The Khordad Uprising

The maturation of Iran’s body politic, the rejection of a patriarchal political system in favour of a civil society


The Khordad Uprising
by Asghar_Massombagi

The post-election demonstrations in Iran took everyone by surprise. Their scope and intensity upset all geopolitical pre-conceptions and calculations. Prior to 22nd of Khordad, the world seemed content to view Iran within the Fundamentalist Iran versus anti-colonialist Iran matrix. Neither views took the living breathing people of Iran into account. So when the demonstrations erupted, both camps scrambled to put their own spin on the events. The so-called anti-colonialist Left in the West dismissed it as yet another “colour revolution” such as the ones in Ukraine and Lebanon, most likely inspired and perhaps even organized by the Western powers; the liberal Western media saw in the mass demonstrations a desire on the part of Iranian people to open up to the West and its values. Everyone scrambled to find a footing, a way to explain what had happened. The people had their say on the streets and demanded to be counted, firstly by their leaders but also, indirectly, by the outside world. The foreign media, the BBC and the CNN, were as confounded as the Iranian Diaspora. Since then everyone has tried to project their own agenda onto the recent events. Just what is it that the demonstrators are demanding? What is taking place before our eyes? Here we go again: another Iranian revolution, cried the headline of one online magazine. But is this another revolution, this time reclaiming the legacy of that other revolution? Is this, as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek remarked in a piece on Iran , the return of what has been repressed? Are the demonstrators attempting to reclaim the “true essence” of 1979, its real promises? In spite of Mousavi camp’s clever reclaiming of the tactics and slogans of 1979 (the shouts of “Allaho Akbar” on roof tops, mass demonstration along Enghelab street), I think the meaning of Khordad uprising – aside from a general desire for freedom - is still an open question. This is a time perhaps that we should step back a little and not be caught in the white heat of the events, its sense of urgency, and to reflect. I’m not advocating inaction; historical moments like the one within which the events in Iran are unfolding do not happen often, certainly not in a country like Iran where the regime has had a such tight grip on the population, but nevertheless one cannot be seduced by the heroic action so much as to forget that the 1979 revolution burnt just as intensely if not more. I am not arrogant enough to claim to have comprehended the true meaning of the recent events, certainly not from the safe vantage point of outside, but I can tell you that I was surprised neither by its eruption or intensity. The writing has been on the wall for sometime.

In the wake of Ahmadinejad’s renewed crack down on dress code violations a couple of summers ago (funny how crackdowns and escalations of violence in Iran always seem to coincide with its long hot summers) I wrote a brief piece for this site. That summer I was getting an earful from friends and relatives in Iran about skyrocketing prices, horrible housing shortages and steep rents, maddening traffic, and the crushing side effects of economic sanctions. Why wasn’t the population exploding into mass riots, I kept asking frustrated friends? In fact they did, albeit briefly, when the government threatened to remove gas subsidies. Gas stations were burnt and bus drivers went on strike. The regime put down the unrests with cruel efficiency but just as was the case with the gathering storm back in the mid-Seventies (the housing riots in East Tehran, etc) one could sense the beginning of something big. The wall of fear was beginning to crumble and the IRI’s leadership was following the same pattern of behaviour as the Shah’s regime. In response to popular discontent, Ahamdinejad responded in two ways: first, in order to radicalize the society and energize his Hezbollahi base, he started a brutal program of public hangings, lashings and harsh and humiliating crack down on dress code violations. Just as has been the case with the recent unrests, video clips of women being arrested and harassed on the streets were recorded on cell phone cameras and distributed in Iran and abroad. These women were not political activists that regime could smear and isolate as agents of foreigners; they were ordinary middle class women going about their lives when accosted by the dreaded Ershad Gasht (the so-called decency patrols) in the streets and other public places. The simmering anger from constant humiliation and harassment of a young population that is severely overeducated and underemployed was bound to explode. The question wasn’t if but when. The presidential election and the subsequent disputation of the results by the opposition , provided the spark for this powder keg.

But if the circumstances leading up to the Khordad uprising resembled the ones just prior to the 1979 revolution, the nature of the current movement seems to be different. The 1979 revolution was all about grand narratives. Islam versus the West, independence in place of comprador dependency, nativism versus gharbzadegi (“plagued by the West”, a catchphrase coined first by Ahmad Fardid and made notorious by Jalal Al-e Ahmad), and of course one charismatic patriarchal figure versus another, the Shah versus Khomeini. In other word, the 1979 revolution took place in a clearly defined ideological world, a mass movement with a central figure as its figurehead. The 1979 revolution was in effect the dissolution of the individual in the collective embodied in the larger than life figure of Khomeini. The crowd would chant “Roah-e mani, Khomeini”, you are my soul, a play on Khomeini’s name Rohallah, meaning the soul of Allah. This unity of a mass movement with a single figure was nowhere more evident than Khomeini’s funeral, a surreal staging of the traditional Iranian wailing funerary rites on a mass scale played on live television. American novelist Don Delillo devotes a long chapter in his book Mao II to this funeral. Towards the end of that chapter, Delillo, seeing a pattern in Khomeini’s movement and that of other contemporary charismatic figures like the Reverend Moon, writes prophetically that the future belongs to the masses. To him, mass movements such these spell the end of the individual.

Once a year around the Persian New Year in March, I speak to my cousin, who is a small business owner in Tehran’s bazaar. Being a few years younger than I, his memories of pre-revolution Iran is murky. For all intents and purposes he is a post-revolution child. And almost every year he repeats what he considers to be the lesson of the revolution. We needed this revolution, he says, we needed this maturation process. In other word, Iran needed to work out the Islamic / tradition kink out of its system. That being said, he is not totally in opposition towards the system. He seems content with the uneasy synthesis of modernity and tradition that characterizes post-revolution Iran. To me he represents the post-revolution, and specifically, post-Khomeini urban Iran. He is a well-read if not well educated man, who has learned to live within the system. Separated from his working class origin by a notch or two, he works long hours, comes home to his family and his satellite television and reads his New Age self-help books (what he calls ontological books) in order to cope with life. What he craves is social stability and a decent life. He wants individual freedom, to think and to express himself. He doesn’t reject the system entirely but wants to improve it. He doesn’t crave a charismatic figure.

My cousin is I think a representative member of the new middle class, a middle class by the way that has benefited from the revolution to a large degree, from the state capitalism and the free enterprise system that the IRI has encouraged, albeit a free enterprise that has operated within the boundaries of state’s bureaucratic control. This middle class wants social freedoms and a political voice. Theirs is not radical politics. They do not want to change the world - perhaps individual freedom is the most radical of all – but appreciate the sense of social justice that was in the heart of the 1979 movement. I’m sure there are those who crave Western consumerism and uncritical immersion into Western values, but they appear to be a small minority. The current movement seems to have two themes: freedom and social justice. In spite of pro-regime propaganda outside of Iran, the current movement has a broad base that includes working class, intellectuals and artists, bazaaris, as well as educated technocrats.

Iran’s history in the past 100 years can be viewed as a long march towards freedom and some form of representative democracy, a march interrupted by long stretches of authoritarianism. The Constitutional revolution of 1905 put an end to absolute monarchy and ushered in a brief political spring. Reza Khan’s Napoleonic putsch put an end to that, followed by an iron fist rule (benevolent or not) that lasted 15 years. The Allied Occupation and crowning of a weak Muhammad Reza Shah allowed for relative freedoms which were in turn dashed by 28th Mordad coup d’etat. The Shah’s subsequent 25-year rule was dictatorial. The Shah clearly believed in Machiavellian maxim that as a ruler it’s better to be feared than loved. And feared he was. He was omnipotent and omniscient. His rule allowed for no dissent, no opposition and no framework where the body politic could articulate itself. In place of a political system there was the Shah, his court, an appointed cabinet that followed Khat-e Shah (the Shah’s decree, primarily a mixed bag of modernization from the top and an uneasy dance with the clerical establishment in the name of anti-communism) and a rubber stamp parliament.

When the anti-Shah demonstrations began to gain momentum, the main slogan the people chanted in the streets was “Independence, Freedom,” the Islamic Republic (or Islamic governance, as the slogan sometimes was chanted) was snuck in a little later. The essence of the 1979 revolution was a demand for freedom and independence before ideological take over of Khomeinists. When the constitution was being drafted, the coalition behind Khomeini demanded the republican elements to be enshrined. Khomeini, the superb politician he was realized that he needed his secular and liberal Islamist allies on board and therefore acceded to a compromise. The republican component was earned by the people. It was not, in spite of Mousavi’s clever tactic to claim the republican element of the IRI as in line with Khomeini’s beliefs, a gift from the Ayatollah. It’s this republican legacy that has brought about the current crisis and that the people are trying to reclaim.

If there is a meaning in the Khordad uprising, it is perhaps, as my cousin is fond of repeating, the maturation of Iran’s body politic, the rejection of a patriarchal political system in favour of a civil society; micro politics in place of macro politics of grand ideological concepts; from negative freedoms, to wear or not wear a head scarf, to the freedom to think freely, freedom of expression and assembly. There are those who see a fault in Mousavi’s understated leadership style. I see in it potentially a great advantage. I think Iran has had enough of charismatic figures. I think the demonstrators in Tehran are not seeking a new master to lead them to a promised land. Their movement is post-modern, their demands are specific. This is not to deny the importance of leadership and organization or underestimate the role that ideology still plays but to highlight the emergence of a new maturity.

Professor Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University has called the recent demonstrations a civil rights movement and has asked rhetorically if Mousavi would be its Martin Luther King. He may be correct in calling this a civil rights movement but what I hope for is that its leadership, whoever and whatever it may be, will not be a charismatic figure but a sober leadership, and that the people would not surrender their rights to think and express themselves in order to be lead. In other word, what I hope for is that the people will not make the dirty bargain that is common to all populist movements, that is glossing over the conflicts within the coalition so that to rid themselves of a monster. The feature of all populism is to mystify antagonism. A populist coalition is always sustained by some kind of frustrated despair, an impatient outburst refusing to understand the situation.

Also, perhaps Iran’s body politic has matured beyond the dichotomy of East versus West, tradition versus modernity, Gharbzadegi versus Islamzadegi. This is in spite of the shop worn language of the state propaganda that seeks to demonize its opposition as Western stooges or the tiresome post-colonial jargon of the Leftist demagogues in Europe and America. As I mentioned earlier, Iranian people have risen to speak for themselves. They are not children and as such do not need to be represented by their patriarchal masters in Iran, nor those outside, regardless of their political stripes, who seem to think they know what is best for Iran.


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It seems like you are speaking on behalf of all of Iran

by Amir Khosrow Sheibany (not verified) on

Just as you blame others for doing so. It's too early to judge Iran's political maturity, though admittedly it is looking promising.

The winner makes the rules and it is by no measure clear who is the winner and whether Khomeinist, including the reformers, will even survive in the coming year, let alone act as "Martin Luther King" figures.


Not Everyone!

by Happygolucky (not verified) on

The post-election uprisings by millions of Iranians came as a surprise only to those who believed in and persisitently talked about popular support for Ahmadinejad and the regime as a whole.

Those of us who knew what was really happening in Iran and did not believe the lies and propaganda of the regime and its supporters were not surprised, at all.