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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
The Iranian

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 resistance.

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.

* See latest photos taken by an eyewitness

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