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Jewish Journal

The Sounds of Silence on Iran

by Mona Eltahawy

July 2, 2009 | 4:18 am

Do you hear the silence from the Arab world over events in Iran?

Let’s start with Arab leaders, who are experts at vote-rigging — if they hold elections at all. What could they possibly say about the Iranian election, or the allegations of vote fraud, without sounding hypocritical? Nor would they rush to congratulate longtime nemesis Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the leader of a regional rival with nuclear ambitions.

The Arabs are quiet, but their silence is surely tempered with discomfort. The demographics of most Arab nations mirror those of Iran: The majority of Arabs are young. It’s likely that many young Arabs watching thousands of Iranians demanding to be heard, Arabs who are suffocating under dictators of their own, thought, “That’s me.”

For some, the silence is the sound of despair, for in Iran we are seeing the implosion of the politics of cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Let’s look at the Arab world’s legacy: A succession of Arab leaders were known simply for standing up to America and Israel. It did not matter what they did to their own people — the human rights violations, the mass graves, the stifling of the media and most forms of expression. Standing up to the United States and Israel was enough.

In that sense, Ahmadinejad is a familiar figure. And Saddam Hussein is gone. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi has gone from U.S. foe to friend. The region is full of U.S.-supported dictators, from President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Standing up to America and Israel fell to non-state entities such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and their money trail leads to Iran. Ahmadinejad is simply the latest leader whom Arabs have lionized and forgiven for cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Little did the repressions visited upon Iranians matter, even though the hardships they endured were often mirrored in Arab cities cheering on Ahmadinejad. Iran supported the Palestinians, and Ahmadinejad regularly railed at the United States and threatened Israel.

But with thousands in Ahmadinejad’s own country filling the streets, effectively saying that it’s not enough to simply stand up to America and Israel, what now for those Arabs who lionize Ahmadinejad? Especially now that George W. Bush is gone? Where is the sympathy or support for the plight of the Iranians?

Silence.

That silence is the sound of hearts breaking over the dream of political Islam. When the 1979 revolution swept away the U.S.-backed Shah and his injustices, Iran held out the tantalizing mirage of rule by Islam, even for countries that were not majority Shiite. Thirty years later, Iranians are protesting not a secular, U.S.-backed dictator but a system run by clerics who claim to uphold democracy as long as its candidates are given the regime’s stamp of approval.

What’s happening in Iran is not about the United States or Israel. It’s not about Ahmadinejad or Mir Hossein Mousavi. It’s not even about the poor or the rich in Iran. The demonstrations are about people who feel their will and voice have been disregarded. In Egypt, it’s our secular dictator, in power for almost 28 years, who disregards our will. In Iran, it’s a clerical regime in power for 30 years, hiding behind God.

Dictatorship by clerics is not more acceptable because its torture and beatings are committed in the name of God.

This must be especially difficult for political Islamic organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which congratulated Ahmadinejad on his “victory” and yet whose generational disagreements and divisions mirror those in Iran: A young generation of Muslim brothers and sisters has over the past few years challenged the Brotherhood’s aging leadership on issues such as prohibiting female and Christian leaders.

That aging leadership gave the young Muslims the very undemocratic choice of shutting up or leaving.

How do we know? The same way we’ve known about much of Iran’s strife — through blogs and social networking Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter. These days, most of the noise in the Arab world is online.

Online, you will hear bloggers connecting repression in Iran and Arab countries. Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas, known for exposing police brutality on YouTube, was quick to send Twitter alerts that Iran’s clerics, like the Mubarak regime, used plainclothes thugs to terrorize demonstrators. Online, you will hear young Arabs express envy over the huge Iranian demonstrations in the face of government crackdowns. Online, Arabs will expose U.S. hypocrisy and ask what happened to U.S. support for peaceful demonstrators when they were beaten and dragged off Cairo streets in 2005 and 2006.

Online, Arabs argue over the politics of cutting off our nose to spite our face, challenging each other to support Iranian democrats despite Ahmadinejad’s taunts at America and     Israel.

Tired of the Arab world’s embarrassing silence over Iran? Go online. Iranian blogs are older and more established than many in the Arab world, but the Web is giving voice to the voiceless and shattering the silence.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.

Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born commentator based in New York, writes and lectures on Arab and Muslim issues. She received the European Commission’s 2009 Samir Kassir Prize for Freedom of the Press for opinion writing.

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