As Iranians took to the streets to protest a fraudulent election last
month, braving tear gas, batons and bullets, pressure mounted on
President Obama to take a tougher stand against the Islamic Republic's
repression of peaceful dissent. Some said the president's statements
were too soft. Others argued that Obama should refrain from picking
sides, lest he present a pretext for hard-liners to label the
protesters American stooges.
People began to argue: What should Obama do? I'd like them to ask another question: What should ordinary Americans do?
Today, America's Independence Day, it's important to recognize the
Iranian struggle for what it is: a grass-roots, vital movement for
greater liberty enriched by more than a century of struggle against
foreign powers, autocratic kings and repressive theocrats. Iran's
rulers would have the world believe that the protesters are a minority
inspired by foreigners, but this denies a fundamental piece of Iranian
For more than 100 years, beginning with an extraordinarily
progressive constitution written in 1906, Iranians have been struggling
to achieve azadi, the Persian word for freedom. In recent weeks
peaceful protesters have been detained, beaten and killed, yet Iran's
constitution purports to protect freedom of assembly, of the press and
of belief. Article 23: "The investigation of individuals' beliefs is
forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for
holding a certain belief."
Of course, the constitution offers an array of anti-liberty
loopholes, such as freedom of the press "except when it is detrimental
to the fundamental principles of Islam." Article 27 notes: "Public
gatherings and marches may be freely held" provided "they are not
detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam."
Iranian history is marked by a fitful struggle for freedom,
individual liberties and political rights. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,
no Jeffersonian democrat, approved a constitution specifying these
freedoms because Iran's legacy could not simply be discarded -- even if
it was wrapped in a blanket of authoritarian loopholes.
The Iranians who revolted in 1979 were seeking justice and freedom.
That uprising of students, clerics, merchants, intellectuals,
nationalists and Islamists is often referred to as the "Islamic
Revolution." It was the culmination of a long struggle to oppose the
arbitrary rule of kings, though none expected the result -- an Islamic
Republic marked by the arbitrary rule of clerical elites.
In recent weeks, courageous Iranians have been writing, tweeting,
text-messaging and telephoning the outside world with an almost
universal message: Please bear witness, please stand with us. One
Iranian demonstrator e-mailed me: "Where are the American actors, the
writers, the university professors, the intellectuals?" I would add to
this patriot's list: Where are the labor unions, teachers unions,
science academies, university students and ordinary Americans from all
walks of life who took to U.S. streets last year to back an unlikely
presidential candidate whose motto of hope and change is mirrored by
Iranians half a world away? The key difference between them? Iranians
are facing guns and violence as they wage their struggle for a
While Americans should be at the fore, standing up for democracy,
it's not just here that this question should stir a response. Civil
society around the globe has an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of
justifiable fervor displayed, for example, when people in other nations
opposed the war in Iraq during the Bush years. Supporters of democracy
worldwide should be standing with the Iranian people as they struggle
for justice and freedom. The simple message of one Iranian demonstrator
on Twitter last month still brings a chill: "I have one vote. I gave it
to Mousavi. I have one life. I will give it to freedom."
We may split on what Obama should say or do, fearing the effects for
the protesters or our nation, but that should not stop Americans from
demonstrating solidarity. Last month I attended a candlelight vigil to
honor those who died fighting for freedom. The gathering was somber yet
hopeful, but it was still too narrowly Iranian. We need more Americans
-- African Americans, Asian Americans, conservative Americans, liberal
Americans, red-state Americans, blue-state Americans. If there is one
issue that politically polarized America ought to be able to rally
around, it is the gallant struggle of Iranians.
Before the voting, Mir Hossein Mousavi was, to many, an "anybody but
Ahmadinejad" candidate. Now, he is a symbol of hope but also a man who
is being driven by the crowds as much as he is driving them. "This is
not about Mousavi," he said last month. "This is about you."
Barack Obama rode a similar wave, telling his supporters, "This is about you and what you can do to change America."
Iranians are pushing to change Iran and to taste freedom. It is an
authentic struggle shaped by Iran's history. There is only one right
side, and that is with the Iranian people.
At a reception in Washington last month, a technology executive
approached me and pointed to his green tie. He said: "This is for the
Iranian people." As the regime in Tehran tightens its grip, I hope to
see more support from ordinary Americans, and from civil society around
the globe, bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity and displaying the
common humanity, decency and fairness that bind us all.