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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 behzad_yaghmaian@hotmail.com.