The Grassroots Challenge to Iran’s Theocracy


Iran is in turmoil: a threat of resignation by the president and his supporters in the Parliament; factional battle within the state about the constitutional power of the president; the student protest in Tehran and other cities; and physical clashes between the pro-reform students and the basij-the devotees of the state. The world is watching these developments with keen interest. Iran’s future has significant regional and global ramifications.

The current turmoil is embedded in Iran’s constitutional crisis: the coexistence of the concept of the republic and velayat-e faghih-the supreme religious leader. The faghih enjoys veto power over the republic. Iran’s constitution is a contradictory document. It is a collage of two distinct and non-reconcilable worldviews and types of state. The document is a reflection of a historic battle between tradition and modernity, the past and the future, and religion and secularism in Iran. The collage is unstable, tenuous, and transient by nature. It cannot be sustained.

The conflict between the two pillars of the constitution remained dormant in the first decade of the Islamic Republic. It came to the open with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader of the new state. The 1997 presidential victory of Mohammad Khatami heightened the constitutional crisis. A battle between two fractions of the state emerged: one steadfastly defending the faghih, the other promoting the republic-albeit timidly and with vacillation. The past six years have been the years of cat and mouth fight between these two tendencies-two pillars of the constitution.

Outside the state, in the embattled civil society, a pro-republic grassroots movement emerged; it became emboldened; and challenged the Islamic Republic and its constitution through unorganized ruptures of collective action, everyday practice, and acts of cultural defiance. It is that movement that brought Mohammad Khatami to power, created the 1999 student uprising in Tehran and 22 other cities, and opposed the recent death sentence for Hashem Aghajari for his criticism of the clergy’s monopoly of power. 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 children of the Islamic Republic. The student protest was an open outcry for the republic.

The recent student protests were the reincarnation of an outburst that occurred in July 1999. The student action began in response to the closure of Salam, a pro-reform newspaper published by an influential member of the state. But, similar to the support for Aghajari, 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 the faghih-Ayatollah Khamenei.

The recent protests at Tehran University echoed the same feelings and sentiments. In some sense, the recent protests, though smaller in scale, were more radical in content. The freedom of Aghajari was one component in the young people’s long list of political grievances and demands. Some challenged the foundation of the Islamic Republic by demanding the separation of the mosque-religion-from the state.

In 1999, the state responded to the spreading student protest with violence. It temporarily crushed the movement. Two thousand youths were arrested. Ten were sentenced to death. But, fearful of its repercussions, the Islamic Republic did not carry out the executions. This was a turning pint in Iran. It reflected the emergence of a new balance of power: a divided and broken state, and a defiant public.

The Islamic Republic is divided and weakened. The republican movement is grassroots and includes most Iranians-men and women, young and old. Not limited to street protest and political action, it includes the schoolgirls challenging and ridiculing their religious teachers; teenagers wearing loud lipsticks and makeup under the watchful eyes of the moral police; and older women demanding respect and recognition from men in the streets, shops, and the workplace.

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. They are the gravediggers of the Islamic Republic.

Twenty-three years ago, the victory of the Islamic Republic made Iran a role model for millions of marginalized Moslems around the world. Today, the victory of the republicans will be a testament to the failure of political Islam in a relatively modern society in the age of global communication.

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 can be reached at: behzad_yaghmaian@hotmail.com.

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