Our fantastic political analyses spring from idealistic liberal hopes and are symptomatic of the larger problem we have in understanding political Islam. That this crisis has been presented as one between the "Iranian people" and its government is among the greatest errors of the media coverage this week. The competing crowds of millions for and against Ahmadinejad should have been enough to indicate that the conflict was as much a social issue as it was a political one. But phrases such as "a lot of Iranians" or "Mousavi's broad constituency" make weaker soundbites than "the Iranian people." So, from Sarkozy to Sky News, the only "Iranian people" that seemingly exist this week are those wearing green.
But bias is not my gripe; the good Muslim v bad Muslim game is an old one. I care about misrepresentation. By ignoring the millions of Ahmadinejad supporters (even after counting for mass fraud) journalists and pundits have mistaken Iranian Islamists as communist bureaucrats on a payroll that might easily fold when forced to attack other Iranians. Instead, we have seen Basiji volunteers jump at the opportunity to smash their batons across the faces of men, women, and anyone else in their way.
Iranian Islamists' allegiances do not lie with saffron rice and Hafez's poems. They love God, then country, grind through life as factory workers and farmhands in addition to getting PhDs in engineering and medicine. Iranians loyal to their Islamic project recite prayers for their president, relish the martyrdom of Hussein, and wait for the return of their messiah. So did anyone really think that his terrestrial representative would allow more than a week of bank burnings and highway closures? Are we really shocked that the military would close rank, dissidents would be arrested, and political threats be neutralised as 250,000 US troops sit on the country's borders and Cheney's $400m support for regime subversion gets stamped by Obama?
Instead of trying to understand the complexity of Iranian Islamism and its fusion into the international political system, intellectuals in the west have dismissed its architects and supporters as brainwashed fanatics controlled by wicked priests. We have lived vicariously through its dissidents and exiles. We have cherished stories such as Reading Lolita in Tehran and recommended films such as Not Without My Daughter and Persepolis to our closest family and friends. It was only a matter of time, we so desperately believed.What is happening in Iran is fascinating, exciting, heartwarming, because it shows the willingness of people to stand up for what they want. But just because this set of people put a higher priority on things we might feel are most desirable does not mean that there is not another set of people that have a different set of priorities. A set of priorities best articulated by Ahmedinejad. In the US, the only things we know about Ahmedinejad are that he thinks Iran has rights to nuclear power and that he, at the very least, minimizes the holocaust. In Iran, he is probably known and liked, or disliked, for much more. A system is confronting the dissatisfaction of a portion of the populace. In times of such confrontation nations develop if the ruling establishment is willing to accept compromises to satisfy, or at least mollify, the disaffected elements of the society, or the crisis deepens further. The rulers of Iran are not immature in their understanding of power so I would be surprised if they went with the latter option.