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Syria: the opposition needs unity but not uniformity | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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At a dinner the other evening, I found myself drawn into a debate about Syria. My argument was that I did not expect regime change in Syria to produce anything worse than Bashar al-Assad.

Arguing against my position were a British scholar, an Israeli editor and a Franco-Algerian journalist.

All were concerned about one thing: the seizure of power in Damascus by Islamists.

When it became clear that verbal wrestling was leading nowhere, the British scholar came out with his silver bullet.

“I can prove you wrong with one word,” he asserted. “The word is: Iran!”

Some guests nodded in agreement.

The argument, of course, is that in 1979, regime change in Iran took place in the name of freedom and democracy but ended up in Khomeini’s fascist regime that has oppressed the Iranian people and tried to destroy Iranian culture.

The analogy is not limited to Syria.

Some Western scholars believe that Muslims are doomed to suffer bad regimes because what they might get in exchange could be worse. Some “experts” on both sides of the Atlantic have already decided that “Arab Spring” is a failure.

Are “Arab Spring” countries, including Syria, doomed to repeat Iran’s experience?

My answer is: no.

The first reason is that, thanks to an explosion in information, people are aware of what has happened Iran.

The second, and more important reason, is that, today, many politically active Muslims are determined not to repeat the mistakes of their Iranian counterparts in the 1970s.

In those decisive years, the Shah’s opponents adopted the Machiavellian maxim of “the end justifies the means.” Wishing to see the end of the Shah, they were prepared to lie about every aspect of life in Iran.

Here is how Akbar Ganji, a former Khomeinist activist and member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), put it in a recent interview: “We lied against the Shah. We lied, saying that the Shah’s government has 150,000 political prisoners. That was a lie. We lied, saying that the Shah’s government murdered {authors} Samad Behrangi and Sadeq Hedayat. We lied, saying the Shah’s government murdered {Islamist propagandist} Dr. Shariati. We told those lies, knowing them to be lies.”

What Ganji does not mention is worse.

Anti-Shah activists did not only lie to others; they also lied to themselves.

They lied to themselves by disguising their political identity.

The daily Mardom (People), organ of the Communist Tudeh (Masses) Party, ran editorials praising Khomeini to the skies.

Clean-shaven atheists in French designer suits suddenly changed their appearances by growing beards and wearing mullah-style shirts. They peppered their writings with Arabic phrases instead of tidbits from Jean-Paul Sartre and other luminaries of Parisian cafes.

In those days, I ran into arguments, and, in some cases, the end of friendship, with several people.

My argument was that one could be against two bad things at the same time. If one opposed the Shah’s regime, for whatever reason, one did not have to support the ridiculous and ultimately deadly witches’ brew that Khomeini dished out.

Reading Khomeini’s books in those days made me laugh. I did not know Fereydoun Hoveyda’s observation that, if translated into action, political books that make you laugh are sure to make you cry.

I urged friends who wished to oppose the Shah to do so from their own sincerely-held positions. I wanted democrats to be democratic opponents of the Shah. I wanted Communists to be Communist opponents of the Shah, and so on.

Needless to say, soon, I was to mourn democrat, nationalist, communist, socialist and liberal friends who had helped bring Khomeini to power and who were executed, imprisoned or driven into the misery of exile by the mullahs.

Imagine if Iran had retained the rich political diversity it had developed over 150 years and briefly manifested in the 1970s before Khomeini imposed uniformity in the name of Walayat al-Faqih (rule by the mullahs).

You could imagine my depression in forced exile, each day of it a pain.

My depression was deepened by concern that other Muslim nations might repeat Iran’s tragic mistake. That concern was heightened in the 1990s when many believed that Algeria was going “the way of Iran.”

In the early stages of the Algerian crisis several personalities and one or two parties did behave more or less like their Iranian counterparts in the 1970s by wearing an Islamist mask.

Soon, however, a majority of Algerians realized that it was suicidal to fight a bad regime by supporting a fascist ideology. Opponents of the Algerian regime managed to retain their specific identities. That, I believe, was a factor in saving Algeria from becoming a “second Iran”.

Let’s return to Syria.

One mantra in Western political circles is that the Syrian opposition is not united.

That is not true. The Syrian opposition is united in wanting Assad to go. Beyond that, the parties, personalities and movements engaged in this popular uprising should protect their separate identities. Each should oppose Assad from its own political position. Unity without uniformity could help Syria aspire after pluralism and diversity without which it cannot build a future in freedom.