Jul 25 2009

Death to the Dictator – Perhaps Necessary, But Do You Need to Say It?

I am firmly in solidarity with Iranians and others around the world protesting the regime’s failure to provide democracy and basic human rights. Heck, if you live in a democracy, there is no other moral position to take. Human rights and the longing for genuine freedom are universal. I am pleased to see that the protests in Vancouver and other cities around the world are still very much alive.

But for some months now, reports of protests inside and outside Iran have consistently shown two types of messages amongst demonstrators. The first type is familiar and inspiring, but the second gives me the chills. I see Iranian protesters potentially falling into the trap that Canadian Tamil protesters recently found themselves in, of believing that the worthiness of their cause permits the use of bloody rhetoric.

From a CTV News story today, here’s what I’m talking about in terms of the two types of messages with very distinct implications:

* “We are here to show our solidarity with the people of Iran and to urge the Iranian government to respect human rights” – Tom van den Brand, a spokesman for Amnesty International in Amsterdam.

* “Death to the Islamic regime!” – group of anonymous protesters.

Some of my friends will probably say I’m just being squishy, or that unity of the protest movement is too important to quibble about semantics. But I feel the words you choose to protest with are not a minor, inconsequential thing. When a state still holds a monopoly on violence and all you have is your voice, your message defines you. How the democratic revolution finally comes to Iran will depend in part on the words the movement chooses to engage its supporters.

For decades, we’ve heard “Death to America”, “Death to Israel”, “Death to…” whatever, from mass gatherings of furious Iranians. (I can’t recall a mob chanting “Death to Canada”. When that happens, I suppose that means we’ve hit the big leagues). It’s not just in Iran, but the Islamic Republic is practically synonymous with massive rallies incorporating these frightening modern versions of the Two Minutes Hate.

I’ve attended and observed plenty of protests in Canada. Typical slogans at protests include “This is what democracy sounds like!”, “Justice for the (INSERT-NAME-OF-PERSECUTED-GROUP)”, “Freedom for the (INSERT-NAME-OF-PERSECUTED-GROUP)!”, or “Hell no, we won’t go!”. Chanting “death” to anything is pretty much beyond the pale, because we recognize the obvious danger that such words are incitement to violence. That’s not only illegal, but it’s also a practice, if it were to become mainstream, that could lead to violent acts. The proof of this ranges from violent hate crimes by racist thugs to acts of genocide, like in Rwanda. And let’s face it: there are no problems in Canada that would require demonstrators to commit acts of violence against fellow citizens or the state to get what they want. We’re lucky that way.

So here’s a problem. I’m not convinced that the Iranian regime will fall to a democratic movement without bloodshed, as has happened most recently in parts of Eastern Europe. The ruling thugs have shown a clear willingness to deploy axe-and-gun-wielding militias against their own people. And they have to be mindful that during and after the last big Iranian revolution, tens of thousands of the ruling classes were tortured or killed. With that kind of precedent, even if the regime’s leaders and apparatchiks were of a mind to allow a transition to democracy, simple survival instinct will have them maintain the status quo at any cost.

So if there is going to be a democratic revolution in Iran, people may have to die. When the protesters’ chant, “Death to the Islamic regime”, they know that a “regime” doesn’t really die – the people who run the regime do. Such chants may be very pragmatic preparation to steel Iranians’ minds for coming violence.

I understand that decades of chanting “death” to anything is ingrained in the culture of political protest in Iran or other countries in a way that we just don’t get here. But these words don’t just offend “decadent” Western sensibilities: I suspect that they have already sapped a significant amount of goodwill towards the Iranian protesters.

It’s not enough for the protesters to want democracy. The words they use to motivate their own democratic revolutionaries will help determine the kind of society that comes after the regime is swept away. There needs to be a culture of basic respect for human life, to the obvious minimum standard that you don’t shout “death” to anything. Let the Iranian regime issue the death threats. This movement needs to be better than that.

Iranians chanting “Death to the Dictator”

Iranian rally shouting “Death to America”

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2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Death to the Dictator – Perhaps Necessary, But Do You Need to Say It?”

  1. Prairie Topiaryon 25 Jul 2009 at 6:37 pm

    This post is really nicely put, Jon.

    If the goal of any protest is to build greater awareness of and support for a particular cause or grievance, calling for death to whomever is hardly the best way to do it.

    Your point that whatever message is used by protestors may live on in the spirit of any regime successors is a good one, too. Regime topplers need to anchor themselves to basic democratic principles from the start and build democratic institutions quickly after they take power if they want to avoid lapsing into the thuggish habits of those they replaced (with Iran’s own revolution ironically a case study). Calling for death hardly seems like the starting point for any sort of good government.

    I’d bet that the ones focusing on “death” are very much in the minority, but even a small number of people can taint a larger movement enough for that movement’s message to be lost or deliberately dismissed. And, as another person who stands in solidarity with Iranian citizens and all those on the side of human rights and democratic freedoms, I think that such a thing happening here would be a tragedy in itself.

  2. jnarveyon 25 Jul 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Thanks, Richard. I agree that the ones focusing on “death” are probably in the minority.

    I have high hopes for the long term prospects of this protest movement. The regime won’t fall tomorrow, or even next week. But 2010, or even some time this year? Perhaps. Its days are numbered.

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