Defining moment

Islam vs. Iran's 'Islamic Republic'


Defining moment
by Mehdi Khalaji

A new opportunity is now emerging for the "Green Movement" in Iran to demonstrate opposition to the Islamic Republic and the manipulated presidential election results earlier this year. Friday, December 18, marks the beginning of the months of Muharram and Safar in the Islamic lunar calendar. For the regime in Tehran, gaining control of the streets has become gradually more difficult since the Green Movement turned all officially sanctioned political ceremonies into opportunities to wage protests against the Islamic Republic. The coming two months, however, represent the first time that a religious opportunity has come up.

Mourning Means Revolting
In Shiite tradition, Hossein, the third imam -- meaning both political leader and spiritual guide -- led a noble but ultimately unsuccessful revolt against the unjust rule of the Muslim caliph Yazid. The tenth day of Muharram, or Ashura, marks the bloody end to this revolt in October 680 of the Common Era, when Hossein faced off against Yazid's army at Karbala. Once Hossein's forces had been defeated, he and some seventy of his disciples, along with all the male members of his family, were brutally killed. Since then, Hossein has occupied a special place for Shiites. He gained the title "Master of Martyrs," and in the course of Islamic history his image has been influenced by pre-Islamic mythology as well as Christian scripture. Remembrance of the passion of Hossein and his sacrifice, as well as the suffering of his family and disciples, has served as a locus for sustaining Shiite identity. The events of Ashura are viewed by Shiites as the defining moment when they split from the mainstream Sunni sect and the caliphate. By extension, Shiites have long connected mourning for Hossein, and his divine sacrifice, with the principles of truth and justice as opposed to unjust and cruel leadership.

The Pivot of Shiite Social Networks
In Iran, both before and after the sixteenth century -- when Shiism became the official state sect -- commemorating Ashura has been the mythological cement that binds the community. This remembrance does not occur only in mosques, but also in the hundreds of thousands of buildings known as hosseinyehs or tekyehs that were constructed for the sole purpose of remembrance. Beyond these sites, which are funded by religious endowments and wealthy donors, many middle- and upper-class families have equipped their homes as places for commemorating the tragedy of Karbala. In this process, they have allowed their homes and their families alike to be blessed by the name of Hossein. Both the hosseinyehs and the use of private homes for remembrance have created a wide social network in Iran that has remained significant even as the country has become modernized. In the absence of a civil society, and against government restrictions in the public sphere, this network has, under certain circumstances, served nonreligious social and political functions.

The commemoration of Imam Hossein's martyrdom takes place through rowzeh khani, a ritual consisting of dirges that recount the tragedies of Karbala, usually rendered by professional cantors and religious singers, or maddahs. In the course of the two months, Shiites form heyats, or religious associations, which organize street processions that begin with gatherings in mosques, hosseinyehs, tekyehs, or private houses. Congregants then spill into the streets, where they sing rhythmic religious songs and beat their chests. In the processions, the rows of flagellants are led by one or more individuals who bear the crushing weight of a decorative steel cross called an alam. The massive lamentations in the streets are accompanied by special music for Ashura, including trumpets, kettledrums, and other instruments. Religious singers, cantors, and clerics do not limit their words to narration from the Karbala tragedy; they also address social and political issues of the day. In the years before the Islamic Revolution, Muharram and Safar offered the best opportunity for antigovernment clerics to mobilize people against the shah, usually by comparing him to Yazid, the epitome of an unjust ruler. The opposition, on the other hand, likened itself to the murdered martyr Hossein, the epitome of truth and justice.

Failed Monopolization Policy
Since the beginning of the Islamic Republic, the government has posited itself as the official and exclusive authority on religious affairs. Not only has the regime established a monopoly over the management of economic-religious organizations and institutions that manage endowments along with the clerical establishment, but it has also tried to consolidate management of the Shiite rituals that traditionally fell outside the state's jurisdiction. By creating bodies such as the Office for Islamic Propaganda (Daftar-e Tablighat-e Eslami), the Islamic Propaganda Organization (Sazman-e Tabliqat-e Eslami), the Center for Imams of Prayer and Friday Prayers (Dibirkhaneh-ye Aemmeh-ye jomeh va jama'at), the Center for Mosques Affairs (Markaz-e residergi be omour-e masajed), and tens of other similar institutions, the government has been able to purge clerics who are deemed to be insufficiently pro-government and to silence their preaching and performances during religious rituals such as those during Ashura.

Nevertheless, because of the widespread observance of the Muharram and Safar rituals, as well as their reach into all corners of the country, the government has not been able to effectively control all practices associated with the remembrance. In recent years, the regime has complained of attempts by the younger generation to transform the religious commemoration into a more modern and fashionable event. For many sociocultural reasons, Iranian youth -- who cannot enjoy concerts and street festivals as can their peers in more Western-oriented societies, or even meet with members of the opposite sex in public -- have transformed the events into an opportunity to experiment with new music and mingle with one another without fear of police interference.

In recent years during the festival, many middle- and upper-class neighborhoods of big cities have seen young performers sing romantic and passionate songs with ambivalent lyrics -- open to identification by either sex and applicable to sacred as well as earthly love. The music's melodies and style are also inspired by Western forms, including pop and rock and roll. For their part, young women wear revealing and fashionable dresses, usually black, and some go so far as to wear black and green makeup, emulating Western Goth subculture. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other official clerics have criticized this "transformation" of Ashura rituals as "inappropriate," but nonetheless, the government has failed to prevent youths from remaking the religious ceremonies for their own purposes.

Fighting the Enemy with His Own Weapons
As a decentralized movement, the "Green Wave" is well positioned to challenge the government by using the religious rituals held during the months of Muharram and Safar. From the government's perspective, mounting a confrontation against the socially dynamic scene would prove deeply exhausting. In virtually all cities and villages where Shiites live, mosques and homes are potential centers for a civil and democratic movement in opposition to the government. After all, Iranians used this same technique during the pre-revolutionary years under the shah. Three decades ago, the participation of millions in these rituals -- including many who usually did not practice their religion -- had a major role in overthrowing the shah's regime. Today, even low-ranking clerics who support the Green Movement could play a significant role by allowing the people to politicize the ceremonies and transform them into opposition gatherings. In a recent statement, opposition cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri said that the "Islamic Republic is neither Islamic nor republic; it is a military government."

The Green Movement's use of Muharram and Safar could have a tremendous impact on the religious credentials and legitimacy of the regime. If the government avoids violence out of respect for the religious values of Muharram and Safar, it could mean two months of open challenges to the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic's ideology. But if the government cracks down on religious displays, resentment against the Islamic Republic could increase significantly.

Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Iranian politics and the politics of Shiite groups in the Middle East.


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On the contrary Sergeant Garcia

by Fair on

You are the one with the wishful thinking.

Result of the torn Charlatan's photo:

1)pathetically low turnout in fully hyped up government staged event

2)There will be more tearing up of this charlatan's photo

The Green Movement and the Iranian people have actuall one very clear choice ahead. Resist the fascists fully, and send them back to the garbage can where you came from. The tough choice will be for you and your stooge bosses- how low to continue to stoop to hang on to power illegally, and then which country to run away to?

Despite all the rape, torture, imprisonment, beating, that your Islamic Fuehrer has used to stay in power, the people still come out. They are no longer afraid. The clergy are split like never before, and today you have more oppression of dissenting clergy than under the Shah.

In the meantime, your regime is so afraid it attacks an unarmed defenseless woman cornered against a wall with a baton while wearing protective gear. That is really a sign of stability of a regime:


Your delusionary self congratulatory notion that your power is safe is the classic downfall of all dictators. Your pathetic regime and you are finished. You will stop at no crime to hang on to what is not yours. But you will fail in the end.

Get Ready. We are coming. You will get what you deserve.

Irani Meemirad

Zellat Nemipazirad




Major Sargord

by vildemose on

Major Sargord Pirouz:

Your Supreme leader's own newspaper does not agree with your wishful Thinking so-called analysis of the green movement: 

Baisrat, a website belonging to the representative of Iran's Supreme Leader in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has warned of five emerging fault lines now threatening the Iranian government. Two such fault lines have directly resulted from the recent presidential election. One is the "rift between clerics and velayat-e-faqih," the position of Supreme Leader, and the other is a "rift between the people and the State." IRGC's website has expressed concerns for media platforms used by or provided to opposition clerics. Such warnings are consistent with what some high ranking clerics like Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have predicted, that "people are turning away from clerics and showing more signs of accepting students and academics as their points of reference."

This trend poses a serious dilemma in terms of how to deal with the continued protests. Demonstrations inside and outside universities in Tehran and other cities will only exacerbate the problem.

On the eve of 16 Azar Student Day, many known opposition students were detained. Reformist newspapers were warned about the consequences of "sowing seeds of division." In an unprecedented move, journalists working for foreign news agencies received a text that their licenses had been suspended for three days, a move clearly meant to prevent media exposure. Internet and mobile phone networks were also shut down.

However, protests took place and students expressed their anger and frustration with little fear of the security forces. Mir Hossain Mousavi issued a statement, and while he did not call for students and citizens to march against the regime, the timing and wording of his statement was clear enough to tell Iranians that there was no turning back, and people need to resist in the face of baton-wielding uniform and plainclothes agents"...



Sargord shekast, this conversation is way over your head

by Hovakhshatare on

go spread your IRR lies and innuendo somewhere else.

Sargord Pirouz

wistful thinking, Mehdi

by Sargord Pirouz on

Judging by the results of the torn Khomeini photo incident, which has really put the radicalized students on the defensive, I don't think it advisable for the Green Movement to try and hijack Muharram and Safar. They'd potentially face off against the same religiously outraged element that recently protested in the thousands against the Khomeini photo incident.

The Green Movement has some some tough choices ahead. While not extinguished, it remains under led and ill defined; struggling to find itself, as well as an effective means of advancing its cause in any meaningful, productive way. Right now, all it has to offer are periodic episodes of sporadic protest, and little else. The reaction by the authorities has actually been more substantive and significant to the post-election period.


Astute observation and analysis

by oktaby on

Leveraging the two religious months as you describe will result in exposing the nature of this regime to those who still believe it is a religious regime, mostly in rural or 'well dominated' parts of the country but that is important because it is recruiting grounds for the regime (leveraging fringes against the middle). It will also speed up regime fully exposing itself for what it is, a barbaric system (to use their own terminology 'Asfal ol safelin- lowest of the low' rule Iran) that will do anything and extract any price, to people or country, to preserve power, including starting a war to distract from domestic affairs and actions.

This means tanks in the streets, shooting people dead by the hundreds and ...  You are right about a no win situation for this regime.

we have seen all this before and likely have learned not to allow a rerun in a different form.