:: Article

How the Light Gets In

By Max Dunbar.


Death to the Dictator!: Witnessing Iran’s Election and the Crippling of the Islamic Republic, Afsaneh Moqadam, Bodley Head 2010

‘There is a crack, a crack in everything…’

– Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’

I forget who said it – perhaps one of you can remind me – that a revolution is more likely to happen not when the state is at its most oppressive but when there is an easing, a softening, a inch to breathe in. So it was with the Iranian uprising of last year. Mir-Hossein Mousavi never represented a hope of real democratic change. All candidates had to be vetted by the Guardian Council. Of 475 potential candidates, just four were allowed to stand. Mousavi was the best to get through the theocratic filter. He represented the reformist wing of the regime: not great, but ‘definitely preferable to the hardliners, the conservatives – the ‘Principalists’, in their own jargon – who swarm around Khameini and Ahmadinejad.’ For Moqadam’s narrator, the choice was ‘whether to vote for the reformists, or not at all.’

The first anniversary of the uprising has been greeted with condescending articles about ‘the myth of the Twitter revolution’. Well, yes. History is made on the streets, not on computers; and the demonstrators of June 2009 probably know this better than most. Yet the effect of the internet can’t be denied. Totalitarian regimes need a wall of absolute separation between their subject people and the rest of the world, for as Orwell noted, if the average subject ‘were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies.’

The internet made significant cracks in the wall. Dissidents could go online and discover that they were not alone and that another world is possible. It also focused the world on Iran, and not ‘because the president has said the Holocaust didn’t happen, or because he wants to nuke Israel, but because the Iranian people are thrilling the world with their anger and their will to resist.’ Could a Tiananmen Square happen in Tehran? Moqadam thinks not. The murder of Neda Agha-Soltan was described by the Guardian as one of the most widely witnessed in human history. Her death became a rallying point for the opposition and recently a documentary escaped the regime’s censors and can be viewed on the websites of national newspapers. The technological aspect has its downsides though – Nokia Seimens disgraced itself by selling the regime a monitoring system that it uses to listen in on mobile phone conversations.

It’s a lazy truism that repressive governments use imaginary enemies to distract the population from state crimes. Press TV rolled out the usual propaganda about Zionists, imperialists and neocons, but before the election Iran’s dictatorship employed the more effective technique of displaying a smug ignorance of the very possibility of opposition: ‘referred to as ‘certain circles’ or ‘those who have been gulled by the West’ or ‘a handful of malcontents’. Now, for the first time, the schisms have been acknowledged and the reformists are publicly accused of being counter-revolutionaries.’ The message this sends is intentional and unintentional. One: we’re on to you, so don’t mess. Two: you are not alone.

What strikes the safe bystander about the resistance is its creativity. Protestors shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ from rooftops, daring the authorities to prescribe that most Islamic of slogans. In December 2009 a man named Majid Tavakoli was arrested for speaking at an anti-government demo. In addition to the usual torture and rape that visitors to Evin can expect, he was dressed in a woman’s hijab and photographed for a press release. The spectacle was designed to humiliate Tavakoli’s comrades. Instead they published pictures of hundreds of men wearing headscarf. The resistance meets banal oppression with gentle irony. One account should tell you whose side you’re on. A peaceful demo in June 2009 was attacked by police thugs. A police officer was injured. The demonstrators could have kicked him when he was down but went to his aid instead.

Moqadam is fascinating on the politics behind the crackdown. Why does Khameini not simply call the opposition’s bluff by handing Mousavi the election and letting him introduce some pallid reforms that barely dilute the poison of the Islamic regime? Because Mousavi would allow secularist clerics like Soroush and Kadivar back into the universities. As Moqadam points out, this would be the first step to reducing Khameini’s position to that of constitutional monarch. Ahmadinejad himself had built a theocracy within a theocracy and was unlikely to give up power without a fight. And yet the base truth is that this was never about Mousavi. For:

These people aren’t just calling for the death of one man. They are calling for the death of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij and every corrupt official that has ever addressed his fellow citizen with uncouth, seraphic pieties. It’s death to the public executions and the sanctioned wife-beatings, the morals police and Chavez and Putin and all those thugs in the world who call themselves friends of the Islamic Republic. It’s death to the past thirty years. It’s death to fear.

A fictionalised account of the June 2009 uprisings, this anonymous author has written a rich, powerful account of what will, in years to come, be recognised as the beginning of the end of the Islamic regime. While the killers in high places say their prayers out loud, the light is creeping in, and the whole world is watching.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 17th, 2010.