Though Egyptian state TV has announced Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, it is unclear what the mass revolt rocking Egypt has in store for that ancient nation’s future. But what is clear is that the momentous events in Cairo--and, indeed, the massive tsunami of people-power engulfing the entire Mideast--have put some quarters of the American left in a most awkward position. The regional democratic uprising currently underway has revealed the left’s intellectual inconsistency and hypocrisy regarding America’s role in the Muslim world.
Consider, for example, Just Foreign Policy, a fairly influential progressive pressure group ostensibly devoted to bringing U.S. foreign policy in line with “the values of a broad majority of Americans.” Since its founding, Just Foreign Policy has advanced the gamut of isolationist causes, including numerous campaigns advocating immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan (and Japan!) and a general drawdown in the War on Terror.
But faced with the sight of the Egyptians’ vibrant act of protest, the group felt compelled to all but demand American military intervention, calling on the president to “act to stop the violence.” Yet, at the height of the summer 2009 uprising in Iran, the same organization praised President Obama’s shamefully muted response in “neither endorsing the election result nor the opposition claim of fraud.” When it came to the clerical regime’s brutal crackdown, speaking out--let alone acting--in support of Iranian democrats was out of line.
Or take former Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s International Action Center, which released a statement saluting “the heroes of Tahrir Square.” The Center, however, remained curiously silent on the Green Movement, and warned President Obama to “refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Iran.” Praising the Egyptian protestors seeking a better future is commendable. But did the Iranian heroes and heroines of Azadi Square not also deserve similar expressions of solidarity from American leaders and civil society? Apparently not.
The worst example of such hypocrisy came from the shrill, anti-war group Code Pink. As we speak, the organization is raising funds to provide Egyptian protestors with supplies. If only the Code Pink ladies had been this willing to assist Iranians seeking to have their votes count, as well. Alas, such an “intrusion” in Iranian politics might have disqualified Code Pink leaders from receiving a return invitation to Iran courtesy of the tyrants of Tehran, who had hosted the group's founders as "citizen diplomats" in late 2008.
What explains the cognitive dissonance among many activists of the left? How can self-proclaimed “progressives” support one set of Muslim reformers, while so coldly abandoning another?
The contradiction is a symptom of a deeper philosophical quagmire born of a sense of guilt felt by some Westerners for past sins, both real and imagined, committed against the non-Western “other.” Western guilt yields a state of perpetual self-loathing, which in turn leads its victims to celebrate any anti-Western cause as morally worthy. Thus, when Egyptians--rightly--rebel against a pro-American autocracy, their cause is automatically perceived as just. However, if Iranians rise up in pursuit of similar goals against a far worse, anti-American and totalitarian regime--one that murders its own citizens in the name of God--Americans are asked to stay silent. After all, they have “oppressed” Iran in the past.
This kind of moral schizophrenia not only betrays classical liberal principles, but also undermines America’s traditional, revolutionary role as a beacon of hope for those striving for freedom. The policy of choosing one country’s dissidents over another’s diminishes America’s status as a trustworthy and dependable friend of Muslim democrats at a time when they need her most.
But as events unfolding in places like Tunisia and Egypt make clear, political change is the Muslim world’s new reality. Iran, too, will once again become the battleground between citizens asserting their fundamental rights and a regime committed to perpetuating its unjust rule. When that day arrives, will the left once again respond with fear and loathing--or truly embrace universal values?
Sohrab Ahmari and Peter Kohanloo are organizers in Boston’s Iranian-American community.