Red Iran, blue Iran

mahmoud-ahmadinejad-pointingTalk 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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • dalea

    Andrew Sullivan is providing very fine coverage using new media:

    The reports he has are from people in Iran who are Twittering and putting up UTubes. The correspondents are saying that most of those involved are working or lowermiddleclass, not just college students and intellectuals.

  • Jerry

    This is the first event where I’ve been riveted to twitter seeing reports way before they reached the media and trying to understand what was going on from a flood of facts, rumors, agitprop, fights between hackers trying to take down Iranian government web sites and hackers trying to keep the door open to Iran as the government was trying to shut them down. Some even said “The revolution will be tweeted” (for those that remember “the revolution will be televised”).

    From a political perspective, I think had some sage words I also don’t think red/blue is helpful in this case because there’s a lot of economic and other factors involved. So to cast it in red/blue terms seems to me a little like hammering the proverbial round peg into the square hole.

    From a religious perspective, I found the Times analysis an interesting read because it speaks to the system called vilayat-e-faqih or supreme leader system which puts clerics basically in charge of Iran. I know some don’t think it should be called a theocracy, but I think it is albeit with an Islamic flavor.

  • tmatt


    So you are disagreeing with me because I basically affirmed Keller, but asked the MSM to dig deeper to hit the religious views on what is being portrayed as the left?

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  • Jerry

    I’m not disagreeing with your call to dig deeper but I do think we should avoid the “right/left” “red/blue” frame-of-reference US model. For example, I have no idea how many protesting are theological conservatives that believe that a change is needed for economic reasons. Another example: how would you classify Grand Ayatullah Husayn (Hossein) ‘Ali Montazeri theologically based on his statement: that twitter just tossed into my lap?

  • Kevin

    I think it’s naive to assume that religion itself isn’t itself inherently political or used as a political tool. In struggles over power, politics always comes first with religion as either a convenient sidenote or a justification.

    Regardless of whether moderates/liberals share the same view of Islam as the conservatives, the events in Iran happening now are basically about power or lack there of.

    Of the few chants the Mousavi demonstrators are allowed to use without directly bringing the full wrath of the so-called theocracy down on their heads, “God is Great” gets the most airtime. Yet, this chant in this context is more metaphorical than some would allow. So while we are hearing “Allah o-Akbar” literally, we should be understanding that in this context it is really a metaphor with “Down with Tyranny.” Why? Because religion in this context obscures true politics, as it does in every corner of the globe.

  • David

    Don’t you see that religion is a much more fundamental issue than politics?

    Granted, I doubt that the protesters are predominantly motivated by religion, but the clerics sure are. And red/blue does apply, since Ahmadinejad’s greatest strength is in rural areas and among the poor, whereas Mousavi is strongest in urban areas and among the educated and young, though, as in America, this is a generalization. …

    I would like to know what’s going on in Isfahan and Shiraz, rather than just Tehran.

  • Paul of Alexandria

    Perhaps more importantly, the media neglects to mention that no election in Iran is truly free: the mullah’s in the Supreme Council run the country, and no presidental candidate – neither Mousavi nor Ahmadinejad – run for office without their approval.

  • Greg

    “There may even be Muslims who disagree with President Barack Obama.”

    C’mon Terry. No one disagrees with Barack Obama. ;-)

    Great post. Now get some sleep.

  • Jerry

    For David who asked what is going on in Isfahan, via twitter #iranelection. Shiraz? Google led me to

  • Jerry

    This topic is getting a bit old, but I think it’s worthwhile noting this article about Moussavi which illustrates how badly off the mark it is to cast Iran in red/blue terms:

  • David

    Every country that isn’t completely uniform in its view can be cast in red/blue terms, Jerry.

  • Dave

    David, to me “red/blue” implies not just heterogeneity in viewpoints but some kind of impasse in which two sides are largely not listening to one another and it’s become a contest as to which will prevail more than how they will live together. I think it’s at least appropriately applied to Iran and Pakistan at the present moment as it is to the US.

  • tmatt

    As I said on the Pakistan thread:

    All I mean when I use this term is a divide between urban elites and the rest of the country. I am implying — as have other writers — that the “blues” are more secular or somehow, in Keller’s words, less “pious.”

  • Harris

    I think this might be better compared to the battle between Dobson and the NAE on the environment: both have conservative bona fides, but are divided by generation and differing assessments of public image. In this, the contrast is useful for highlighting the dangers of generational divides (n.b. 70% of Iran is under 30): hard line religion can turn off the young — we have seen plenty of this in the US, both directly in the rise of young atheists, as well as in the alienation of young to religion. In North America, there is a real risk that the Christian Right will lose its political clout (Sen. Ensign certainly does not help) — polling data suggests some erosion. In an Iranian context, the real danger is the delegitmization of the Islamic leadership.

    Also, this analysis presumes that the election results are in some sense adequate. Reports today have suggested that there may be substantive unrest in the so-called “blue zones”. The protests also seem to reach deeper into the leadership in Tehran — Andrew Apostolu from Freedom House has several useful reports of the situation

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  • Tim Ricchuiti

    I think this comment may illustrate where Jerry is coming from:

    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.

    What, exactly, is it that makes that fact so clear? Because of the likely election fraud (the unlikely uniformity of Ahmadinejad winning every region with between 60 and 70% of the vote), there’s no voting data to show that these people are divided. So where is such an assertion coming from?