Shirin Karoon was a student at USC when the 1979 revolution in Iran threw her home country into chaos. She was unable to contact her family and watched on television as rioters took to the streets during a period of national transformation.
The La Cañada resident currently serves as assistant administrator of the Islamic Center of Southern California. Karoon, a moderate Muslim who wears a hijab, or head covering, reacted to the aftermath of the Iranian elections this month, which brought back memories of the revolution, she said.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly won those elections in a landslide victory that has since been called into question by reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi and leaders around the world. Karoon, who did not support a candidate in the elections, said the outpouring of emotion, which drew hundreds to a Glendale street protest Tuesday, was not as much in opposition to the outcome as it was a condemnation of alleged voter fraud.
ZAIN SHAUK: When you were watching the revolution unfold through television screens, were you scared?
SHIRIN KAROON: Very much so. Really, one day I would say, "Let me pack up and leave and just go back there; there's no point in me staying here if my family is in danger. Could I do anything for them?" And on the other hand I said, "What am I going to do? How would I find them?" It was very difficult. Especially when my friends would come up and say, "Are your parents OK?" It just created a lot of panic and a lot of anxiety.
Q: Have the current images of the protests in Iran brought back some of those emotions?
A: I was watching it with my family on TV. My dad is in town and is scheduled to go back to Tehran on July 7, so I was telling him, "You shouldn't really be going if this is going on." His reaction, which calmed me a little, was that it's over-exaggerated. On the other hand, we also saw some frightening videos. I don't know what to make out of it because we talk to friends and they say it's OK, it's not that bad, and on the other hand you see the videos, which creates panic. I think certain areas might be worse than others, and the question is, will this spread or will it just die?
Q: Do you think the news media has blown these demonstrations out of proportion and perhaps there are actually more Ahmadinejad supporters than we are seeing on TV?
A: That's a very hard question because my feeling when I went to Iran four years ago is that the youth are not very happy with what's going on, and the elderly are supporting Ahmadinejad and they're very happy with what's going on there. My personal feeling is that it's the youth against the elderly generation. You know, the youth have a lot of energy so they can go crazy and blow things out of proportion. I want to believe that the media is exaggerating it, but that's what I told myself during the revolution when I saw people rioting in the street. I kept telling myself that the media is blowing it out of proportion, it's not really what's going on. So it's scary. It just revives those feelings.
Q: How similar are these images to what you saw during the revolution?
A: I would say on a smaller scale. Then it was like a small fire that just grew. This one seems smaller and it's hard to tell what the reaction will be.
Q: What was your reaction to Mousavi's allegations of election fraud?
A: I'm very, very sad because Iran fought for democracy and they gave up everything they had almost to switch from monarchy to democracy, and I would be very sad and I would protest as well if I felt that the democracy is not actually being respected. If you play with the elections, it's cheating, you know. It's hard for me to tell whether that really happened or not.
Q: So do you think it's clear whether there has been cheating?
Q: Were you surprised to see that Mousavi is being portrayed as a reform candidate when he was one of the early prime ministers in the Islamic Republic?
A: Yes, I am.
Q: Do you think he has transformed into a true reformer?
A: I am so hungry for change to come to Iran — more so a fine balance between religion and politics and a true democracy — that I want to believe that. I want to believe that this is the change, just like here with President Obama. I feel like it's like the same thing, except there, there is more hunger for change. So I really want to believe that that is going to be the answer.
Q: You say you want change, but it seems like you don't know which candidate will bring that change. Did you vote at one of Iran's election polling places in the Los Angeles area?
A: Actually, no I didn't. In the absence of really knowing what's going on, I preferred to abstain. I feel being here has made me lose touch to a certain degree with what's going on there. I would rather the people there vote because whatever they vote will impact them.
Q: Iran's Guardian Council is conducting a partial review of election results and has reportedly declared that there has so far been no evidence of "major" election irregularities, but there are grumblings of fraud. How does this controversy make you feel about the status of the democracy?
A: That's very scary if there has been fraud because that's really what the country fought for during the revolution, so I don't want to believe it. And then a little part of me says, "Well, sometimes rumors are rumors, but sometimes the reason there's a rumor — there's some truth in it." So it makes me feel very, very uneasy, very sad, very insecure. If I were to go back and visit there, I don't know how comfortable I would be living in a place like that. You fight, you lose people, families are destroyed for something you believe in, and then things change.
Q: Why are there so many vocal demonstrators here in the Los Angeles area, so far away from Iran?
A: Iran is a beautiful country. When you go there, as an Iranian you have an attachment to it that it's part of you, especially if you've grown up with it. Here, we live.
Thank you very much for hosting us in this country; we love it. But still it's a part of you, and I believe everyone here misses it tremendously, and they do eventually hope that we can all live in peace where everyone can go back and live in peace together and have some sort of security and safety when you go there. The people here haven't forgotten their culture, haven't forgotten their language. I think there's always the hope that we can go back one day. So I think it saddens them. You think you are getting close to that dream, and then suddenly something like this happens and pulls us back.
Q: Demonstrators are also concerned about the Islamic Republic and its limitations on some civil rights. Do you think that the Islamic government has gotten in the way of some rights?
A: Yeah. The Islam doesn't get in the way, it's the way the people interpret the Islam that gets in the way . . . . It's the way people are interpreting it and which group is more powerful and does it, and it's all in the name of the Islamic Republic, which is very sad.