Writing in the London Review of Books in July of this year1, philosopher Slavoj Žižek relays a story about the turning point of the 1979 Islamic Revolution:
“Ryszard Kapuściński, in Shah of Shahs, his account of the Khomeini revolution, located the precise moment of this rupture: at a Tehran crossroad, a single demonstrator refused to budge when a policeman shouted at him to move, and the embarrassed policeman withdrew. Within a couple of hours, all Tehran had heard about the incident, and although the streetfighting carried on for weeks, everyone somehow knew it was all over.”
Žižek asks, in the wake of the June presidential election, if the pro-Mosavi protests the country was then experiencing were such a turning point. It appears that he may have been premature in assessing them as such. In the months since the waves of initial protest, Ahmadinejad and Khameini have not only stayed in power, but suppressed (sometimes with brutal violence) the clamor of protests and many of the major voices of opposition.
But despite their authoritarian efforts, the current leadership of Iran have not managed to silence all voices. One week ago, during a meeting between Ayatollah Khameini and a group of university students, one young man asked to be recognized. When called upon, he took the podium, looked the Ayatollah in the face, and began a 20-minute long condemnation of the Ayatollah’s policies2.
And the Ayatollah did nothing to stop him.
One week later and that young man, Mahmoud Vahidnia is apparently not only free from harm, but still a free man. Regrettably, it doesn’t appear that Mr. Vahidnia’s speech was caught on video. If it was, I’ve not found any copies on the Internet. We know there were cameras at the event because there are pictures of Mr. Vahidnia, at the podium, confidently addressing the dictator who was denying him liberty. For those playing along at home, this is the meaning of “Speaking Truth to Power”. It is not merely disagreeing with loyal opposition. It’s not declaiming half-baked, half-formed “edgy” notions. It is not even standing up in a free nation and saying things which are socially or politically condemned.
It is standing in the face of oppressors and speaking the truth of human rights, human liberty, and human dignity. This young man is exercising his natural right knowing full well that doing so may get him killed. And he’s doing it in the face of the man who would sign his death warrant.3
And one week later, he is still free.
Mahmoud Vahidnia stood at a crossroads in Tehran one week ago tonight. And when he spoke, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei slunk away.
1 Definitely read the whole article. At 3700+ words it’s a bit on the lengthy side, but it’s well worth it. Zizek’s view of the Iranian situation is well-informed and insightful, not to mention refreshingly candid.
2 I don’t recall where I read it, but I recently read that there are only two kinds of people in the world. On the one hand are those who, when circumstance demands it, stand up and do what is right. On the other hand is everyone else. The writer suggested that this was the only distinction that mattered with regards to human character. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
3 And has signed the death warrants of several of the protesters who together did the same thing that this young man did alone and to the Ayatollah’s face.