PoliticsSocietyCultureBlogNausicaa LabCultural Association

Iran: June rallies

26 October 2009
Published in Attualità, Politics
by Margherita Stancati

mano-insanguinataAfter this demonstration, pills the Shah felt better. He seemed to be getting back on his feet. Until then he had been playing cards marked with blood. Now he made up his mind to play with a clean deck. To gain popular sympathy, pills he dismissed a few of the officers who had been in charge of the units that opened fire on the inhabitants of Tabriz. (R. Kapuscinski, thumb Shah of Shahs)

“My strongest memory of those days are the marches, the sea of people covering miles and miles of the main avenue in Tehran. How can I ever forget those scenes, wave after wave of men and women from all walks of life marching next to each other?” (H. Esfandiari, Reconstructing Lives)

These words – reported by a woman who participated to the Iranian revolution- describe a scenario strikingly similar to that which followed the post-electoral rallies last June.

As the world watched incredulously at the masses of people spilling into the streets of Tehran many external commentators misleadingly saw this as a prelude to a second or counter- revolution. People of all ages and social backgrounds – feeling betrayed and defrauded – decided to impose their voices which had been ignored at the polls. This came as a surprise in a country in which political dissent is generally assumed to be either repressed or dormant.

The substantial differences between 1978-1979 mass mobilizations and the June 2009 rallies are so vast that any comparison is unlikely to be of any analytical value. With thirty years between them, it is in their form that these two events display most points of contact. The image the demonstrators chose to project of themselves was heavily charged with symbolic parallels with its unwitting predecessor – the 1979 revolution.

These symbols stemmed from a wide array of cultural contexts – from global revolutionary movements such as the Russian and Cuban revolution and the 1968 student revolts, to the founding myth of Shiite Islam, namely the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in Kerbala at the hands of Sunnis in 680. The milestones of the Iranian revolution itself – such as the mass mobilisation, the fall of the Shah and the return of Khomeini – became defining elements of the post-revolutionary rhetoric.

The revolution is no longer as effective in conferring legitimacy to the Islamic Republic. Many have come to resent the omnipresence of this anachronistic revolutionary rhetoric – school textbooks, TV shows, street murals and even stamps are pervaded by the establishment’s revolutionary discourse.  This is the case especially for those born after 1979 – which today make up over 70% of Iran’s the population. As the Twitter craze showed the world, many young Iranians are in tune with the global youth-culture, hardly escaping the “Youtube Generation” label.

The iconographic references to the revolution, were borne out of a conscious decision of Mr. Mousavi’s supporters to legitimize an act of political disobedience by precisely appealing to the regime’s own rhetoric – heavily dependent on the “symbols” of the revolution. A few examples follow…

Green. Not any shade of green but a particularly bright green, the colour of Islam which became the colour of Mr. Mousavi’s electoral campaign. T-shirts, wristbands, headscarves, and even baby sleep-suits became politically charged virtually overnight. A simple and clear and means to declare one’s support for the Reformists’ cause and disaffection with the establishment. So widespread did this phenomenon become that the movement as a whole has been referred to as  “the green wave” and even “the green revolution” – prompting the Revolutionary Guards to respond firmly against allusions to an approaching “coloured” revolution.

where is my vote?Allahu Akbar! God is great. For several weeks after the announcement of Mousavi’s disputed defeat – every night, around ten – an old cry rises from hundreds of rooftops across Tehran. The cycle is broken by an occasional marg bar dikatur, death to the dictator. Thirty years previously, with the complicity of the night, these cries filled the air in a crescendo that defied the curfew and anticipated the fall of the Shah.

The bloodstained hand was another staple of the post-revolutionary repertoire which was experienced a political revival. This powerful iconic image has a strong symbolic connections to Karbala and symbolizes fighting until the last drop of blood. During the processions in commemoration of Hussein’s martyrdom, it is common for people to leave red handprints on public walls as part of the mourning – a practice that was adopted in the course of the anti-Shah demonstrations of 1978-79 and reproduced during the June 2009 rallies.

The mass demonstration in itself, however, was probably the most powerful symbolic (as well as substantial) act of defiance. The collective experience of popular participation became the defining feature of the post-revolutionary imagined community, conferring popular legitimacy to the Islamic Republic. The violent reaction at the hands of the Basij and special police during the rallies turned riots is in itself a crushing symbolic defeat for the Islamic Republic. During the popular uprisings of 1978-79, as part of the traditional mourning cycles, large demonstrations were organised for those who lost their lives in clashes against the Shah’s armed forces -  a ritual which traditionally takes place forty days after someone’s death. In turn, these mourning ceremonies brought more and more people in the streets to march against the Shah in a growing revolutionary momentum. Fearing this precedent could repeat itself, the current government prohibited the funeral of Neda – the symbolic martyr of the recent clashes – from being open to the public.

During the June rallies this symbolic repertoire – kept alive over the years by the Islamic Republic’s propaganda machine – was thus familiar and accessible to most people, making it an efficient and “safe” means of communication. The establishment’s anachronistic rhetoric was thus redefined to legitimize contemporary discontent. What’s more, by appropriating this rhetoric for themselves, the demonstrators deprived the regime of a key political tool and implicitly accused those in power of having betrayed the basic ideals of the revolution. Instead of confronting this attack, however, the establishment decided to bypass this ideological framework opting instead for repression. In the long-run, the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic  will have suffered the biggest blow.

Comments are closed.