Reading Arendt in Tehran: On New Beginnings, Communities in Action, and Cosmopolitanism from Below


ABSTRACT This article seeks to understand the Iranian anti-government uprising through an Arendtian lens. It is argued that models which exclusively focus on civil rights claims or tensions between “faith” and “democracy” within the theocracy fail to grasp key dimensions of the protest. Sparked by election fraud, the Green movement engaged in “principled action”. Its agents actualized public freedom, power and legitimacy under non-democratic institutional conditions. Taking power to the streets, a diverse multitude temporarily recovered the public realm. Though subsequently destroyed by the regime’s violence, the multitude constituted new beginnings by means of politics of transgression that contested existing legal boundaries of the Islamic Republic. Moreover, the Green freedom movement’s power has been reinforced by transnational publics that took part in these communities in action. This transnational empowerment challenges models that presuppose an inevitable trade-off between circumscribed public autonomy and transnational democracy. Depending on non-institutionalized, non-regularized public venues, the Iranian multitude points to democracy as self-authorized and self-empowering, extrajudicial and extraordinary performative practices of public contestation. They also epitomize an Arendtian cosmopolitanism from below: it emphasizes situated politics but also recognizes a “common present” of mankind and the significance of transnational publics in the struggle to enable political voice, protect rights, and reclaim public freedom. As such, the unrest in Iran, not unlike other new uprisings in the Middle East, points to particular communities in action and extraordinary democratic acts through which some universal claims are actualized and reconstituted.

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