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Unlocking the Golden Cage

Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, tells the story the Iranian revolution through the lives of three brothers who subscribe to different political ideologies in her popular novel, The Golden Cage.1 Based on the true story of her childhood friend’s brothers, Ebadi relates the events of three mens’ lives, all of whom suffer due to the revolution and their enslavement to their golden cages of ideology. Throughout the work, Ebadi paints the picture of an unjust Iran where political dissent (or the suspicion of dissent) is not only not tolerated, but reason enough to be imprisoned, tortured or executed. Beginning with a sketch of life under the Pahlavi dynasty, Ebadi takes readers through the historical journey that led to the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Khamenei. Underlying this tale are numerous political discourses that speak to the multiple visions of Iran that ran through the country. The three brothers demonstrate three of these discourses: one, the glory and majesty of the reign of the shah, two, the brotherhood of a more communist-leaning utopia, and three, the Islamic nation under Ayatollah Khomeini. The fourth discourse that underlies the text is that of Ebadi herself. Aware of the corruption in the Iranian governments, concerned with women’s equality and freedom of expression, and strongly opposed to the silencing of oppositional voices, Ebadi’s discourse is one of democratic liberties and human dignity. It is an embrace of what Asef Bayat calls Post-Islamism.

In Asef Bayat’s article, which we considered last week, Bayat describes Islamism and Post-Islamism as two primary discourses of Islam and government that are popular today.2 He states that Islamism, the goal of which is to create a society based on fundamentalist versions of Islam, has been losing energy, support and appeal. Post-Islamism, on the other hand, is an attempt to promote an Islamic government that allows for democratic freedoms, “to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty.”3 Bayat then addresses those who ask for predictions about which discourse will ultimately be successful. In response to this question, Bayat states that one must look not just at the discourse in question, but what kind of support it gathers.4 Influential leaders as well as the public must side with a particular discourse for it to be adopted. While this is a valuable insight, I would like to suggest that the success of political discourses is even more complex than that.

As Ebadi’s novel demonstrates, one: a discourse is not always the same as a complete vision, and two: a discourse is not always carried out by those who proclaim it once power is assumed. Shirin Ebadi comments on the people of various ideologies who unite under Ayatollah Khomeini to oust the shah. The only belief they had in common was the rejection of the shah and the hope of a just Islamic Republic. Ebadi writes:

For several months, at nine in the evening sharp, everybody—religious followers and communists, intellectuals and the apathetic—leapt to the rooftops of their homes and, following Khomeini’s instructions, shouted, ‘Allah Akbar,’ God is Great. In the diffuse nightlight, the shouts resounded from palace to palace, house to house, in a delirium pregnant with hope and expectation. What would happen to our beloved Iran? No one knew, but the future appeared full of promise. 5

United in an effort to replace the old government with a more just system, few stopped to ask what the new system would be and whose vision it would match. It would soon become clear that Khomeini’s vision of Iran was not the same as that of his numerous supporters. The discourse and slogans that united the people were ultimately hollow, promises either interpreted differently by each group or broken altogether. Ebadi makes it clear that her vision of an Islamic Republic was not fulfilled when she states, “With my husband and some friends, we joined the marches and shouted our slogan: Independence, liberty, the Islamic Republic!’ At the time I really believed that an Islamic Republic would bring us independence and liberty.”6 Instead, the new regime brought a strict religious government that did not tolerate dissent. One must remember then, that the question is not just which discourse will be successful in gathering support, but whether a complete vision is embedded in the discourse or whether it can be interpreted in many ways. Further, one must also consider whether or not those who ascend to power will keep their promises.

Though I am certainly no expert on Egypt, I would hold that this is one of the issues at stake today. The former dictator has been ousted, the Post-Islamist discourse has gathered support, and now the generals hold power. But will their vision of Egypt be the same as those who supported the revolution? Will the promise of a better Egypt be kept? Only time will tell.

  1. Shirin Ebadi, The Golden Cage (Carlsbad, California: Kales Press, 2011).
  2. I am referring here to: Asef Bayat, “Islam and Democracy: What is the Real Question?” Ism Paper 8. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007).
  3. Ibid, 19.
  4. Ibid, 13.
  5. Ebadi, The Golden Cage, 87.
  6. Ibid, 80.
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