Arab revolutions transcend Iran’s

As unrest spreads from one Arab country to the next, protest leaders look beyond shortcomings of the Islamic Revolution.

Jordan protest boy
A Jordanian protester holds a photo of late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser during anti-Mubarak rally [Reuters]

Just a short four weeks ago, Iran’s Green Movement appeared to be the most vibrant political struggle in the Middle East.

That is the case no more. With the uprising in Tunisia that overthrew long-time dictator Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, and with its spread to the streets of Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen and most spectacularly Egypt, the Arab world is on the march, demanding democracy, human rights and jobs.

Yet, for all the hope and enthusiasm on the ground, the worry, particularly in Washington and other Western capitals, is that a dark side to this wave of popular outpouring lurks in the possible hijacking of the movement by Islamic fundamentalism. Will the Arab experience not repeat what happened in Iran, when the overthrow of the Shah led to the country’s takeover by Ayatollahs, the imposition of sharia, and the loss of hard-gained rights for women?

That certainly has been the line Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has taken until now – and his excuse for three decades of martial law. His warning that it was either him – or the Muslim Brotherhood – was designed to instill fear both at home and abroad. And it is a message that has resonated well with Western concerns, particularly in this age of al-Qaeda extremism and Islamic terrorism.

The “either us or them” argument, however, had an earlier incarnation in a mantra often used by Iran’s Shah. In his day, it was not Islamism but communism that struck fear in the Western heart, and that is what he suggested would replace him were he to fall. Ensuring against a Red Iran was the impetus behind the CIA coup that placed him on the throne in 1953 – and guaranteed him US support until the bitter end. As a result, the real story of the Iranian revolution – that it was a highly organised, mosque-based movement that over the course of several years had built up the momentum at last to topple the Shah – was ignored until too late.

Arab uprisings of 2011

Looking at the movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan as what they really are – rather than as what they are feared to be – reveals broad-based popular uprisings that do not bear the Islamist organisational or ideational imprint. The Egyptians in the streets, much like presumptive coalition leader, Mohamed ElBaradei and women’s rights activist Nawal El Saadawi, all state categorically that what is happening in Cairo, Suez and Alexandria has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. The demonstrations were started by bloggers, social media activists, Al Jazeera watchers – not by the Brotherhood – which joined the demonstrations three days later. There are no Islamist banners being held up in the streets, no Islamist leaders jumping on soap boxes calling the faithful to jihad.

In Iran in 1979, there were as many banners bearing Islamic slogans as there were banners calling for the Shah to go. The drumbeat of the demonstrations marked Shia holidays, such as Ashura and Tasua, and followed the 40-day Shia mourning ritual for ‘martyrs’ killed by the Shah’s army. The voices of Ayatollah Khomeini and other clerics led the demonstrations through exhortations at Friday prayers. In many demonstrations, the women and the men marched separately – the women shrouded in black, head-to-toe chadors. From the outset, for anyone willing to read it, the writing was on the wall: Iran’s revolution was Islamic.

The Arab demonstrations look nothing like the ones in Iran at that time. In Tunis, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia with no hint that Islamist groups – let alone al-Qaeda imports – had contributed to his ouster. And in Cairo and Amman, the women and men, boys and girls are marching side-by-side, calling for the right to vote, empowerment and human rights.

For anyone willing to read the message, the writing is on the wall – the Arabs are marching because they wish for transparency, employment and the right to be heard.

These are the voices of people who no longer fear the slogans that, if it’s not dictatorship, its Islamic extremism. They, much more than any Western observer, are aware that Islamic extremism, sharia and religious governance are as stifling as any other form of authoritarianism. The demonstrators have only to look east and see the failure of the Green Movement in post-Revolution Iran to remind themselves of what they do not want. Washington too needs to move on and recognise that the Arabs are marching to escape once and for all any such heavy-handedness. Theirs are movements that can withstand Islamism, for what they truly seek is dignity, work and freedom.

Dr Roxane Farmanfarmaian is an affiliated lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University. She is also a Visiting Scholar at the Middle East Center of the University of Utah. She lived in Iran during the Revolution and Hostage Crisis.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.