18 September 2009

Quds Day: Partisanship in Iran and elsewhere

Today is a public holiday of sorts in Iran and has been since the Islamic Revolution. "Quds Day" is an occasion for Iranians to show solidarity with the people of Palestine and enmity toward Israel, "Quds" referring to al-Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem. We used to have a similar day in this country; "Captive Nations Day" was an occasion for Americans to show solidarity with countries suffering under Communist regimes, especially those controlled by the USSR. It never inspired the type of demonstrations one sees in Iran, and to my knowledge was definitely never appropriated by dissidents an an occasion to defy their own government. But in Iran today the opposition, remaining convinced that President Ahmadinejad stole the recent election with the connivance of Ayatollah Khamenei, hit the streets in defiance of a ban on non-official demonstrations imposed by Khamenei. The media reports a number of clashes, including attempts by counter-counter demonstrators to attack opposition leaders.

The opposition's attitude toward the actual holiday is unclear. MSNBC reports that some demonstrators expressed a "who cares?" attitude toward the rest of the Middle East while emphasizing the need to change things at home. At the same time, Quds Day may have been chosen as a way of demonstrating that the opposition doesn't fall short in its opposition to Zionism, colonialism, etc. This is an important detail, since the government will certainly insist on solidarity against the Zionist enemy (and the U.S.) as a justification for further repression at home. Ahmadinejad's supporters are likely to argue (if they haven't already) that any opposition to their man, whose maximum hostility to Zionism was again demonstrated today with another outburst of Holocaust revisionism, must mean a compromise of Iran's stance against Israel and the U.S.

As far as I know, the Iranian opposition has no less hatred of Zionism or resentment of its occupation of Muslim land than the government. But it seems to be a characteristic of partisanship around the world to raise the stakes of any disagreement. The political conflict inside Iran may have nothing to do with foreign affairs, but Ahmadinejad's party will act as if it does, because then they can make the opposition look like collaborators with the enemy. Anti-communism served a similar purpose in the U.S. for many years, and anti-Islamism may serve the same purpose today. Partisanship seems to compel politicians to take stands on all issues, or turn all issues into areas of partisan conflict, even if the original issue of conflict was limited in scope. In other words, partisanship aspires to an artificial comprehensiveness that spreads conflict when none was necessarily necessary. Worse still, in one-party states or countries in danger of becoming such, the government party ascribes an all-comprehensive and implicitly all-subversive opposition to dissidents, so that dissidents become "enemies" of the people or the state. Partisanship distorts the issues either way you look at it. In an ideal system of representative government, politicians will take principled stands on any given issue without being forced by their stand to take an automatic position on any other position unless the original principle itself requires them to do so; nor would they be assumed to take an automatic stand on any other issue on the basis of one vote. The corrosive consequences of partisanship on deliberative government should be apparent to everyone by now, whether partisans beat each other up in the streets or simply shout at one another. Americans who look with disdain on Iran should take more seriously the violence partisanship is doing to their own ability to govern themselves.

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