Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Watching History Unfold in Iran

The past few days suggest that Iran's "Green Revolution" is growing. More Iranians in more cities are turning against the religious hard-liner regime, and by killing peaceful protesters on holy days, the regime is throwing away whatever legitimacy it still has.

war_in_tehran_streets_26.jpg picture by betterthanmachines
There first way that the movement is growing has to do with who is showing up in the streets in the latest round of protest marches. The New York Times had a good overview article of the situation on Sunday, but they buried perhaps the most important point down near the bottom of the story (emphasis mine):
The government crackdowns on mourning ceremonies in the past week provoked many people in the more traditional neighborhoods of south Tehran as earlier clashes did not, some residents said.

"People in my neighborhood have been going to the Ashura rituals every night with green fabric for the first time," said Hamid, 33, a laborer who lives in southern Tehran... "They have been politicized recently, because of the suppression this month."
In other words, the movement is growing from its original nucleus--which is centered in north Tehran and tends to be younger, more socially liberal, and less religious than the rest of Iran--to the broader working class--which tends to be more socially conservative. That is bad news for Iran's religious right and good news for humanity. The regime can no longer propagandize that the opposition are just un-Islamic college students stirred up by American and British media. From watching dozens of cell-phone videos of the street clashes, it's plain to see that there is a lot more gray hair among the protesters now than there was back in June. The socially conservative poor and working class have (until now?) been the core supporters of President Ahmadinejad. If this alliance of college students and workers continues to grow, it is only a matter of time before Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, and the religious terror squads fall.

If the regime inflamed opposition from young people because it is blatantly undemocratic, it is now inflaming opposition from the working class because it is blatantly un-Islamic.

Sunday was the Ashura holiday, commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, Shiite Islam's holiest martyr. Imam Hussein was beheaded in 680 AD by a ruler named Yazid, and today Shias revere him as a martyr of the faith who fought against political tyranny. Since the presidential election-rigging/coup in Iran last June, a number of religious and national holidays have provided opportunity for massive street demonstrations by pro-reform activists. But none since June have matched the size and intensity of the past few days. The chants from the marching protesters in Tehran alternated between revering Imam Hussein and reviling the regime. On a number of cell phone videos that made their way onto YouTube, you could even hear protesters equating Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khamanei with Yazid, the tyrant who executed Hussein.

My point in dwelling on the religious particulars is to show that there is a growing religious motivation behind the protests. In my opinion, that is crucial to the long-term success or failure of the Green Movement. Struggle against political tyranny is sewn into the very fabric of Shia Islam. Religious fervor is what helped overthrow the Shah of Iran in 1979 (who needed overthrowing by the way, just not by the Iranian equivalents of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson). And today a growing number of Iranians are framing the issue as an Islamic struggle against tyrannical rulers. Murdering people on Ashura was a dumb move, Mr. Khamanei.

war_in_tehran_streets_7.jpg picture by betterthanmachines

Another thing that worked in '79 that will also be a big factor this time around is the Shia martyrdom and mourning cycles. Shias mourn their dead on the 3rd, 7th, and 40th days after a death. In the case of murdered protesters, mourning means more marches and rallies, where the government is likely to kill again. In '79, confrontations between marchers and the Shah's forces played out in 40-day cycles. So, if the government murdered about a dozen people this past Sunday on the Day of Ashura, which is traditionally a day of peace, I'm guessing that February 5th is going to be intense.

I said back in June that even if the protests dissipated for a while, it would be hard for the regime to put the genie back into the bottle for good. Here we are six months later, and though we have not yet seen the same size marches we saw in June, there are signs that the people's resistance is even more deep rooted. I think we may be watching a freight train getting started here. It's painfully slow at the start, but once it's rolling there is no stopping it.


delaine said...

God bless them in their struggle. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1955,

"True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice."

Justice has been missing in Iran for a very long time it seems. And in many, many other places too.

Sara said...

Good post. I wish I could better articulate what I'm thinking but...

I'll second your comment, delaine!