Ahmed Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and the author of the definitive work on the Islamic Revolution in Iran (Theology of Discontent) has written a perceptive article on the current crisis in Iran.
In a short essay that Abbas Amanat, a scholar of 19th-century Iran at Yale University, was asked to write for The New York Times on the current crisis in Iran, he asserted that what we are witnessing is “the rise of a new middle class whose demands stand in contrast to the radicalism of the incumbent President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and the core conservative values of the clerical elite, which no doubt has the backing of a religiously conservative sector of the population.”
This learned position of a leading scholar very much sums up the common wisdom that Iranian expatriate academics are offering an excited public mesmerized by the massive demonstrations they witness on their television sets or computer screens and eager to have someone make sense of them.
In part because of these hurried interpretations, the movement that is unfolding in front of our eyes is seen as basically a middle-class uprising against a retrograde theocracy that is banking on backward, conservative and uneducated masses who do not know any better. While the illiterate and “uncouth” masses provide the populist basis of Ahmadinejad’s support, the middle class is demanding an open-market civil society.
Highly educated, pro-Western and progressive Iranians are thus placed on Mir Hossein Moussavi’s side, while backward villagers and urban poor are on Ahmadinejad’s. The fact that in North America and Western Europe, usually unveiled and fluently English-speaking women are brought to speak on behalf of the women demonstrators further intensifies the impression that if women are veiled or do not speak English fluently then they must be Ahmadinejad supporters.
This is a deeply false dichotomy that projects a flawed picture to the outside world. It is predicated on the spin that a very limited pool of expatriate academics are putting on a movement that is quite extraordinary in Iranian political culture, one whose full dimensions have yet to be unpacked.