The Rebirth of Student Protest in Iran
We’ve said it before, and we’ll keep on saying it: A country whose leader has the power to imprison any citizen whatsoever, on his order alone, and hold them indefinitely, in military custody, without access to the courts, without a lawyer, without any charges, their fate determined solely by the leader’s arbitrary whim–that country is a tyranny, not a democracy, not a republic, not a union of free citizens.
Now it may be that it is still a tyranny in utero, a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem–or in this case, Washington–to be born, and not yet the full-blown monster, fangs bared and back plated with bristling armored scales. But the tyranny has been conceived, it’s taken root in the womb, gained definite form and is clawing, tearing its way toward the light.
President George W. Bush openly claims that he now holds this power of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. His minions defend it with earnest arguments. They have already begun acting on its dictatorial tenets. If this claim is not rejected by the other two branches of government–an unlikely event, with both branches now held by Bush partisans–then the fundamental liberty of every American citizen will have been stripped away finally and completely. Henceforth, liberty is not the inalienable right of the citizen, but a privilege granted–or not–by an autocratic government.
What we are witnessing is the mutation of a democratic republic into a military autocracy: Bush bases his claim of arbitrary power on the president’s constitutional role as commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces. Although there is nothing in the constitution that warrants the extension of military command to cover arbitrary rule over the entire citizenry, and certainly nothing that countenances the abrogation of basic rights and liberties on the unchallengeable say-so of an all-powerful leader, the “commander-in-chief” argument nevertheless serves a useful purpose for the autocrat, creating the illusion of a limited and temporary suspension of liberties–a drastic but necessary “wartime” measure.
But Bush and his officials have already warned us that this “wartime emergency” might never end. A direct quote from the commander-in-chief: “There’s no telling how many wars it will take to secure freedom in the homeland.” The other branches concur in this militarization of American society. Citing a political landscape “changed by war,” the new head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John Warner, says he wants to “break down the barriers”–the constitutional barriers–that restrict the military’s involvement in civilian life. The Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, whose Supreme Court stands as the last defense against the dictatorship of the executive branch, has already signaled his public approval of military rule, quoting the old Roman maxim: “In time of war, the laws are silent.”
So if the wars never cease raging, the laws will no longer speak. Or rather, they will speak only to ratify the will of the authoritarian regime. Just this week, a “special” appeals court–a secret panel operating outside the ordinary judicial system–upheld the right of the state to invade the privacy of any citizen through expanded wiretap and surveillance powers, Reuters reports. These invasions no longer need meet the already-lax standards previously required for domestic surveillance, but can now proceed virtually at the whim of the federal forces, even without any direct connection to suspected terrorist or espionage activity.
The “special” court is a three-judge board made up of appointees from the Reagan-Bush administration, chosen for this secret duty by that obedient Roman, William Rehnquist. It overturned a lower-court ruling that curbed surveillance powers after documenting 75 cases of their abuse by federal agents in both the Clinton and Bush II administrations. However, Attorney General John Ashcroft–whose agents will carry out most of the secret investigations–said this week that the government will not “overstep its legal bounds” with the new, broader powers. And indeed, with a “silent” high court and a supine legislature willing to lend an air of legitimacy to any action of the ruling junta–hijacking a presidential election, imprisoning citizens without charge, waging aggressive war–no doubt Ashcroft is right. There are no longer any “legal bounds” to overstep.
Bush’s dictatorial powers of arrest and imprisonment are only part of an unprecedented expansion of militarized state power into every aspect of American life, coupled with an unprecedented level of secrecy surrounding government activity. These changes are meant to be permanent–and they are meant to remain under the control of the Bush Regime and likeminded successors. It is absurd to believe that Bush, Cheney and the rest of the junta are constructing this vast machinery of dominance only to risk turning it over to any political adversary who genuinely opposed empire, plutocracy and rule by a privileged elite.
It is equally absurd to believe that these new, unconstrained powers will not be abused. The very fact of their assertion is itself an abuse, a perversion of the freedoms that Bush has sworn–falsely–to uphold. They are a far greater threat to the foundations of American liberty than even the most horrendous attack by murderous criminals. No foreign terrorist can strip the entire American system of its basic freedoms–the inviolability of the citizen, the right to due process, the constitutional separation of powers, the people’s right to know what their government is doing in their name.
Only an American tyrant can do that. And he is doing it, day by day.
The Rebirth of Student Protest in Iran
In November 2002, once again, Tehran University became the site of anti-government protest by the students and the youths. The protests that began with less than a few hundred students reached a peak of more than 5000 in three days. Similar acts of defiance were held in other cities across the country.
The student protests began as a response to a court decision that sentenced to death Hashem Aghajari, a pro-reform faculty of history, and a member of an influential political organization in Iran. In a public speech in the city of Hamedan, Aghajari had questioned the clergy’s monopoly in interpreting Islam and the Koran. Aghajari was sentenced to death in a closed court without the presence of a jury.
Though a known figure to political circles in Iran, many of the protesting students were faintly familiar with Aghajari and his politics. Some, perhaps, had heard of his name after the hype created by the court ruling. But, nonetheless, the verdict against Aghajari was used as a pretext to challenge the Islamic Republic, to demand the freedom of all political prisoners, to press for freedom of expression, and to exhibit to the Islamic state the hatred of the youth.
The recent protests are a reminder of the nationwide student uprising in July 1999 in 22 cities of Iran. Similar to the current demonstrations, the 1999 protests began in Tehran University and soon spread to the campuses of other universities across the nation. They began with students’ rejection of the closure of Salam, a pro-reform newspaper published by an influential member of the state. But, similar to the recent events, many of the students that joined the nation-wide protest in 1999 had never read Salam and had no affinity towards the paper and its publisher. The closure of Salam and its consequent developments were events that unleashed the fury of the youths, and gave them the opportunity, for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, to publicly demand the ouster of Iran’s Supreme Religious Leader-Ayatollah khamenei.
Both events demonstrated the vulnerability of the state, its lack of support among the children of the Islamic Republic, and the complete loss of legitimacy it enjoyed immediately after coming to power in 1979. Then and now, the protests were unorganized acts of collective defiance-street actions against the state and all that it represented: the imposition of the Islamic hijab, gender separation in universities, outlawing contacts between men and women, banning music and all instruments of joy and worldly desires, political repression, and the denial of people’s most basic human rights.
I was in Tehran during the July 1999 student uprising. A new reality was created in the week of July 8-14, 1999. All that was forbidden and scorned were committed by the defiant youth. Defiant and determined, marching shoulder to shoulder, young men and women announced the death of the old order. All taboos were broken. The unquestionable was questioned. The fearful were fearless. The youth in Tehran and 22 cities created scenes that were reminiscent of the days of street protests that led to the demise of the Shah’s government and the coming to power of the Islamic Republic. But, this time, the protesters were the children of the Islamic Republic, and the protests were against the Islamic state.
The Islamic Republic defeated the 1999 student uprising by the use of its police, and assault gangs-the bearded men in slippers-who attacked the students with guns, chain, and machete. Nearly 2000 students were arrested and imprisoned. Many still remain in jail. But, despite the defeat, a new Iran emerged after the week of July 8-14, 1999.
In July 1999, the children of the Islamic Republic walked on sacred grounds. The Supreme Leader was publicly ridiculed, compared to Pinochle-the hated and deposed dictator of Chile-and demanded to step down from power. The Islamic Republic faced an unimaginable legitimacy crisis. The recovery from the crisis was only possible through the use of force.
Those who battled the state on the streets of Tehran were not the old ideologues of leftist parties. They were young men and women with no political history, ideology, or affiliation. Dressed in modern western outfits, reading Pablo Neruda and Milan Kundera, drinking homemade alcohol, escaping the pressures of the state with the music of The Pink Floyd, and Guns and Roses-they are the children of MTV, satellite dishes, Hollywood movies, the Internet and email. They are the fearless children of the Islamic Republic. Born after the victory of the Islamic Republic, their protest proved the non-viability, in the long run, of the Islamicization of politics and the society in the age of global communications. The student protest announced to the world the failure of building an “Islamic utopia” in a relatively modernized society like Iran.
The recent protests at Tehran University echo the same feelings and sentiments. Though peaceful and non-confrontational in form, the protests have been marked by the same demands and political character of the collective actions in July 1999. In some sense, the recent protests, though smaller in scale, are more radical in content. Many have called for the resignation of President Mohammad Khatami and the pro-reform members of the Parliament. Some challenged the foundation of the Islamic Republic by demanding the separation of the mosque-religion-from the state. By the third day of student protests, it was clear to all that freedom of Aghajari was but, one small component of the young people’s long list of political grievances and demand. The open warfare between the youths and the state reached a new height.
The future of this phase of the student movement cannot be predicted. Like before, the continuation or the success of the movement depends on the balance of power between the youth and their supporters, the old guard of the Islamic republic, and the reformists within the government and the Parliament. A bolder and more persistent approach to reform by the Parliament and Khatami and his administration will indeed accelerate the process of change. But, whatever the results of this stage of the student protest, one fact remains unchanged: the Islamic state in Iran is most seriously challenged by its own creation-the children of the Islamic Republic.
BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is the author of Social Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements for Rights (SUNY Press, 2002). He is currently in the Middle East researching for his upcoming book, Embracing the Infidel: The Secret World of the Moslem Migrant (Verso Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.