Watching events unfolding in Tehran raises three intriguing questions for me: Is Facebook to Iran’s Moderate Revolution what the mosque was to Iran’s Islamic Revolution? Is Twitter to Iranian moderates what muezzins were to Iranian mullahs? And, finally, is any of this good for the Jews — particularly Israel’s prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu?
Here is why I ask. During the past eight years, in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt, spaces were opened for more democratic elections. Good news. Unfortunately, the groups that had the most grass-roots support and mobilization capabilities — and the most energized supporters — to take advantage of this new space were the Islamists. That is, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, the various Sunni and Shiite Islamist parties in Iraq and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The centrist mainstream was nowhere.
One of the most important reasons that the Islamists were able to covertly organize and mobilize, and be prepared when the lids in their societies were loosened a bit, was because they had the mosque — a place to gather, educate and inspire their followers — outside the total control of the state.
In almost every one of these cases, the Islamists overplayed their hands. In Lebanon, Hezbollah took the country into a disastrous and unpopular war. Ditto Hamas in Gaza. The Sunni and Shiite Islamists in Iraq tried to impose a religious lifestyle on their communities, and the mullahs in Iran quashed the reformists. In the last year, though, the hard-liners in all these countries have faced a backlash by the centrist majorities, who detest these Islamist groups.
Hezbollah was defeated in the Lebanese elections. Hamas is facing an energized Fatah in the West Bank and is increasingly unpopular in Gaza. Iraqi Sunnis have ousted the jihadists thanks to the tribal Awakening movement, while the biggest pro-Iranian party in Iraq got trounced in the recent provincial runoff. And in Iran, millions of Iranians starving for more freedom rallied to the presidential candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi, forcing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to steal the election. (If he really won the Iranian election, as Ahmadinejad claims, by a 2-to-1 margin, wouldn’t he invite the whole world in to recount the votes? Why hasn’t he?)
What is fascinating to me is the degree to which in Iran today — and in Lebanon — the more secular forces of moderation have used technologies like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, blogging and text-messaging as their virtual mosque, as the place they can now gather, mobilize, plan, inform and energize their supporters, outside the grip of the state.