You the people
We the Rulers
By Naghmeh Sohrabi
June 18, 2003
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...
truth is that there is nothing noble or sacred in the will of
the people. The people, whoever and wherever they are, have more
than not fallen to their basest instincts, choosing over and
over again simple, short term, and often unsavory solutions to
As Tocqueville noted, the line between the will of
the people and the tyranny of the masses is much too thin. Nazi
is the best known but not the only example: France during the
second empire, Milosevic's Serbia, and George W. Bush's America
cases where popular support for a government and its actions
not only did not improve the lot of the nation, it merely sent
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
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 Iranian.com 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
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.
this page to your friends