Reformists need to acknowledge their past
August 10, 2001
Recently, a friend of mine was betrayed by a friend of his. The betrayal
was, in my eyes, of the kind that undermines an entire friendship; it was
a breach of trust. After an evening or two of apologies, conversations,
and tears, the two of them continued their friendship, as if, on the surface
at least, nothing had happened. When I asked him how in the world he could
continue like this he said: "We forgive our partners for cheating,
so why not?
I have a penchant for choosing partners who cheat. None of them actually
cheat on me because as educated people, we don't "cheat" (nor
do we "lie", or commit any of the other vices of common folks).
We have complex and intricate justifications for everything we do. So one
partner, while never extricating himself from our relationship, felt that
sleeping with others allowed him to get out of the bind that my strong personality
placed him in, another after great many declarations of love would take
the "I am so weak route, and another, upon declaring himself more mature
than me, explained his two-week vacation with an "ex-lover" by
saying "I need to do this for myself? Why can't you just understand
And I forgive, or at least I think I do, or am I mistaking forgiving
for that act sitting close by, forgetting? Is forgiveness only possible
in the shadow of forgetting? Is T.S. Eliot's question: "After such
knowledge, what forgiveness?" merely a rhetorical one? Can we ever
forgive what we deem to be great injustice without forgetting all that led
to it? And even more importantly, why would we want to?
Moments of great emotional turmoil, of inqilabs, be they of the individual
or the collective kind, often lead to the erasing of the past in the hopes
that the future would arrive sooner. In our personal lives, we throw away
mementos of loves that have hurt us and re-remember the past with pain and
injury injected where up to recently, we saw none. In the life of our nations,
we bring down monuments and statues, and re-write history books making villains
out of yesterday's heroes. When change comes through revolution, the present
is but a blimp existing as long as such acts of violence towards the past
remain, and then it is gone, and the future arrives.
But what if change happens gradually? What if between the past and the
future exists a present, stretched out, and moving slowly? It is this kind
of change that has happened in Iran and it is precisely the fact that the
past can not be dragged down and shattered to pieces like a statue in the
middle of a crowded square that makes the questions of forgiving and forgetting
difficult to answer.
For the skeptics and opponents of the reform movement in Iran (both inside
the country and abroad), the revolutionary backgrounds of the likes of Saeed
Hajjarian, Akbar Ganji, and of course, Abdol Karim Soroush have become a
way of undermining their words of today. How dare they speak of democracy,
freedom, and reform, the critics ask, when 20 years ago they were instrumental
in the shaping of the Islamic Republic; when 20 years ago they were the
thugs that they now denounce?
Soroush seems to be the main object of these kinds of questions. Partly
I believe because, unlike Hajjarian and Ganji, he is not in prison, nor
hurt, nor is fighting on the "front lines". Partly because he
is received outside of Iran as a radical philosopher, one about whom dissertations
are written. And partly because his role in the Cultural Revolution and
the "purification" of universities undermined precisely the institutions
that are now allowing him the luxury of research and travel at a time of
crisis for his fellow intellectuals.
Last year in Cambridge, MA, over a cup of coffee when I gingerly brought
up the issue of past deeds and possibilities of regret, he responded by
saying that he believes fixating on the past brings stagnancy, and that
one must focus on the future.
Do we forgive and move on, as my friend did over his friend, as we have
all done at one point or another towards our loved ones? The difficulty
arises because in many ways, the idea of forgiveness in a political situation
such as this seems almost meaningless. Forgive whom for what? Who's doing
the forgiving? The accusing? Do we, Iranian-Americans, sitting in sunny
southern California with our 24-hour radio that still believes in the redeeming
qualities of monarchy, that sees itself and all Iranian communities as victims
to be saved by a savior, do we sit and accuse and if we feel like it, forgive
the likes of Ganji? Baqi? Khatami? Soroush? Accuse them for not knowing
what we know now 23 years ago? Forgive them for acting on their convictions,
convictions that were shared by millions, forgive them for acting on their
convictions now, even if it contradicts their previous acts?
Yet, if talk of forgiveness seems ridiculous on some level, does it mean
that people should not be held accountable for their actions? As Hannah
Arendt's brilliant analysis of the Eichmann trial demonstrated, evil can
be and often is banal. Many, put in the same situation, would act in the
same way. Does that give us license to behave however we want in moments
of crisis in the belief that we are smaller than the sum of historical forces
around us? Does it give us the right to say, as my partner did: "Why
can't you just understand me?" If not, then how do you hold someone
such as Soroush accountable to his past actions without rejecting that of
his present? How do you move on in a relationship where trust has been
breached? Or is this where personal and political relationships stop mirroring
So when we act indignant towards the current reformers, calling forth
their revolutionary past, what do we really want? Retribution, justice,
I have no doubt that of all three, the first is the sweetest. In moments
of anger, we all want our two-timing cheating ex-lovers to get a taste of
their own medicine, for them to fall flat on their face. When we are calmer,
we tend to voice the above sentiment in terms of justice, people getting
what they deserve. But we tend to conflate justice with retribution. Something
seems to eat away at us and offend our sense of "justice" when
we see the person who had a direct hand in the Cultural Revolution, benefiting
from the opportunities provided by an institution of higher learning such
as Harvard. And for many outside Iran, there is a sense of having been
deprived of their chance to be a factor of change in their country, to matter
to it, by having been forced to leave Iran. It feels as if a group of people
deprived them of their destiny 20 years ago and now the reform movement,
with its clique of ex-revolutionaries and its talk of civil society, is
doing it to them again.
It is accountability though that is the most difficult and that both
on a personal and a communal level, happens voluntarily and slowly.
It is there that I think Iran's reform movement has been lacking. Coming
forth and holding themselves accountable for the early days of the revolution,
for the values defended, ideas destroyed, universities closed, and people
condemned, is not about accepting blame for events they did not have knowledge
of at the time. In times of revolution, talk of blame is meaningless.
The problem is that the current movement suffers from amnesia: It has
reset the clock to 2nd of Khordad, 1997. It seems too scared to admit that
it itself has a past, that it was not born in 1997 but only came to speak
at that moment. It needs to acknowledge its own past not only in terms
of the wrongs committed, but the lessons it has learned from precisely those
it shunned in the past: The seculars. The post-1997 reform movement has
not re-invented the wheel. It has been trained, and educated in Iran's
universities through professors who after the Cultural Revolution were ousted,
albeit temporarily, from their jobs, or who after the revolution, deemed
it necessary to leave the country. It has intellectually fed off ideas
translated and propagated by a generation of intellectuals whom while we
may consider a failure as a movement, have left, in their retreat, a paper
trail of ideas.
While the idea of accusing the 2nd of Khordad activists for the failures
of 1979 is absurd, I believe the reform movement can only create rupture
with the past by voluntarily coming forth and acknowledging it. Iranians
often treat their historical pasts as they treat their personal relationships:
Leaders are father figures that we either love to death or we despise.
The past has to be for all intents and purposes glorious and if it's not,
then we act as if it is. We qahr and aashti with our political and historical
figures, acting alternately indignant or magnanimous. But the past of a
community, a society, a nation is not an instrument for hefz-e aabroo.
It is an inevitable part of the passing of time and should be treated as
a part of our identity to be scrutinized and understood.