Iran: Democracy Rising?
Last night, the Freedom Museum hosted another "Table of Nations" event designed to explore the past, present, and future of the country (and the people) behind the headlines. At Reza's Restaurant - another of Chicago's wonderfully diverse dining establishments - experts, guests and museum staff feasted on traditional Persian fare and a wealth of fascinating information. The setting was intimate, the food was delicious, and the atmosphere was ripe for riveting debate.
The discussion was moderated by Dr. Hamid Akbari, associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University, author, and leading expert on Iran. He began the evening's program with a brief introduction that praised the Museum's mission as "unique to Chicago and the world," and then set the stage for the speakers that followed. First to step to the microphone was Stephen Kinzer, longtime correspondent for the New York Times and author of All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and Roots of Middle East Terror.
Kinzer spoke at length about the history of Iran, particularly as related to an ongoing internal struggle for democracy. He shed light on the roots of that struggle, describing the early establishment of democratic rule in Iran and then the derailment of that system by a coup executed by the United States in the 1950s. Since then, although Iranian regimes have been opaque, oppressive and opposed to change, the spirit of democracy has lived on in its people; although they do not live under democracy, unlike many in the region they know what it looks like.
"Democracy is not an election," Kinzer said. "It's a whole way of looking at life. Iran has been on a journey to democracy for more than 100 years . . . and what they really want is the one they had 50 years ago."
Next to address the crowd was Janet Afary, another prominent author on Iran and a professor at Purdue University. She provided what she called a "micro history of democracy" within the country, specifically delving deep into women's rights and marriage customs as they have changed over the years. Dating has arrived on the Iranian scene, she said, and traditional practices such as arranged marriage and the authoritarian family structure are falling away. Unfortunately, the suicide rate among married women is high, divorce would be widespread if it was more legally accessible, and drug addiction and running away from home are far more common than they used to be.
Despite these problems, more women than ever are attending college and getting what jobs there are to be had. Unemployment rates remain high and Iranian laws are
extremely backwards, however - these two roadblocks must be overcome if the balance of power is to shift in favor of democracy.
Ario Mashayekhi, a renowned human rights artist, gave one of the most interesting talks of the evening, displaying and describing three of his unfinished paintings. Exile, Hope and Bloom, the three beautiful works he brought from his studio, explore the despair, sadness, and optimism that can be found in Iran, each work having been inspired by a different incident or experience. All three presented poignant, luminous visions of the humanity behind the much-vilified Islamic Republic. Mashayekhi's insights helped to shed light on the Iranian situation in a unique way.
Closing out the evening's program was Danny Postel, a journalist and author of Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran. Postel described the historic moment at which we find ourselves today in relation to Iran: just this year, after 28 years of complete diplomatic silence, the U.S. and Iran sat down and spoke to each other. Additionally, the movement for democracy within Iran is strengthening every day - as one independent music promoter put it, "it's like a chick bursting from an eggshell - people are pushing from inside, and that shell is getting thinner and thinner." Postel argued that the best thing the U.S. can do to encourage the democratic movement is nothing - threatening to attack Iran only strengthens the oppressive regime.
"The moment that first bomb drops on Iran, it would spell the end of the vibrant democratic struggle that is growing as we speak," he said.
Postel went so far as to argue that President Bush is in a symbiotic dance with Tehran - that each needs the other as an enemy. As long as the U.S. continues saber-rattling, he said, democracy will stall, but if America takes no action, "that shell will keep getting thinner and thinner."
Following a brief question-and-answer period and after dessert was enjoyed by all, the evening was at an end and everyone went their separate ways. It was an extremely interesting program, showcasing unique points of view that are not always heard, especially at the national level of the foreign policy debate.
The only major criticism that I have relates to the fact that all of the speakers hit more or less the same notes: while each examined a different aspect of Iranian history, life or politics, all seemed to agree on the current situation in Iran and the course of action that must now be taken by the United States. For the sake of balance and to provoke further debate, it might have been nice to showcase a dissenting voice as well, allowing for the interplay of a more diverse range of ideas. Even without such a voice, however, our panelists demonstrated a keen understanding of the issues they discussed, a passionate flair for their fields of study, and an enthusiasm for public debate that was refreshing to see.
In all, "Iran: Democracy Rising" was a resounding success, creating an intriguing public forum for discussion of freedom and foreign policy and also encouraging interaction with a few of this country's preeminent Iran scholars. It was a thought-provoking evening, and it allowed for exactly the type of issue-related engagement that is too often absent from civic life in this country. I can't wait to attend the next "Table of Nations."