As Neda Soltan lay dying in the streets of Tehran last week, my mind turned to the memory of Jane McCrea, the young woman whose death is credited by some historians with helping the Americans defeat the British at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. Having been killed and scalped by British-allied Indian scouts in upstate New York just before one of history's most significant battles, McCrea became something of a frontier martyr and symbol of freedom. Her death served as a rallying cry for freedom among the American revolutionaries. We can only hope that the tragic death of Neda Soltan will similarly inspire those seeking regime change in Iran.
Neda Soltan, 26, had the misfortune to step out of a car as the government forces in Tehran worked to regain control of the streets and to squelch dissent in the people of Iran. In doing so, Neda was shot down, and died in the arms of a friend as a nearby colleague captured the images on video for all the world to see. Within hours, her death became a galvanizing image to display the oppression of the theocracy of Iran. She instantly, like the twenty-five year old Jane McCrea more than 200 years before her, became the defining image of young protesters demanding freedom. Now known as the Angel of Freedom, Neda is the international symbol of Iranian resistance. However, the challenges Iranian revolutionaries face will be even greater than those faced in our own Revolution.
Too few Americans understand that Islam has no category for what Americans usually call “separation of church and state.” Efraim Karsh has rightly noted the fusion of temporal authority and religious authority in the Islamic world view. The two categories are collapsed into one and have been since Islam's inception. Mohammed founded his own state and empire. He did not need to create a church. Islam is political in its very nature, not by accident but by design. The measure of whether a state is truly Muslim is the degree to which sharia law prevails.
As protesters, primarily young and college-educated, storm the streets of Tehran demanding more freedom and more Western-like values, it would be foolish for the West to forget that Western values find their roots in a Christian world view that separates the religious from the temporal. Jesus Christ Himself articulated the difference between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar. Islam possesses no such philosophical underpinning, and this absence marks the greatest hurdle faced in bringing change to Iran. One cannot simply apply an overlay of Western freedoms for women, religious expression, and free speech onto an Islamic worldview that sees sharia law(with all its denials of those freedoms) as the requisite authority for any religious state.
As a result, President Obama is partly correct. Change in Iran must come from within. What Obama fails to grasp is that the change must be more theological than political. The Muslim world has reached a moment, symbolized in the young protesters, where it can finally confront the ideas of the Enlightenment. Will this be the moment for Islam to face modernity? Protesters demand it, and a government seeks to thwart it. Moments have presented themselves before, but none has been seized. Non-Muslims cannot bring the theological change necessary for Islam to enter the modern world and encounter political freedoms. However, non-Muslims can help advance that struggle from outside.
There simply is no way around America's taking a leadership role in helping to bring change in Iran, and potentially to the Islamic world. As the moral leader in the struggle against jihadism, America must seize this propitious moment. The protesters have set the table. They now look to us for help. As the streets are shut down, the media squelched, and free speech denied, still resistance springs up via the Western modes of Twitter, texting, and email. No other nation besides America can do this, and a laissez-faire approach will do lasting damage to America, the West, and the Iranian people.
However, our strategy need not include military force. Wise thinkers like George Weigel, James Woolsey, and Kenneth Timmerman, have sketched out four steps America should take. The real question is whether President Obama and his team will have the courage to pursue them now that the time has arrived so early in his administration.
First, America should massively fund resistance groups in an effort to separate the Iranian people from the oppressive Iranian regime. We can help push that change by funding resistance leaders and working behind the scenes to equip them and support them in every way. If we allow them to be crushed, the ramifications will echo for decades. People will no longer see us as leaders and moral advocates for freedom, but rather as timid, complacent, French-like Westerners who enjoy our own freedoms while quaintly dismissing the hopes and yearnings of the oppressed.
Secondly, America should labor hard with public diplomacy in the United Nations and other venues to bring shame to a government that beats, crushes, and terrorizes its own people. President Obama should not shy away from the microphone, or the teleprompter. Now is the time to use the immense public image he has created. There will likely be no other time like this for decades to come. Iran, and much more, hangs in the balance. The opportunity has come early in his Presidency. Will he act and speak with courage or will he be coy and cool? The latter will bring the crushing defeat of a people who have risen up, cried out, and looked to us for assistance. The former can push the momentum over the top and usher in regime change. Whether a new regime will entirely embrace Western values is questionable, but a new regime, backed by the people, will certainly offer a better partner for America and the West to thwart jihadism and its concomitant nuclear threats.
Third, America should continue in every way possible its broadcasting into Iran. Bombarding the Iranian people with messages of hope, freedom, and encouragement, whether by television, satellite, radio, internet, or other media, will only serve to empower the people desperately seeking sustenance for their movement.
Finally, President Obama and his team should implement the most strategic economic sanctions possible to bring the current theocratic regime to its knees. Funding resistance, and de-funding the present regime, can accelerate the dismantling of a regime intent on destroying Israel and America, and install an opportunity for new values into the Iranian society.
Jane McCrea did not die in vain. Her death contributed to the decisive American victory at Saratoga, a victory that all but sealed the fate of the American Revolution. The grisly murder of Jane McCrea inspired American soldiers to bring freedom and independence to the colonies. The horrific murder of Neda Soltan, Angel of Freedom in Tehran, can do the same. The Iranian people are inspired; the challenges are great; and only America can help seize this propitious moment to bring a new day. To fail to do so will weaken America, the West, and the ideals of freedom and tolerance, right now and for decades to come.