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You the people
We the Rulers

By Naghmeh Sohrabi
June 18, 2003
The Iranian

The term mardom-salari seems to be all the rage these days. From the reformists, to the Kayhan writers, to Reza Pahlavi and his ilk, everyone who wants a piece of Iran's present and future is sinking their teeth into the rule of the people.

The "people" in these discourses are a noble bunch whose moral weight outweighs the tablets of the Ten Commandments. It doesn't matter who you are or what you think as long as you can claim legitimacy in the will of the people.

But while the American constitution begins with "We the people" for the Iranian politicians and oppositions the preamble would begin as "You" the people: You who are noble, who are victims, You whose coattails I will ride to victory.

By basing their legitimacy in what has become in Iranian political discourse a sacred term, these various groups have hoped their audience would forget and ignore the complete vacuity of their claims and their visions. Terms such as democracy (and secularism), rule of the people, and legitimacy are being thrown around like confetti on a victory parade.

And to add to it all, everyone seems to have their own, exclusively correct definitions of it: democracy must be organic, democracy is the rule of the people, democracy is what I want it to be...

The truth is that there is nothing noble or sacred in the will of the people. The people, whoever and wherever they are, have more often than not fallen to their basest instincts, choosing over and over again simple, short term, and often unsavory solutions to their problems.

As Tocqueville noted, the line between the will of the people and the tyranny of the masses is much too thin. Nazi Germany is the best known but not the only example: France during the second empire, Milosevic's Serbia, and George W. Bush's America are all cases where popular support for a government and its actions not only did not improve the lot of the nation, it merely sent it spirally into a vortex of violence and disaster.

But if the Iranians don't care much for the lessons of other people's histories, how about one from their own? Reza Pahlavi, incapable of making an argument based on his own achievements ("Hello, I am a father, husband, and my daddy used to be king, vote for me!") has been repeating the mantra of a referendum to anyone who will listen. He and his supporters love to say that what he is "fighting" for (obviously the term is used very loosely here) is a free referendum in which the great people of Iran choose the kind of government they want.

The beautiful irony of what they are calling for seems to be lost to them. The current Iranian government was also legitimized by none other than a free referendum. The problem is not, as they like to say, that the referendum was not free, the problem lies with the nature of a referendum itself. A referendum is essentially a snapshot, a moment in time, and incapable of expressing nuances of choice that is essential in any kind of thinking about the future of Iran.

There are several issues here: First is that the results of a referendum can be easily manipulated by its wording: In a revolution such as 1979's when the terms of the debate were mostly anti-Shah (with very little thought to what could replace it) a referendum giving people two exclusive options (for or against an Islamic Republic) could have only one result. This problem will persist even if the questions of the referendum include more than two options. Do you want an absolute monarchy, a constitutional monarchy, or a secular republic?

The more the options, the more the problems of making sense of the results. What if such a referendum resulted in the following numbers: 5% absolute monarchy, 48% constitutional monarchy, 47% secular republic? What would that indicate? Would that mean that the people have willed a constitutional monarchy or a secular republic?

But more importantly, even if the results indicate that a majority of Iranians favor a monarchy of any kind, in the current climate of Iranian politics, should one give it any credence? In other words is a referendum a blueprint for action or merely a reflection of a people's state of mind at a given moment? Has history not shown that to think the former is more often than not a mistake? Or is this a mistake that certain parts of the so called opposition are hoping to make?

The problem with almost all Iranian politics, across the ideological spectrum, is that it is playing the victimhood game. It places the suffering of the Iranian people at its moral center and makes their will its moral compass such that all a political group needs to do in order to prove its legitimacy is to show that the Iranian people are behind it.

So if the empty rants of the Los Angeles satellite televisions result in massive protests in Iran, then somehow they must be in the right and their " vision" a valid one. Or, as the pages of has demonstrated in the past weeks, if one is not in Iran, if one is not suffering in Iran, then somehow one loses the right to have a say in its future. Both these opposite views share at their core a belief in the nobility of victimhood.

The brutal truth is of course that there is nothing noble about "the people." Populist politics is the politics of the common denominator, which usually does not exceed the desire for immediate and selfish gratification.

Tolerance, respect both for human life and freedom of thought, and other goodies hidden under the rubric of "secular democracy" are not innate to any group of people. They are values that must be taught and, yes, sometimes even imposed upon a society.

There is not only room but an immediate need for a political discourse that while believing in the necessity of representation of the will of the people, does not make that will its only claim to legitimacy.

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By Naghmeh Sohrabi




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