Iran: a green wave for life and liberty

Asef Bayat
7 July 2009

How can we make sense of the current political crisis in the Islamic Republic of Iran? Why is that after a decade of a seeming silence, we see today a spectacular political movement that has posed the greatest challenge to the Islamist rule? Is this a class struggle, or the revenge of secularism against theocracy? Is Iran on the verge of yet another revolution?

Asef Bayat is professor of sociology and middle-east studies at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He is the author of Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford University Press, 2007)

Also by Asef Bayat in openDemocracy:

"Democracy and the Muslim world: the ‘post-Islamist' turn" (6 March 2009)

The key to answering these questions is understanding how the current contention both reflects and is the outcome of Iran's deep political and social divide - between a doctrinal regime which regards people as dutiful subjects, and a large segment of the population who see themselves as rightful citizens. The root cause of the crisis lies in a historic twist: that Iran experienced an "Islamic revolution" without developing a pervasive "Islamist movement" - one that could "socialise", and connect the expectations of the people to the visions of the Islamist leadership.

In the absence of such an Islamist movement, "Islamisation" was then inaugurated primarily after the revolution: by the Islamic state, from above, and often through coercion and compulsion. In consequence, from the very first days of the Islamic Republic the process provoked dissent. Today's crisis is the legacy of that disjuncture over the very meaning of the revolution.

The layers of "independence"

In the weeks and days that crystallised into the collapse of the Shah's regime on 11 February 1979, the cry of millions of Iranians marching in city streets and filling every public square created a deafening echo: Estiqlal, Azadi, Jomhuri-ye Eslami! ("Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic!"). This pivotal yet broad demand - emblazoned on almost every banner, tract, and placard - became virtually the identity-marker of the Iranian revolution: an aspiration that was shared by and united the protestors and the emerging revolutionary leadership.

Yet it did not take long before these respective parties began to articulate more precisely what they meant by these terms, and what they understood by the revolution. This process set the stage for protracted discontent on one side, and suppression on the other.

For many Iranians in the late 1970s, the revolution was certainly a nationalist, anti-imperialist movement in which estiqlal (independence) was a key goal. The term reflected the sentiment of the time when most people felt that theirs was a "dependent" nation -dependent on the "west", and above all America.

The evidence was plain: the Shah had been reinstalled in 1953 by the United States after a CIA coup had toppled the secular-democratic government of Mohammad Mossadeq who the previous year had nationalised the Iranian Oil Company. The US then supported the Shah as for a generation he used a notorious secret-police agency (Savak) to rule Iran with an iron hand. It was natural, then, that the quest for "independence" was expressed in the frame of the "third-worldist" and anti-imperialist discourse characteristic of the 1970s. This outlook galvanised millions of Iranians across the political spectrum - secular, religious, nationalist, and Marxist alike.

Also on the disputed election in Iran and its bitter aftermath:

"Iran's election: people and power" (15-18 June 2009) - a symposium with Ramin Jahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, Grace Nasri, Rasool Nafisi, Nasrin Alavi, Sanam Vakil, and Farhang Jahanpour

Farhang Jahanpour, "Iran's stolen election, and what comes next" (18 June 2009)

Hossein Bastani, "Iran's coming storm" (22 June 2009)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Iran" (23 June 2009)

Hazem Saghieh, "Iran: dialectic of revolution" (23 June 2009)

Reza Molavi & Jennifer Thompson, "Iran's quantum of solace: step back, look long" (25 June 2009)

Ali Reza Eshraghi, "Iran's crisis and Ali Khamenei" (29 June 2009)

Mahmood Delkhasteh, "The archaeology of Iran's regime" (2 July 2009)

The vast majority of those of us who embraced this "way of seeing" opposed "dependence" as part of a wider engagement with the world at large. For example, we saw many correspondences with what was happening in Latin America at the time. Thus, for the protestors there was no automatic translation between the search for "independence" and support for national autarky and isolation.

The position of the Islamist revolutionary leaders, however, turned out to be very different. They came to see "independence" as providing immunity against "external" interference and influences, and thus as a critical political shield to secure the regime's social control. For them, the estiqlal idea insulated the Islamic regime from the encroaching ideas, competing models, and diverse lifestyles that a full encounter with a globalising world would unleash.

What lies behind this attitude is that Iran's is a peculiar doctrinal regime whose legitimacy is grounded on narrow and exclusive "religious values". The hardline Islamists have always feared that in the event of an opening up to the outside world and its unfettered flow of diverse ideas, these "religious values" might not be able to stand firm. In fact, part of the Islamists' critique of globalisation is linked to their deep anxiety over losing their self-worth in Iran itself. These rulers could open up to the world only if they possessed a strong degree of political and ideological self-confidence at home.

In lacking such confidence, Iran's rulers had to transform the rhetoric of "independence" (and by extension authenticity) into a "sacred" entity, a virtue, whose violation would invite punishment. This is the logic that leads them to target oppositional ideas, politics, and individuals as "foreign", "western", or "American" (as in "western intellectual", "American Islam" or "American freedom"). So, the idea of "independence" has become a pretext for restraining freedoms at home. Perhaps it was an early and implicit understanding of this danger that guided millions of revolutionary Iranians who in the late 1970s were marching to oust the Shah to extend their chant beyond estiqlal to the second key component of the revolution: azadi (freedom).

The meanings of "freedom"

What did the Iranian people then mean by the term azadi at the time of the revolution? In public discourse and sentiment in the late 1970s, the desire for azadi was essentially linked to "justice". It implied liberation from repression, from the fear of despotic bosses, bureaucrats, the traffic-police, the village gendarmerie - and above all, from the fear of Savak. Freedom represented a desire for inclusion without fear.

The revolution and the collapse of the Shah's regime in February 1979 did entail a good deal of freedom. In the post-revolution weeks and months, a spectacular sense of relief and liberty was palpable. This was expressed in a multitude of ways: from a tremendous rise of public media and the people's presence in the civic arena to social and political activism in neighbourhoods, schools, offices, factories, farms, and even the army.

But this "spring of freedom", as it was called at the time, soon came to an end. A series of events punctuated the shift: the ratification of the constitution of the Islamic Republic in the referendum of December 1979; the hostage crisis following the seizure of the American embassy that soon followed; the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein's army in September 1980. A number of hardline vigilante groups, brandishing clubs and guns, began to dominate public spaces, heralding the advent of a new social order. Any "non-conformist" young people, women, suspect men and religious minorities underwent harsh social control and moral discipline; freedom of expression, organisation, and open dissent rapidly diminished.

Amid both outward-facing (war with Iraq) and internal conditions (repression and suppressed conflict), the demand for azadi was pushed to the sidelines. It only resurfaced after the end of the war in 1988, and in the early years of the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97); it reached its height under the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), when greater opportunity for political expression became available. But by then, the meaning of "freedom" had undergone a shift of register.

In this new period, azadi was articulated not only in terms of political inclusion, but especially in terms of civil and individual liberties. Perhaps at no time in Iran's history has there been such a powerful quest for individual rights, civil liberties, and a longing to be able to choose one's preferred lifestyle. For most young people, the major concern became "reclaiming youth" itself - the desire to act as a young person, as freely as any others in the world - to choose where to go, what to wear, what to think or listen to, and who to marry or not marry. That meant that young women wanted to be free from the constant surveillance of the moral authority, the state, enforced hijab, and oppressive laws. They struggled to follow their lifestyle, pursue their hobbies, play a public role, make decisions in family matters, study, choose their life partners, and be seen and heard.

This quest for individual rights partly reflects a broader process of individuation that Iranian society has been undergoing in the thirty years since the 1979 revolution. This creeping modernity - resulting from the expanding urbanisation (70%), general literacy (80%), college education, mobility, and the inescapable footprints of globalisation - has been manifested in a host of different social processes; they include "nuclearisation" of the family, the trend towards smaller, two-child households, apartment life, child-centredness, and valuing meritocracy against ageism (as well as, sadly, a trend of possessive individualism).

This modernity has not diminished peoples' religious belief per se, though there is a strong disdain for clericalism and political Islam. Rather, Iran has moved into a post-Islamist trajectory where people wish to combine their Islam with modernity, their religiosity with rights, and their faith with freedom.

This understanding of "freedom" differs from that of the Islamist leaders. In fact, Islamists in general from the beginning expressed little interest in the idea of freedom. If anything, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, for most of them azadi meant hedonism, moral laxity, decadence, and westernisation; even more so when it had become the main outcry of the banished democrats, liberals, middle-class women, and urban youngsters.

True, Ayatollah Khomeini had spoken the language of azadi when he was in opposition to the Shah, but said little about it when he ascended to power. His successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was among those who realised the appeal of "freedom" among the young, and refused to discard the concept altogether; but he and his co-thinkers claimed for it a genealogy that was essentially "divine and Islamic". The notion of "spiritual freedom", he argued, entailed the "freedom to fulfil one's obligations", to "do grand work and to make grand choices" as a means of self-elevation. The other kinds of freedoms people were demanding stood in violation of Iran's religious rule, the kernel of the Islamic Republic.

The rules of the game

The core legitimacy of the Islamic Republic derives from "divinely ordained values", "Islamic principles". The Islamic Republic is an Islamic state based upon the principle of velayat-i faqih (the rule of the supreme jurist, currently Ayatollah Khamenei); he, in effect, is in a position ultimately to determine what those "divinely ordained values" or "Islamic principles" actually are.

Yet not all is divine in this political order; there is also room for the "people", who through their elected deputies can enact laws in a western-style parliament and execute them through a presidential office. But both the people's deputies and their laws, their "Islamicness", are to be sanctioned by a small group (the Guardian Council, composed of clerics and lawyers) who are effectively blessed by the supreme faqih. So a closed circuit of power and patronage reproduces the dominance of the Islamist clique which rules Iran today.

Is this what the millions of revolutionaries had in mind when they were uttering Jomhuri-ye EslamiEstiqlal, Azadi, Jomhuri-ye Esalami? At the time, the term clearly signified a regime change - change from monarchy to republicanism, from autocracy to democracy. But the adjective "Islamic" in "Islamic Republic" was unclear for many. (Islamic Republic) in that defining motto

In truth Iranians had previously made no reference to such a republic. Ayatollah Khomeini's idea of velayat-i faqih, which he articulated in his book Islamic Government in the early 1970s, was basically a matter of Shi‘a jurisprudence rather than a blueprint for governance; it remained almost totally unknown to the public until after the revolution.

What people seemed to understand by the term "Islamic republic" during the revolution accommodated the vague idea of a just, pious, and accountable or democratic alternative to the dictatorship of the Shah. Ayatollah Khomeini confirmed this perception in an NBC interview on 11 November 1978, where he acknowledged that "the Islamic Republic will be truly democratic". In fact, the draft constitution of the Islamic Republic (which Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris approved) was fairly secular and democratic. It was inspired by the French republic's constitution, and bore no reference to divine sovereignty, or to velayat-i faqih; only to a "council of guardians" that included six lawyers and five clerics who were to oversee legislation.

However, before its final ratification in a planned constituent assembly, the hardline Islamists in the Revolutionary Council and the newly formed Islamic Republican Party radically altered the draft, turning it into more or less what it remains to this day. They did so by launching a massive populist campaign in support of some classic redistributive and leftist demands (receiving the sympathy of some leftists in the process): land reforms, homes for everyone, nationalising industry and foreign trade, confiscating lands, all garnished with copious anti-US rhetoric. They also charged those who opposed the constitution (whether liberals, secularists, or even moderate Muslims) as pro-capitalist, pro-west, and counter-revolutionary (in short, very similar to what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is doing today). In this highly charged mood where many critics feared to speak out, hardline Islamists succeeded in pushing through the altered, Islamised, draft constitution - one that eventually ensured the power of a new religious oligarchy in an Islamic state.

The revenge of history

The Islamic state is neither totalitarian (there exist numerous internal fissures, and social resistance) nor archaic pre-modern (it exerts power largely through modern institutions such as a parliament, president, and modern bureaucracy); but it remains deeply authoritarian, acutely patriarchal, and ideologically exclusive, depriving millions of citizens from participating in the decisions concerning public life. It continues to violate human rights, impose harsh social control, moral discipline, and a misogynous treatment of women. In this religious rule, an overwhelming emphasis on people's obligations stands in sharp contrast to people's quest for rights and republicanism.

The reform movement of the 1990s, which in part turned into the reform government of 1997-2004 (which had died a year before the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2005), came into being precisely to rectify this republican deficit, to democratise the Islamic Republic. It is no wonder that the spectacular mood, energy and optimism that followed the election of Mohammad Khatami, heralded the coming of Iran's "second revolution" - one that was to complete that of 1979. It made people believe that a new way of doing politics was on the horizon, that a fundamental change could be created, not in the form of a violent revolution but that of a peaceful politics. A multitude of Iranians (some 70% voters in an 80% turnout) voted for a middle-ranking cleric, Khatami, who had promised to bring "reforms" - democracy, the rule of law, meritocracy, tolerance, and civil society. "Reform", a term which in the 1980s would have invoked a sense of "betrayal", now became the catchphrase of the time, a politics of hope.

True, the reform government did not emerge out of the blue. Rather it embodied the political strand of a broader post-Islamist movement which developed since the early 1990s in the course of the post-war "reconstruction". This post-Islamism articulated the rising sentiments of women, young people, students, intellectuals and politically marginalised groups for social, political, and religious openness. It aimed to transcend the Islamist project, to undo the religious state, curb social control of gender and moral discipline, and end the monopoly of religious truth. It wished to establish a secular- democratic state within a broadly pious society in which the language of rights regained its foregone prominence.

Khatami's reform project was to put the political objectives of post-Islamism into practice. The strategy was to empower civil society from below, and negotiate legal and institutional change at the top where conservative Islamists still wielded real power. At that point, civil society gained strength, and a free press, associational life, and social-movement activism assumed unprecedented energy. A series of open debates on religious politics, the rule of law, violence, women, and the west, shook the hardliners' moral standing. Even though little changed in the conservatives' institutional power - namely in the non-elected bodies, army, the police, pasdaran the basij militiias, as well as in the institutions of propaganda, and numerous violent pressure-groups; but the reform discourse posed the most serious challenge to the doctrine of the velayat-i faqih from within.

The revengeful hardliners, wounded by the reformists' societal hegemony, embarked on a massive operation - political, legal, and conducted by blatant violence - to win back what they had lost throughout these years. Ahmadinejad and his government embody that avenging impulse to roll back history.

They represented an urge for restoration, specifically a return to the revolutionism of the early 1980s, by forging new sources of legitimacy - that is to say, populism, radicalism, and messianic discourse. They were and are determined to offset any possibility of yet another reform government. They sought adamantly to consolidate the conservative Islamists' power in line with the visions of Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi - Ahmadinejad's doctrinal mentor - by stripping the Islamic Republic of its republican component, by turning it into an Islamic government, in which elections would be reduced to a venue to express allegiance to the supreme faqih, as the true essence of the "Islamic system".

Reform or revolution?

But how can these "men of religion" morally justify what is believed to be a pervasive fraud, blatant illegality, and astonishing deceit? The truth is that the very "sacred" system the hardliners strive to maintain - velayat-i faqih - can be used to justify and indeed sanctify such drastic measures. In this system (as confirmed by Ayatollah Khomeini), the "Islamic rule" (velayat) takes precedence over all other obligations (owjib wajibat), and the supreme faqih holds the absolute power to change or disregard any law, precept, and even religious injunctions he deems detrimental to the "Islamic rule". If ignoring the constitution or preventing people from their daily prayers can be justified for the "expediency of the system", why not fraud in the elections? In such an ethical frame, lying can become an act of obligation, a virtue.

It is therefore shortsighted to reduce the crisis to the bickering of the westernised urban middle- and affluent-class Iranians against a supposedly pro-working class and anti-imperialist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who claims to have won the elections. History seems to repeat itself. There were similar sentiments during the hostage crisis in the early 1980s from the international left and its Iranian counterpart before the latter was liquidated by the very regime they called "anti-imperialist".

The key to the Islamists' "anti-imperialism" is not the emancipation of the subaltern, but self-preservation. Ahamadinejad's "anti-imperialism" has meant little to the well-being and the emancipation of ordinary people: the excluded, the poor, and women. If anything, hardliners have denied most citizens of their economic benefit and human rights, while their extremist rhetoric and exclusivist practices have justified and dignified neo-liberal enemies in the west. Their undemocratic precepts have given ammunition to the most intolerant Islamophobes and warmongers in the United States and Europe, enabling them to wage a protracted campaign in which mostly poor and downtrodden Muslims get victimised.

Under the "anti-imperialist" Ahmadinejad, scores of NGOs have been closed down; hundreds of dissident students, faculty, women, and civil-society activists have been incarcerated, and the mass protests of teachers, bus-drivers, and other workers have been suppressed. It was under Ahmadinejad's government that subsidies were cut, privatisation reached a new height (eighteen times more than that in 2001-03), and a 25% inflation-rate brought low-income people to their knees. Ahmadinejad's electoral campaign in 2005 focused on fighting corruption, generating jobs and a generous redistribution of oil money. But under his government, cronyism and corruption reached a new level, and people living below the poverty-line increased (by 13%), with 9 million-10 million falling below it (according to the Islamic Works Council). In fact, judging on economic policies and support for the public sector, Mir-Hossein Moussavi is certainly more to the "left" than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Moreover, the Ahmaninejad vs Mousavi contestation does not reflect a rural-urban divide. Both candidates seem to have support from both constituencies. In fact, Iran in the past three decades has become an increasingly urban and literate society. A creeping urbanity (through growing education, electrification, a nuclear-family structure, specialisation, media expansion and newspaper reading) has brought the countryside into the orbit of an urban pulse in which (and despite severe restrictions) a vocal public sphere, associational life, respectable journalism, 11 million internet users and 100,000 bloggers pose a serious challenge to the very Islamic state which has helped to instigate these developments.

Ahmadinejad's regime is tied not to the working class as such but to a peculiar "state class" - an ideological community, comprising both the poor and affluent, that is brought together by sharing state handouts (aid, special subsidies, preferential payments, favours, bribes, commissions) and socialised into a hardline ideological paradigm. Thus, war veterans, basijis, and members of the vast religious sector (many mosques, shrines, seminaries, schools, or cultural associations) share the regime's oil-income proceeds with rich cronies, contractors, and people from the revolutionary institutions - and are thus encouraged to support a hardline government that has alienated millions of Iranians.

In this light, the "nightmare" of yet another term for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caused unprecedented enthusiasm for the reformist candidates. Iranian people (many of whom refused to vote in the previous poll, in 2005) utilised the election schedule and a rift within the power elites to turn their quiet discontent into a spectacular open mobilisation - involving grassroots activism, coalition-building, and mass street marching in quasi-carnivalesque fashion; all of which raised great hopes and expectations.

The shocking outcome of the elections dashed hopes and inspired a profound moral outrage that in turn fed into a broad-based protest movement unseen in the history of the Islamic Republic. This movement, neither a class struggle against a pro-poor government nor a secularist war against religious rule, embodies a post-Islamist democracy movement to reclaim citizenship within a religious-ethical order. It articulates the long-standing yearnings for a dignified life free from fear, moral surveillance, corruption, and arbitrary rule. Indigenous and non-violent, it represents a green wave for life and liberty.

The movement started strongly, but soon faced a violent crackdown by the regime. The thinking class (strategists, campaigners, writers) has been incarcerated; reformist media almost shut down; and free communication suspended. The state violence and intimidation (at least twenty killed and over 1,000 arrested), a neurotic propaganda campaign in state-controlled media, and psychological warfare have weakened the street showdowns.

In the short run, the regime may prevail. But many things have already changed for ever. The supreme leader is no longer that neutral arbiter with the lasting word; he has become the target of contention. The regime has faced an unprecedented legitimacy crisis. The issue has gone beyond electoral fraud towards challenging the very ability of Islamist rule to accommodate the desires of its rights-conscious citizens. And the people have shown how they express their collective will once they get the chance

The crisis will not go away. The popular claims for life and liberty, so tied to people's everyday life, will remain and grow, expressing themselves in daily acts of individual defiance, before bursting collectively into the open once they find a space in society or a crack in the governing body. A large number of Iranians, in sum, are likely to remain ungovernable.

For now, the movement is decidedly against a revolution. But revolutions do not announce their arrival in advance. Rather, a contention builds up to a point where protestors find themselves capturing barracks or opening prison-gates, and adversaries in a desperate rush to cross borders. This depends as much on the dynamics of the contention as how the adversaries behave. Today, the protestors clearly want a reform, not a revolution. But the future will tell if the regime will not turn these reformers into revolutionaries. 

Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup" (26 June 2005)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (28 October 2005)

Nayereh Tohidi, "Iran: regionalism, ethnicity and democracy" (28 June 2006)

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007)

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "The Iran paradox" (11 October 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's political shadow war" (16 July 2008)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: after the dawn" (2 February 2009)

Abbas Milani, "Iran's Islamic revolution: three paradoxes" (9 February 2009)

Homa Katouzian, "The Iranian revolution: beyond enigma" (13 February 2009)

Nikki R Keddie, "Iranian women and the Islamic Republic" (24 February 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

Sanam Vakil & David Hayes, "Iran's election and Iran's system" (21 April 2009)

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran: a blind leap of faith" (2 June 2009)

Fred Halliday, "Iran's evolution and Islam's Berlusconi" (9 June 2009)

Omid Memarian, "Iran on the move" (11 June 2009)

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