The latest news from Tehran (Nick Cohen)
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Why striking bus drivers in Tehran are the real defenders of Muslim rights
For three weeks, there have been demonstrations across the planet about a great injustice done to Muslims. After baton-wielding cops inflicted dozens of injuries, the fear of death is in the air. George W Bush's State Department has warned of 'systematic oppression', while secularists and fundamentalists have revealed their mutually incompatible values. Since you ask, I am not talking about the global menace of Scandinavian cartoonists that has so terrified our fearless free press, but mass arrests in Iran.
The media have barely mentioned the story, even though it cuts through the nonsense about a clash of civilisations between the 'West' and the 'Muslims'. The Muslims of Tehran are proving themselves to be anything but a monolithic bloc happy to follow the orders of the ayatollahs and their demented President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There are huge class divisions to begin with, and close to the bottom of the heap are the city's bus drivers. The authorities refused to allow them an independent trade union and ruled that an 'Islamic council' in the offices of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company would represent their interests. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pious have not proved the doughtiest fighters for better pay and conditions. The bus drivers claimed that managers were stealing money from their pay packets. They formed their own union and threatened to strike at the end of January.
Ahmadinejad won the rigged Iranian elections last year with a promise to stand up for the little man against the Islamic Republic's corrupt elite. Faced with a choice between sticking to his word and carrying on with despotism, he showed his true colours by allowing the most ferocious crackdown Tehran has seen since the religious authorities crushed dissident journalists and students in 1999.
The company's managers and Islamic council called in the paramilitary police who arrested the union's six officers and beat workers until they agreed to renounce the strike. Bravely, the majority refused. The state's thugs then targeted their wives and children.
Mahdiye Salimi, the 12-year-old daughter of one of the strike leaders, told a reporter that they had poured into her home in the early hours of the morning trying to find her father. When his wife said she didn't know where he was, the assault began. 'They kicked my mum's heart with their boots and my mum had an enormous ache in her heart. They even wanted to spray something in my [two-year old] sister's mouth.'
No one knows how many people the authorities arrested. The highest figure the British TUC has heard is 1,300. International trade union federations and the British embassy in Tehran estimate that somewhere between 400 and 600 people are still in prison.
Owen Tudor, the TUC's international officer, went to the Iranian embassy to protest and was knocked back by the hatred of unions he met. Probably without realising it, Iranian officials parroted the language of Margaret Thatcher and told him unions were 'the enemy within'. From their perspective, you can see why they would think so. Unions instil democratic habits and encourage solidarity with others regardless of colour and -more importantly in this case - creed. Neither of these admirable traits is likely to appeal to your average fanatic who believes he can read the mind of God.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the US State Department and British Foreign Office have all protested. Trade unions, Iranian exiles and gay groups have demonstrated. Yet the media have barely noticed. The failure is due in part to my trade's perennial inability to walk and chew gum at the same time: we consider stories one by one and today's story is Muslim anger with cartoonists.
I'm not saying it isn't newsworthy, but you shouldn't forget that it was manufactured by hard-line Danish imams who hawked the cartoons round the Muslim world for four months (and, somewhat blasphemously, added obscene drawings of their own). The religious right and Syrian Baathists welcomed them and proved yet again that they need to incite frenzies to legitimise arbitrary power.
Iran has seen all the stunts before because it has endured Islamism longer than any other country. Cheeringly, the old tricks no longer appear to be working. The Associated Press's reporter said that about 400 people demonstrated outside the Danish embassy in Tehran last week, most of them state employees obeying orders, according to the Iranian opposition.
Even if you take the lowest estimate, there are as many striking bus drivers in prison in Tehran as rioters prepared to play the worn-out game of throwing Molotov cocktails at Western embassies. No one ever made money by being optimistic about the Middle East, but after nearly 30 years of Islamist rule, Iranians seem sick of it.
It cannot be said often enough that this is not a clash of civilisations but a civil war within the Islamic world between theocratic reaction and the beleaguered forces of liberty and modernity. As I have tried to emphasise, the best service the rich world's liberal left can render is to get on the right side for once.