New Internationalist

This magic green bracelet

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Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandsons supporting the reformers? Demonstrations in the holy city of Qom? This is a new generation of resistance, as Nasrin Alavi shows in her latest survey of the Iranian blogosphere.

Photo by: Hamed Saber under a CC Licence
Photo by: Hamed Saber under a CC Licence

Following the contested presidential election result in June 2009, Iran saw the largest street protests in the 30 years of the Islamic republic. The hashtag ‘#iranelection’ dominated the micro-blogging site Twitter and even inspired a worldwide solidarity campaign, as the voice of a nation’s resistance was heard in real-time Youtube footage of protests and in a deluge of tweets and blogs. The Huffington Post hailed the micro-blogger persiankiwi – with over 35,000 followers – as ‘one of the most reliable and prolific Iranians on Twitter’. Most of his readers could understand his nonviolent fight for democratic rights, but perhaps many failed to notice that his posts were threaded with verses from the Qur’an.

This is a new generation that has largely responded to tyrannical violence with democratic nonviolence, yet which calls those killed on its protests Shahids (Islamic martyrs), much to the annoyance of religious and secular elders

Paradoxically, those fighting an Islamic state have chosen ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ or ‘god is great’ as their battle-cry. This is a new generation that has largely responded to tyrannical violence with democratic nonviolence, yet which calls those killed on its protests Shahids (Islamic martyrs), much to the annoyance of religious and secular elders.

This is a new generation’s retrieval through very modern cyber-methods of the moral legitimacy of the Iranian ‘cause’. Protesters have commonly chanted the names of Iran’s war heroes, adding they ‘They were the real basij’ – taunting the Basij militia that have brutally regained control of the streets for the regime. One of the ‘Great Shahids’ or the heroes of the Iran-Iraq war was Mohammad-Ali Jahanara who, at the age of 26, commanded ordinary townsfolk of Khorramshahr who fought the Iraqi invasion of their town inch-by-inch for 45 days before it fell to the enemy. A common tweet in the post-election period read: ‘Tell Jahanara the Baathists are in Tehran, they are firing on our girls’.

In fact many of those who have openly endorsed the green movement (the resistance movement that coalesced around defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi) are the actual children of war heroes such as Jahanara, Zeinadin, Bakeri and the Hemat brothers, all of whom have countless roads, hospitals and schools named after them. This led cleric Mohammad Reyshahri to say last week that there is ‘no art in making a member of a Martyr’s family into an insurgent’.

Children of the revolution

Students have continued to take a stand, despite the deaths, the Stalinist show trials and mass arrests. The authorities have haphazardly swung between conciliation and vicious oppression. In December, in a seemingly conciliatory move, Mohammed Mohammedian – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s emissary in the Office of University Affairs – told an academic gathering that ‘according to the polls available, 70 per cent of students voted for someone who does not head the nation’s administration [in other words not for President Ahmadinejad]. This in a way causes disappointment… but those who have voted for others have our respect’. Thirty years after the Revolution, the state is grappling with its own demographic ‘success’ and does not seem to know how to come to terms with one of the youngest and most educated populations in the region.

The Western media cliché of an opposition limited to the urban upper class belies the current realities. These future leaders of Iran commonly hail from the very heartland of Ahmadinejad’s purported support base

A simple glance at the background of Iran’s prominent student leaders tells you that, by and large, they are not the children of affluent citizens of north Tehran, but instead come from provincial working-class families or are the children of rural schoolteachers and clerks. The Western media cliché of an opposition limited to the urban upper class belies the current realities. These future leaders of Iran commonly hail from the very heartland of Ahmadinejad’s purported support base.

On 21 December, as hundreds of thousands attended the funeral for Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri, the opposition demonstrated that it can make its presence felt in Iran’s Vatican, the holy city of Qom. Montazeri, once a powerful establishment figure, was sidelined for his criticism of the mass execution of thousands of young political prisoners in the 1980s. He even condemned Khomeini’s fatwa urging the assassination of author Salman Rushdie, saying: ‘People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.’ In 2004 he protested that the Iranian people did not go through a revolution in order to ‘substitute absolutist rule by the crown with one under the turban’.

A really cool mullah

I followed the funeral via the blogs of young writers based in the town and others making there way there. What many of those who had come from Tehran reported is that, to their surprise, not only were the vast majority of the protesters either from Qom or the provinces, but they were also angrier and more daring or, as one put it, ‘had the balls to chant slogans, the sort we would never dare chant in Tehran’. A well-known blogger wrote about a group of villagers generously sharing their rustic lunch with protesters. While a ‘really cool mullah’ who had offered to host a ‘busload’ of mourners for the day told her: ‘Iran needs a Renaissance!!!!!!!!!!’ The 10 exclamation marks are not mine but the writer’s.

Elsewhere, what followed was an overwhelming outpouring of online grief, ranging from the self-described Marxist and labour activist who wrote of his ‘deep mourning’ for the Ayatollah as a democratic defender of human rights, to Iran’s Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, who described Montazeri as the ‘father’ who had inspired her to end her silence and ‘defend political prisoners’.

Masih Alinejad is a bold female journalist whom Ebadi defended after she became one of many casualties of Ahmadinejad’s onslaught against the press. Masih described in her blog how a nation without a free media had conducted a magnificent online state funeral: ‘I want to tell you of the mourning of a generation of “non-believers” for an Ayatollah’ and how respectfully the ‘lifeless honourable body of religious guide was carried on the shoulders of a cyber community’.

This generation’s true leader

I also have to tell you that vast and at times startling support exists both online and in the streets for Mir-Hossein Mousavi too. Many have described Iran’s protest movement as lacking ‘leadership’. I don’t know how loud the protesters have to shout ‘Yah Hossein, Mir-Hossein,’ as they seem to have done in each and every rally to date (and immediately posted it on Youtube), before the outside world will hear them.

An even more surreal development in this shifting landscape is that family members of the founder of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, are by and large reformists and backing the green movement

As one blogger puts it: ‘Our fanatics have a lot in common with our exiled commentators. They both call us “duped and naïve” and Mousavi a “temporary vehicle” or an “accidental leader” of an opposition. Yet no-one has ever been able to connect and unite us as Mousavi has. As a university lecturer for the last 20 years, Mousavi also grew up with the children of this revolution and he understands us like no-one else… This Iran’s, my generation’s truly elected prime minister, is Mir-Hossein.’

In the pro-Mousavi cry of ‘Yah Hossein’, protesters invoke Sayed Al-Shohada, the highest Shahid or Martyr, which to the vast majority of Iranians immediately conveys a stand against tyranny. This generation’s Islamic Martyrs include the philosophy student whose fatal shooting was captured by cameraphone and has been viewed millions of times online – ‘Shahid Neda’ Soltan, as she is often called. Or 26-year-old doctor Ramin Pour’andarjani, who died of poisoning after his refusal to sign falsified death certificates at the Kahrizak detention centre. Or 19-year-old Mohsen Ruholamini, a member of the conservative student basij who died in the very same detention centre after protesting against election fraud.

Khomeini’s grandchildren

Such Islamic deification of the young casualties of this pro-democracy movement is at times met with abhorrence by the regime and the secular opposition alike. For many observers, an even more surreal development in this shifting landscape is that family members of the founder of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, are by and large reformists and backing the green movement.

After clashes between police and demonstrators in Tehran on 26 December, for example, hundreds were arrested and at least eight people killed, including the nephew of the opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was shot in the heart. The picture above shows Hassan and Yasser Khomeini (centre and right, respectively), grandsons of the former Ayatollah, offering their condolences to the family of the deceased. In past months they have routinely visited many of the families of prominent political prisoners. Hassan Khomeini is widely respected for having volunteered and fought on the front line during the war with Iraq, unlike most offspring of the clerical élite.

In December, pro-government Basij attacked and broke up a gathering at the Khomeini family mosque at Jamaran that was hosted by Hassan Khomeini. In the same month, Mohammad Taheri, who is married to Naimeh Eshraghi, another of Khomeini’s grandchildren, was arrested. The revolution can perhaps eat its children and get away with it. But eating the children of its founder may well prove a step too far. This election has pushed revolutionary Iran into uncharted waters exposing cracks in the leadership that are now open to the elements.

Confessions of a political hooligan

Lady Plum began keeping a blog around six years ago. Her many readers have followed her daily thoughts through her pregnancy and life as a young mum. She generally steers clear of politics. Yet after attending a protest rally with her child and her mother she wrote a post titled ‘Confessions of a Political Hooligan’ – a term commonly used by state media to describe opposition protestors:

‘There is a bitter sentence about our society that has always been difficult to reject. “We don’t deserve democracy…” They had divided us by appearance. Devout, western, downtown [working-class] intellectual, pauper, and hooligan and… being together has shattered this. This magic green bracelet has worked wonders with our culture, our feelings, and our hearts. These gathering in my town, without censorship, exaggeration, trickery and lies… We stand as our true selves.

‘I am moving in silence with a child in my arms and hand in hand with a woman who is the meaning of my life and they call me a hooligan. The madman, who hollers dishonourable insults, throws stones and shows me a knife, is called the people. But I have learnt that in this game he has to come with me and then we shall be called the people. I can see in his eyes that he has lessened, become smaller, even though he shows no shame as he looks at me. He cannot help but feel ashamed in front of my child who holds up his fingers in victory in the face of his strange barbarity.’

Iran’s coming of age

For many Iranians this is not just a fleeting brawl about an election result. During Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1906, hopes of democracy were dashed and authoritarian rule was implemented with the help of foreign powers. A generation later, the democratically elected government of Mossadegh was finished off in a coup backed by Britain and the US. For many, the past haunts the present and sowed the seeds of Iran’s current dilemmas.

Throughout Iran’s recent history, each subsequent generation has endeavoured to bring about political change. In the last 150 years, Iran’s absolutist monarchs were either ousted by the people or forced to flee and die in exile – with the exception of Mozafaredin Shah, who gave in to pro-democracy activists and agreed to create a parliament and hold elections.

Today the establishment – in its handling of the election results, the brutal crackdown and mass arrests – has exposed its totalitarian ambitions. ‘They’, to use the word Iranians commonly direct at the powerful, are today revealed as the architects of their own misfortune. ‘They’ have made this a fight to the end.

Ultimately this story is not going away, because it’s not merely about an election result, but about the coming of age of a generation whose nonviolent fight for civil rights will prevail

This is not an uprising that can be crushed. Others have commonly argued that the Chinese did so after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and this will be quashed too. Here there is neither the unity in the ideological hierarchy nor a recourse to a growth economy that might pacify the masses. Ultimately this story is not going away, because it’s not merely about an election result, but about the coming of age of a generation whose nonviolent fight for civil rights will prevail.

As the blogger Opium writes: ‘This election – whatever it was, whatever it did – it made us big and it made you small.’

Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran (Portobello 2006), a book that showcased the explosion of blogging in Iran and and illuminated the complexities of life for young people under theocratic rule. She acted as consultant to the New Internationalist special issue on Iran in March 2007 and blogs regularly for us.

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