Talk about a byline and a dateline that raised some eyebrows! The online folks at New York Magazine asked the obvious question in this headline: “Why Is Times Executive Editor Bill Keller in Iran?”
Sitting in New Delhi, I really appreciated Bill Keller’s analysis piece called “Memo From Tehran — Reverberations as Door Slams on Hope of Change,” primarily because I read it as an expression of the grief that many mainstream journalists are feeling right now. I mean, how could the “moderate” Muslims lose? The editor of the Times is surely speaking for his colleagues and their contacts in elite Islamic studies departments everywhere when he writes:
It is impossible to know for sure how much the ostensible re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represents the preference of an essentially conservative Iranian public and how much, as opposition voters passionately believe, it is the imposed verdict of a fundamentally authoritarian regime.
But for those who dreamed of a gentler Iran, Saturday was a day of smoldering anger, crushed hopes and punctured illusions, from the streets of Tehran to the policy centers of Western capitals.
As I have been saying for several years, the mainstream press has been torn between two “big ideas” when it comes to Islam. The first is this: “Islam is a religion of peace.” The second is: “There is no one Islam.” The problem, of course, is that these two messages clash. Clearly, many Muslims do want to reach some form of peace with core values in the modern world (think article 18 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) . However, there is no one Islam. Many Muslims do not want, for example, to allow people to convert to other faiths. Many do not want free speech, if that means blasphemy. There may even be Muslims who disagree with President Barack Obama.
Clearly, people in Iran are divided. Clearly, no matter how the votes were counted, there is a serious division between the urban elites — the kinds of people who are willing to talk to reporters — and people who live out in what you might call the flyover zones of rural Iran. When you read Keller, you have to feel his pain as he wrestles with these multiple forms of Islam. How could the “moderates” lose? How could our sources have been wrong?
Read between the lines, as Keller describes what is at stake:
Far off, President Obama and other Western leaders who had seen a better relationship with Iran as potentially helpful in resolving the problems of Afghanistan, Iraq and nuclear proliferation faced the prospect of doing business with a man who, in addition to being a Holocaust-denying hard-liner, now stands suspected in a sham election.
There were some important constituencies that took satisfaction from the outcome. Domestically, Mr. Ahmadinejad appealed to the fears of the more pious and poor who had found change unsettling. This included those alarmed by the days of political street carnival preceding the election and those (not just men) put off by Mr. Moussavi’s attention to the traditional, second-class role of women in this paternalistic quasi-theocracy.
Honestly, try to feel this main’s pain:
Among downcast Iranian journalists and academics, the chatter focused on why the interlocking leadership of clerics, military officers and politicians, without whose acquiescence little of importance happens, decided to stick with Mr. Ahmadinejad. Did they panic at the unexpected passion for change that arose in the closing weeks of the Moussavi campaign? Did Mr. Moussavi go too far in his promises of women’s rights, civil freedom and a more conciliatory approach to the West? Or was the surge an illusion after all, the product of wishful thinking?
So the “pious and poor” united — in ballots and in corruption — to hang on to their “paternalistic quasi-theocracy.”
Please understand: My feelings are very similar to those of Keller, as I watch the drama unfolding in Tehran. Yet one also has to ask whether Tehran equals Iran. Journalist have to ask, at some point, if urban university faculty members are the best sources, when it comes to determining what is happening in modern Islam. After all, there is no one Islam. The question is this: Which Islam is growing? Which is in decline? Who represents the future of this complex faith, in Iran and elsewhere?
Keller is not alone, in this yearning for the victory of an Islam that will compromise with modernity and the West. Here is how the Los Angeles Times described the crowd at one of the protest rallies:
The massive, diverse gathering refuted the charge by Ahmadinejad supporters and some Western analysts that Mousavi’s support was drawn from the wealthy and educated in northern Tehran.
In the crowd, women in flowing black chadors mingled with factory owners. College students wearing headbands and ribbons of green, the color of the Mousavi campaign, walked side by side next to government employees with salt-and-pepper hair. Bazaar laborers in black T-shirts and motorcycle deliverymen with grime on their fingers waved their hands in the air alongside elegantly coiffed women sporting designer sunglasses.
As stated often here at GetReligion, we need to know more about a crucial element of this story. We need to know more about the religious and cultural issues at the heart of this divide in Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world (think Pakistan or Northern Virginia).
It’s good to continue mentioning women’s rights. But there are other issues at stake, linked to free speech, freedom of association and freedom of conscience. Tell us more about what the “moderates” believe. Tell us more about their doctrinal differences with the hardliners. Take the religious issues seriously.
Right now, ournalists need to think, as well as grieve.