Bloody protests in Iran during the Ashura festival marked a turning point in the conflict between the regime and its opponents. For the first time, demonstrators responded to police brutality with violence of their own. But although the opposition movement is gaining ground, the government’s massive security forces are still as powerful as ever.
The ruler in his palace was at a loss. He felt helpless, alone and full of misgivings. Should he attack on this day in December, a day when his people were taking advantage of Ashura, an important Shiite festival, to take to the streets in the millions and demand his abdication in angry chants? Wasn’t it imperative that he demonstrate uncompromising brutality and order his soldiers to shoot into the crowd, if he hoped to continue as leader?
The ruler, a man who felt chosen by history, was all too familiar with the symbolic power of the events surrounding Ashura. On that day, the faithful commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who fearlessly confronted superior forces 1,300 years ago in the Battle of Karbala, giving impetus to the rise of a religion dedicated to rapt suffering. The ruler of Iran apparently sensed that it would be more than a tactical mistake to resort to violence on this day. Indeed, it would be an incident of sacrilege that he would be unable to survive. Instead, he forbade his military leaders and intelligence officials from creating what could have been a b…
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