Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Muslim Response to the Recent Presidential Election in Iran

By Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey

As more than 32 million people cast their votes in Iran's 10th presidential election on Friday, June 12, 2009, I, like many if my brothers and sisters in the U.S. Muslim community, experienced conflicting emotions when the results of the election were announced the following day.

On one hand, I felt deep satisfaction that a relatively open and free election, with clearly distinct electoral choices, actually took place – albeit with much vigorous debate – in a majority-Muslim nation. On the other hand, however, I felt deep concern that the election results in Iran might lead to more civil strife and political polarization in a nation that faces extraordinary international scrutiny and criticism – not to mention the threat of military attack from either, or both, the United States and/or Israel.

The initial report of a landslide victory (62% of the popular vote) by the current Iranian President and his ruling party was not a huge surprise to many of us. President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, after all, commands a huge (but not universal) base of political support in Iran, although his victory over primary challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, has clearly now become tainted by charges of massive electoral fraud and other voting irregularities.

Mousavi's challenge was broadly considered to be based on a demand for broad social reform in Iran, more openness in the overall society, and a repudiation of the hard-line theocratic rule of the current Iranian religious leadership.

The election results are now in the fifth day of vigorous and violent protests, described as the most dramatic political uprising in Iran since the 1979 revolution, with Iranians in the hundreds of thousands defying a ban on rallies and a crackdown on media coverage.

Although I am fully aware that Iran is a sovereign nation, and that the trajectory of social change in that nation must be determined by the people of Iran themselves, I offer three observations with the hope that they may be helpful for Muslims, the world-at large watching what is happening in Iran, and perhaps even the leadership of Iran as well.

Observation One: Now is the time for a full and impartial review of the election itself. I commend the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for his commitment to respond to the election fraud charges leveled by Musavi and his supporters. There may be evidence that some of these allegations are true, even if the magnitude of the fraud/irregularities might not be sufficient to change the outcome of the vote. But it is also true that any democratic process must also have safeguards to insure the integrity of popular participation. The election review should be swift and thorough, and any persons found guilty of fraud or vote manipulation, on behalf of any candidate or party, must be held fully accountable for the crime.

But I inject a cautionary note here to the American critics and detractors of the Iranian leadership: Most elections in the world, in fact, are tainted by allegations of fraud and voting irregularities. We have only to look at the American presidential elections of 1996 and 2004 realize the ubiquity of democratic imperfection, if not fraud. Any ongoing dispute of President Ahmedinejad’s victory must not be a pretext for directing more threats and hostility toward Iran.

Observation Two: Popular democratic structures and personal freedoms must be safeguarded. The role of independent journalism and free access to the global internet cannot, and must not, be infringed upon – particularly in a time of great volatility and significant desire for change. One of the great strengths of the early Islamic Ummah was the confidence that the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) demonstrated in his recognition of the rights of non-Muslims in the plural society of Medina. The Iranian government must recognize Iranian youth, Sunni Muslims, members of the Baha’I’ community, journalists, secular activists, and many others, are Iranian, too. There is no place in a democracy for second-class citizenship. Any and all Iranians must be allowed to freely express their (non-violent) political sentiments, and their political associations, without the fear of authoritarian crack-downs and the violation of their civil rights.

Observation Three: President Ahmedinejad should not be afraid of constructive change that embraces democratic freedoms within the context of a majority Shi’a Muslim society. The real question that I believe is in front of the people of Iran is not that of Islam vs. the secular "West", but the question of what kind of Islam is best for the people of Iran in the current historical moment. Our faith can certainly be one that rejects modernity and fears the ideas of the outside world, but it can also be a faith that embraces progress, peace, and especially the notion that women can be – and in fact are – a vital constituency in shaping a new, and better, society.

The results of the Iranian election, and it's unfortunate aftermath, will continue to reverberate in both Iran and the entire Muslim world. We must defend the right of self-determination of the people of Iran as we uphold their right to be free from outside aggression and any hostile ambitions of foreign powers.

And the best way to do this, in my opinion, is to encourage and support the development of internal democracy and the advancement of the social changes that will make the Iranian nation – indeed, an Islamic nation – stronger and better.

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