As Iranians took to the streets to protest a fraudulent election last month, braving tear gas, batons and bullets, pressure mounted on President Barack Obama to take a tougher stand against the Islamic Republic's repression of peaceful dissent. Some said the president's statements were too soft. Others argued that Obama should refrain from picking sides, lest he present a pretext for hard-liners to label the protesters American stooges.
People began to argue: What should Obama do? I'd like them to ask another question: What should ordinary Americans do?
It's important to recognize the Iranian struggle for what it is: a grass-roots, vital movement for greater liberty enriched by more than a century of struggle against foreign powers, autocratic kings and repressive theocrats. Iran's rulers would have the world believe that the protesters are a minority inspired by foreigners, but this denies a fundamental piece of Iranian history.
For more than 100 years, beginning with an extraordinarily progressive constitution written in 1906, Iranians have been struggling to achieve azadi, the Persian word for freedom. In recent weeks peaceful protesters have been detained, beaten and killed, yet Iran's constitution purports to protect freedom of assembly, of the press and of belief. Article 23: "The investigation of individuals' beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief."
Of course, the constitution offers an array of anti-liberty loopholes, such as freedom of the press "except when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam." Article 27 notes: "Public gatherings and marches may be freely held" provided "they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam."
Iranian history is marked by a fitful struggle for freedom, individual liberties and political rights. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, no Jeffersonian democrat, approved a constitution specifying these freedoms because Iran's legacy could not simply be discarded — even if it was wrapped in a blanket of authoritarian loopholes.
The Iranians who revolted in 1979 were seeking justice and freedom. That uprising of students, clerics, merchants, intellectuals, nationalists and Islamists is often referred to as the "Islamic Revolution." It was the culmination of a long struggle to oppose the arbitrary rule of kings, though none expected the result — an Islamic Republic marked by the arbitrary rule of clerical elites.
In recent weeks, courageous Iranians have been writing, tweeting, text-messaging and telephoning the outside world with an almost universal message: Please bear witness, please stand with us. One Iranian demonstrator e-mailed me: "Where are the American actors, the writers, the university professors, the intellectuals?" I would add to this patriot's list: Where are the labor unions, teachers' unions, science academies, university students and ordinary Americans from all walks of life who took to U.S. streets last year to back an unlikely presidential candidate whose motto of hope and change is mirrored by Iranians half a world away? The key difference between them? Iranians are facing guns and violence as they wage their struggle for a democratic future.
While Americans should be at the fore, standing up for democracy, it's not just here that this question should stir a response. Civil society around the globe has an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of justifiable fervor displayed, for example, when people in other nations opposed the war in Iraq during the Bush years. Supporters of democracy worldwide should be standing with the Iranian people as they struggle for justice and freedom. The simple message of one Iranian demonstrator on Twitter last month still brings a chill: "I have one vote. I gave it to Mousavi. I have one life. I will give it to freedom."
We may split on what Obama should say or do, fearing the effects for the protesters or our nation, but that should not stop Americans from demonstrating solidarity. Last month I attended a candlelight vigil to honor those who died fighting for freedom. The gathering was somber yet hopeful, but it was too narrowly Iranian. We need more Americans — African Americans, Asian Americans, conservative Americans, liberal Americans, red-state Americans, blue-state Americans. If there is one issue politically polarized America ought to rally around, it is the gallant struggle of Iranians.
Before the voting, Mir Hossein Mousavi was, to many, an "anybody but Ahmadinejad" candidate. Now, he is a symbol of hope but also a man who is being driven by the crowds as much as he is driving them. "This is not about Mousavi," he said last month. "This is about you."
Barack Obama rode a similar wave, telling his supporters, "This is about you and what you can do to change America."
Iranians are pushing to change Iran and to taste freedom. It is an authentic struggle shaped by Iran's history. There is only one right side, and that is with the Iranian people.
At a reception in Washington last month, a technology executive approached me and pointed to his green tie. He said: "This is for the Iranian people." As the regime in Tehran tightens its grip, I hope to see more support from ordinary Americans, and from civil society around the globe, bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity and displaying the common humanity, decency and fairness that bind us all.
Afshin Molavi is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of "The Soul of Iran: A Nation's Journey to Freedom."
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