July 11, 1999: Student protest banner condemns "Ansar-e
Shaytan" ("Followers of Satan")
Culture of Karbala
Wondering why we are so uncompromising?
By Asghar Massombagi
September 2, 1999
Much has been made of the recent student demonstrations in Tehran (See
latest photos taken by an eyewitness). The future impact of these events
and the nature of the participating groups remains to be clarified. However
the least one can say is that precedent has been set and the first crevice
in the steel armor of the theocracy has appeared.
The lack of concrete leadership and a specific platform has prompted
various commentators to pour the reality on the ground into molds that
often suit their own political agendas. There have been calls for a charismatic
leader along the lines of Ayatollah Khomeini himself to step into the political
arena. Comparisons have been drawn to the Chinese student demonstrations
of ten years ago and the more gradual and peaceful transitions of the Velvet
revolutions in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
What is lacking in all this opining is a specific cultural and sociological
analysis of Iranian society, which is after all the context within which
these events unfold. It seems the Iranian secular intelligencia continues
its traditional non-engagement. The failure of Iranian modernism, culminating
in the 1979 revolution, was caused by its inability to overcome what the
masses perceived as foreign influence, or gharbzadeh-gee (Westoxication),
as the Jalal Ale Ahmad referred to it almost three decades ago.
Modernism has always threaded in the margins of Iranian society, unable
to come down to the level of ordinary people. Therefore it is not surprising
that the only group in Iran that has ever been able to make a connection
with the masses has been the clergy. We can endlessly ridicule akhounds
and mollas but the fact is that the clergy has been the closest thing to
organic intelligencia existing in Iran.
This of course has its roots in Islam. Islam was conceived as much as
a political movement as a religion. Mohammad was not just a leader of the
flock like Moses or a healer and mystic like Jesus; he was a general who
led his army into battle against the infidel and presided over the first
Islamic state. This overt activism if you will is even more so in case
of Shi'ite Islam which more or less was founded as a form of political
A large part of debate unfolding inside and outside of Iran has been
concentrated on the nature of a platform upon which any future organized
opposition such as the one the students have been engaged in, can be built.
Can any future fundamental change in Iran, e.g. a transition to a society
based on the rule of secular law, happen peacefully and gradually? Can
the opposition overcome the romance of violence? Will the regime give up
its monopoly of power without another major blood letting?
Violent resolution of political crises is of course as old as time and
certainly not exclusive to Iran. However every society contains its own
specific cultural and psychological constructs. Let's take, for example,
that most important of events in Shi'ite mythology and the central moment
in its formation: the incident of Karbala. Unless one is an Iranian Shi'ite
Moslem, it is hard to explain the cultural and psychological impact of
Karbala. It is the Calvary manifold. Culture often creates mechanisms by
which a society attempts to cope with traumas.
Hence Karbala tragically resonates among Iranians in the context of
many bloody foreign conquests from the invasion of Arabs to the pillage
of the various Mogul campaigns. It defines the very course of political
confrontation in Iran, the theater of any political movement, the culmination
of which has to be a bloody confrontation complete with martyrs, Ashuras
and the thirds and the sevenths and the fortieth and the anniversaries.
This is a fact true of all political groups in Iran from the fundamentalists
to radical Islamic groups to the political left. Recent political history
is rich in Imam Hossein prototypes from the Qajar reformist prime minister
Amir Kabir to the constitutional revolutionaries Sattar Khan and Bagher
Khan to reformist thinker Ahmad Kasravi and even Ayatollah Khomeini himself,
as well as the many martyrs of the anti-Shah urban guerrilla movement in
the 70's to recent times.
The participants in this theater all revel in the drama and melodrama
with the predictability of a ta'zieh, Shi'ism's passion play. Compromise
and negotiation does have precedence in Shi'ite history. However it has
often been a prelude to a bloody and inevitable confrontation. Compromise
then has come to be identified with cowering in front of the enemy who
has no intention to come half way. Imam Hassan the older brother to the
Imam Hossein is exactly such a figure. He is known as a kind and optimistic
figure, sort of like Prime Minister Chamberlain appeasing Hitler, ultimately
weak though possessing good intentions.
Until Iranian political psychology comes to exorcise the spectrum of
Karbala and accepts the possibility of another model it is mired to repeat
the narrative over and over again.
latest photos taken by an eyewitness
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By Mark J. Gasiorowski
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Student protests, the government and the constitution
By Guive Mirfendereski
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Reflections on the student uprising
By Rasool Nafisi
July 26, 1999
the civil society, stupid!
It's ugly and brutal - but true
By Mansoureh Haqshenas & Koorosh Bayat
July 21, 1999
are we kidding?
We need more than just mild improvement
By Reza Razavi
July 28, 1999
... that ignited nation-wide student protests
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Also by Asghar Massombagi:
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