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Hamid Dabashi on Iran Protests: “This is Not Another Revolution. This is a Civil Rights Movement”

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In Iran, supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi have called for another protest in Tehran today in defiance of the government ban. At least nineteen demonstrators have been killed in the ten days since the election of June 12th. The government continues to detain journalists and activists and has set up a special court for demonstrators. We speak with Columbia University Professor Hamid Dabashi. He writes, “I see the moment we are witnessing as a civil rights movement rather than a push to topple the regime.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to another top story, Iran, where supporters of the defeated opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi have called for another protest in Tehran today in defiance of the government ban. The call comes after the Guardian Council rejected claims of election fraud and announced that the results of the disputed election would not be annulled.

The streets were relatively quiet Tuesday, even as the government continues to detain journalists and activists and set up a special court for demonstrators. At least nineteen protesters have been killed in the ten days since the election of June 12th.

President Obama issued his strongest condemnation of Iran since the election at a news conference Tuesday, saying he was, quote, “appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the past few days.” But he added that what is happening in Iran is an internal debate.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’ve made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.

AMY GOODMAN: Obama dismissed as, quote, “patently false” Iranian government accusations of the US role in instigating protests. He also addressed Republican criticism of his, quote, “timid” and “passive” response to events in Iran.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yeah, I think that all of us share a belief that we want justice to prevail. But only I am the President of the United States. And I’ve got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries. And so, I think that in the hothouse of Washington, there may be all kinds of stuff going back and forth in terms of Republican critics versus the administration. That’s not what is relevant to the Iranian people.

AMY GOODMAN: But Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona continue to challenge Obama’s seeming willingness to talk to Iran’s leaders. Speaking to news media Tuesday, both senators called for stronger sanctions and a UN Security Council resolution against Iran. This is Lindsey Graham.

    SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Why don’t we take a UN resolution, lead it, author it, condemn this regime for the way they treated their people and the way they foster terrorism, take it to the Security Council of the United Nations, and ask for a vote? Why don’t we call for tougher sanctions on this regime, because it will help the people down the road? Even though it may hurt now, it will help them later. We can do what we can — I can’t promise you an outcome, but I can promise you this, that as the leader of the free world, the President of United States, when he speaks, people listen. And we need to not only speak more forcefully, we need to act more forcefully.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Graham on PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Tuesday. Senator McCain made a similar call on CNN’s Larry King Live last night.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We should marshal the world’s opinion and forces and maybe enact sanctions or other measures that need to be taken. Let’s hope and pray that this tyrannical government will draw back some. You know, there are defining moments, Larry. And what happened to this brave young woman Neda, as we — millions of us have seen her death on the street in Tehran, is — I think may be a defining moment and may signal, in the view of historians, the real end of this tyrannical regime.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the former presidential candidate, John McCain.

I’m joined now by Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He’s written nearly two dozen books on Iranian studies, Islam, world cinema, comparative literature and art, including Iran: A People Interrupted.

Professor Dabashi, welcome to Democracy Now!

HAMID DABASHI: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Sum up for us the latest events in Iran, as you understand them.

HAMID DABASHI: The latest news, which I just checked, a number of websites that I ordinarily do, because you have to dodge censorship and such, is that Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, the senior-most opposition Grand Ayatollah, has called for three days of mourning of the victims of the recent violence.

And Mr. Mousavi has also called for a march of his supporters, with their families — namely, they’re coming with their spouses and their children — to march towards Khomeini’s mausoleum. This is a very shrewd move, because, obviously, if they’re coming with their families, they are a bit more protected from violence. And they’re headed towards a mausoleum, which is exercising a very old and amazing political gesture that we have in Iranian political culture, which means — translates as seeking refuge in a sanctuary, and presumably will be protected from violence there. So they’re using aspects of Iranian political culture in order to navigate through strategies of civil disobedience.

But when we say civil disobedience, we have to understand that Article 27 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic allows for peaceful demonstration. Mousavi and Karroubi, the two major oppositional candidates, have repeatedly asked the Ministry of Interior for permission to have peaceful protests, rallies, and they have been denied, while pro-Ahmadinejad supporters have been repeatedly granted permission to protest.

So, but the arrest of the leading reformists continues. The arrest of a number of civilian protesters continues. Ms. Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of Mr. Mousavi, has just issued a statement, that the BBC has authenticated that it is actually hers, calling for the release of these reformist leaders. In the Parliament, in the Iranian Parliament, over the past two days, there have been debates regarding torture of a number of arrested leaders of the reform movement, forcing them to come to the television and confess to one thing or another, which is an old tradition in the Islamic Republic.

So, to sum up, Khamenei has also again come and reiterated his support for the result of the election, that there is not going to be a reelection, and if there are any particular complaints, they will take it into consideration. So the battle lines are drawn between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad and the Guardian Council, on one side, and the opposition, Khatami, Karroubi and Mousavi, on the other. The wild card is — it remains Hashemi Rafsanjani. The rumbles that are coming is that he is trying to negotiate a middle ground, suggesting — Financial Times reported, suggesting the formation of a oppositional front to allow for this particular phase of the election to proceed, because they’re equally concerned, as you see President Obama being concerned, about Iran being represented by one person, but not completely conceding this oppositional force that has been formed.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about your op-ed piece in the New York Times today, “Looking for Their Martin Luther King, Jr.” But we have to take a break. And we’re going to come back to our conversation with Professor Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University here in New York. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue on Iran. We’re speaking with Hamid Dabashi. He is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Among other books is Iran: A People Interrupted. He was born in Iran himself.

Your piece in the New York Times today is called “Looking for Their Martin Luther King.” Explain.

HAMID DABASHI: It’s based on my reading of what I believe is happening in Iran. This, in my judgment, is a post-ideological generation. My generation was divided into third world socialists, anti-colonial nationalists and militant Islamists. These are the three dominant ideologies with which we grew up. But if you look at the composition of Iranian society today, 70 percent of it is under the age of thirty — namely, born after the Islamic Revolution. They no longer are divided along those ideological lines.

And if you read their newspapers, if you watch their movies, if you listen to the lyrics of their underground music, to their contemporary arts, etc., which we have been doing over the past thirty years, this, to me, is a civil rights movement. They are operating within the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. They don’t want to topple the regime. If you look — come outside, from the right of the right, in the US Senate to the left, is waiting for yet another revolution to happen. I don’t think this is another revolution. This is a civil rights movement. They’re demanding their civil rights that are being denied, even within the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. From their chants that they are doing in the streets to their newspapers, to their magazines, to their websites, to their Facebook, to their Twitters, everywhere that you look, this is a demand for civil liberties and not —-

There are, of course, underlying economic factors, statistically. The unemployment in the age cohort of fifteen to twenty-nine is 70 percent. So this is not a class warfare. In other words, people that we see in the streets, 70 percent of them, that a majority of them are young -— 70 percent of them do not even have a job. They can’t even rent a room, let alone marry, let alone have a family. So the assumption that this is a upper-middle-class or middle-class, bourgeois, Gucci revolutionaries on the side of Mousavi and poor on the side of Ahmadinejad is completely false.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about this issue of who supports President Ahmadinejad and the people who do not believe that the election was rigged. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was among the first world leaders to recognize the election and congratulate Ahmadinejad on winning a second term.

    PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: [translated] We ask the world to respect Iran, because they are trying to influence the strength of the Iranian Revolution. We ask the world to respect the triumph of President Ahmadinejad. It was a triumph in every respect. They are trying to stain Ahmadinejad’s triumph and weakening the government and the Islamic Revolution. I know they are not going to achieve it. From here, we are sending our solidarity to the brotherly nation of Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that’s Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Your response, President — Professor Dabashi?

HAMID DABASHI: Oh, thanks, God, not president.

Now, listen. There are a number of issues. Number one, on the election, that the election was rigged is a social fact. People, millions of people, believe it was rigged. The three oppositional figures that are of three different colors believe it was rigged. People are putting their lives on the line that it was rigged. Already, people have been killed. There is no independent way of knowing. There are some statisticians that are looking at these numbers that are coming out suspiciously. But I think it is a moot question, is just an academic question, doesn’t mean anything.

Now, then, if you flash back to pre-election, there is an alliance, a regional alliance, for example, between Chavez and Ahmadinejad, or between — equally, Hassan Nasrallah has also — have come — Hezbollah has come to the support of Ahmadinejad, because if you look at the regional politics, the alliance between Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Mahdi’s army was something that we were sort of thinking that this is the situation before this election.

What has happened after the election, this young Iranian demanding the civil rights have thrown a monkey wrench at that regional arrangement. So, while I understand why is it that, because of his own regional concerns and geopolitics, Chavez and Nasrallah are coming to the aid of Ahmadinejad very, very swiftly, but the fact of the matter is that there is a significant proportion of Iranian society that is not only rich and upper-Tehrani and such that think this is rigged, number one. Number two, the question of this election is really the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. This is a pent-up anger that has been building over a very long time.

The other result — the question is that, up until this election, I even thought that domestic politics, national politics, has become irrelevant, that is, not out of how smart Ahmadinejad was, but how stupid Bush was. The arrangement — around Iran, the situation that President Obama has inherited, he can’t do anything in Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan without Iranian help. This is why he’s walking this tightrope. However, domestic Iranian issues have now emerged. That is, there is this generation that is very dissatisfied. They don’t want to topple the regime. This is where the left is going wrong — the right is going wrong. They simply want to secure their civil liberties. And they refuse to have their internal concerns, that ranges from unemployment to civil liberties, to be sacrificed to the regional politics.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Dabashi, the call of Senators Graham and the former presidential candidate McCain for increased sanctions, whether US or United Nations, against Iran?

HAMID DABASHI: Absolute — first of all, it’s very hypocritical of the US Congress. The night before the presidential election in Iran on June 12th, they called for increased sanction against Iran. Tomorrow morning, the day of election, that translates into “Vote for Ahmadinejad.” That translates into economic hardship for already those demonstrators that now they pretend they want to support. Any support for these demonstrators, for this green movement, on part of official American officials is a kiss of death.

What this movement needs — anything is — from the United States is, because I see it as a civil rights movement, is the support of civil rights icons. Reverend Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton, these are the people who should come to its support, not official Americans. And as a result, President Obama’s position has been very pitch perfect, very calibrated. That is, he endorses the civil liberties of these demonstrators, without taking sides, and consistently insisting that this is a domestic Iranian affair, because the fact is he may have to deal with Ahmadinejad.

AMY GOODMAN: The death of Neda, her image all over the world, and even you, at the beginning of this interview, saying you’re getting through the censorship somehow.

HAMID DABASHI: Exactly. Well, again, if my reading of the event, this, what we are witnessing, as a civil rights movement, it already has the figure of Neda Agha Soltan as the Rosa Parks of — the granddaughter of Rosa Park’s character. And the picture of her at the moment of her death that is now all over — I mean, if you look at the websites and Facebooks and Twitters of the young Iranians that are watching, it’s absolute heart-wrenching how this is galvanizing the movement. It has captured the imagination of youth. And she represents — she is pretty, she is a young woman, she’s a student, she was a student of philosophy. The older man that was accompanying her is not her father; it was actually her professor. All of the indices of what this generation is about is captured in the figure in Neda.

AMY GOODMAN: And she was nineteen years old?

HAMID DABASHI: No, she’s twenty-seven, I believe.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-seven.

HAMID DABASHI: Exactly. A student of philosophy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wan to thank you very much for being with us.

HAMID DABASHI: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He’s author of over eighteen books, including Iran: A People Interrupted.

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