Josef Stalin cynically said: “A single death is a tragedy — a million deaths is a statistic.” He prosecuted his tyranny, replete with mass murder, according to this formula.
There is some accuracy in the tyrant’s observation. Perhaps that is why one 12-year-old boy, Hector Pieterson, is the iconic embodiment of the June 16 uprising against apartheid. Although hundreds of lives were lost when the riots spread into intractable national unrest, Sam Nzima’s photograph of the shot boy being carried by his sister and a fellow student was the freeze-frame that catapulted this event into the consciousness of the world.
Two Saturdays ago in Tehran, a 26-year-old woman was shot dead by an Iranian government militiaman. The video clip of music student Neda Agha-Soltan’s dying moments captured on a cellphone was bounced across the globe by satellite and through new media such as YouTube, stamping her instantly as a symbol of the anti-government protests.
The Iranian opposition proclaimed her as a martyr for freedom in a society that, as Nazila Fathi noted in the New York Times, “is infused with the culture of martyrdom”.
Two days after her death, there were already 6860 entries for her on the Persian-language Google search engine. Perhaps the potency of the new media is revealed by the fact that Mirhossein Mousavi, the main opposition candidate in the disputed, probably rigged, presidential election in Iran, has used social network Facebook to mobilise his supporters. Twitter is another new tool of communication against the theocrats in Tehran, who base their authority on a religious tradition that is more than 13 centuries old.
The incompatibility between old-style repression and newfangled media is only one of many contradictions that the tumultuous events in Iran have highlighted.
Another is the fault line which the poll, and the protests against its outcome, revealed between the two plates of the Iranian revolution — one theocratic and the other democratic.
Most power in Iran is wielded by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and various religious bodies such as the Guardian Council.
Lesser authority lies in the hands of the democratic parliament and the popularly elected president.
Under the rule of populist conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there was little to separate the outlook and approach of the two branches of the Iranian revolution. But reformist challenger Mousavi became a lightning conductor for the young and disaffected, especially marginalised women, who have spearheaded the protests in the firm belief that massive fraud prevented their candidate from winning.
The signs of splits and fissures, even within the previously united religious leadership, are clear, although the direction in which the 30-year old Iranian revolution will head is not. There has been a stirring of a moderate revival elsewhere in this most combustible arena of geopolitics, in Lebanon and in next-door Iraq, for example.
But, of course, the issue in Iran — and one with huge consequences for this troubled neighbourhood — is its nuclear potential.
Although Ayatollah Khamenei has the final word on nuclear and security matters, both Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, and most Iranians, apparently see the development of nuclear power as a totem of their sovereign independence. However, there is obviously a difference in approach between the president, who threatens to “remove Israel from the map of history” and announces that Iran has successfully tested a new solid-fuel missile with a range of 1900km, and a challenger who denounces his opponent’s “foreign policy adventurism”.
This then brings in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Before the Iranian election, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, in an authoritative article, stated that Netanyahu’s actions are “shaped by a profound conviction that Israel will be in danger of extermination if Iran has nuclear weapons at its disposal”.
It also quoted a recent interview, which the prime minister gave to an American journal under the headline Netanyahu to Obama: Stop Iran or I Will.
Influential Middle East watchers in the US have suggested that Netanyahu far prefers to face the anti-Semitic Ahmadinejad, who has suggested the Holocaust was a hoax, as president than his rival.
As one of them expressed it: “Israelis believe he reflects the true and immutable character of the Iranian regime. If a moderate were to take over, it would not herald any real change in Iran or its nuclear ambitions, but simply disguise it better.”
The repression of the pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets of Tehran suggests that Netanyahu will be granted his wish in the choice of his opponent. After all, bullets are more powerful, in the short term at least, than Twitter. But, over time, the ineradicable human craving for freedom is more difficult to suppress.
We can only guess how much time will lapse between the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan and the arrival of the freedom she now symbolises.
*Published Sunday Times 6 July 2009