real agenda of these militantly atheistic and secularist British radicals (after all, I am!).

Re pluralism being the key demand: I think of pluralism as the product of other more definable concepts such as representative government, the rule of law and the growth of civil society. It's an outcome rather than a policy.

I think the call should be for representative and tolerant government under the rule of law. This reflects closely what the Iranian opposition on the ground want and it is not prescriptive. We should not be presume to dictate to the Iranian people what they should do with their government and law once these goals are achieved.

Using this sort of rubric would surely create the greatest unity and one based on real solidarity.

Finally, the real battle is being fought on the ground. Whatever we non-government actors do in the West won't make a lot of difference. Writing and signing stuff is of help only marginally; we must, therefore, take every precaution not to make it a hindrance.

Francis Sedgemore said...

Iranians "on the ground" are indeed wary of government interference from outside, and this is why President Obama's stance, for example, is to be applauded. But Iranians are calling for solidarity from ordinary people around the world, and Iran Solidarity is *part* of that.

Who let that knuckle-dragging primate in here, and is he house-trained?

Gorilla Bananas said...

I am jungle-trained, O ill-mannered human whose name reminds me of a bog grass I wipe my arse with. Kindly play the ball rather than the ape.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Gaw said...

Jennifer, that's very kind. I started the blog to keep myself amused earlier this year, and if it helps amuse others that's a wonderful bonus.