November 13, 2009
Government violence reduced number of street protests, but movement has become more difficult to control.
The presidential election of June 12, which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared to have won, gave birth to a grassroots movement that has been evolving politically, embracing broader segments of the population, discovering new methods of struggle, and refusing to die despite widespread government violence.
It has bewildered the conservatives, surpassed the political limits of the reformists, and become a wildcard with a potential to change Iran in profound ways.
The Green Movement began when millions of people poured into the streets in the belief that Ahmadinejad had rigged the election. The repression that followed forced the movement to retreat underground, but it stayed alive. It sought different arenas in which to pursue its goals and spread deeper into society. Government violence succeeded in reducing the number of street protesters and dispersed the movement. We no longer see millions protesting in unison. The movement has, however, become more difficult to control.
What was once a movement of young and modernised middle-class youth has become truly multi-generational. It includes the modern and the traditional, the Muslim, and the secular, the old and the very young. The Green Movement is everywhere. It appears like a spectre, becomes invisible, and returns. It came out on Quds (Jerusalem) Day on September 19, intended to mark solidarity with the Palestinians, and surfaced in universities across the country on the first day of term on September 28. It reappeared again on the 30 anniversary of the takeover of the United States embassy on November 4.
University students protested across the country. Old and young, traditional women covered head to toe in black, and youth clad in loud and funky outfits came out in defiance of strict orders by the security forces. And this time, Iranian children joined their parents and older siblings. They turned their schools into places of protest.
In a middle school in Tehran, students defied their principals and refused to chant against America. “They were saying ‘Marg bar Amrica’ (Death to America) from the loudspeakers, but the students were chanting ‘Marg bar Dicatator’ (Death to the dictator),” said a jubilant 13-year old student. The principal had asked students to bring balloons with “Death to America” written on them. “The students instead came with green balloons that said ‘Death to the Dictator’,” she said.
In a high school in Karaj, students refused to take part in the flag-burning ritual. Preparing for the anniversary celebration, the principal had prepared balloons in red, green, and white, the colours of the Iranian flag. Students burst the red and white balloons. “Everyone was holding a green balloon and the principal was very angry,” a student reported.
The spread of the Green Movement to middle and high schools reveals the pervasiveness of the opposition to the government. It shows the beginning of what could become the largest and most inclusive political and cultural movement in Iran’s recent history. Cracking down on middle and high school students will be exceptionally difficult. Sending troops and militias to middle schools will be explosive, a red line that even the Islamic Republic cannot cross.
The Green Movement that began with “Where is my Vote” as its central slogan has become the umbrella for brilliant, spontaneous, and horizontally organised collective action that is proving increasingly difficult to defuse. Less than five months after its birth, the Green Movement has transcended its original objective of restoring people’s stolen votes, to openly questioning the cornerstone of the Islamic Republic, the absolute power of the supreme religious leader. Taboos are broken.
“Down with the Dictator” has become the central cry of the protesters in Tehran, Shiraz, Karaj, Qom, Isfahan, Tabriz, and other cities across Iran. Down with the Dictator is also written in large letters on walls and storefronts in poor and rich neighbourhoods of the capital. “Everyone knows the dictator is [Supreme Leader]Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei,” a resident of Tehran said. “The government keeps painting over the slogans, but finding freshly written ones on the same spot or near to it the next day.”
The development of the Green Movement has worried many, including some reformists.
The Green Movement has broken its shell. It is now a non-violent movement with revolutionary demands and ideals.
It has bypassed the limited political demands of Mir Hussein Mousavi, and other reformist leaders. Mousavi, the original inspiration behind the Green Movement, has been pressing his supporters to remain within the confines of the constitution of the Islamic Republic.
“We demand the unconditional enactment of the constitution and the return of the Islamic Republic to its original ethical foundations. We demand an Islamic Republic, not a word more, and not a word less,” said Mousavi in a recent public statement.
Meanwhile, the protesters were calling for the creation of an Iranian Republic to replace the Islamic Republic. For the first time in the past 30 years, the protesters are also calling for a secularisation of the state.
The radicalisation of the Green Movement found a special voice during the recent anniversary celebration of the US embassy takeover in schools across the country. Defying the authorities in a Tehran high school, hundreds of students marched through the building during their break, singing “My High School Friend”, a popular protest song, and a rallying cry among anti-government Iranians.
This time, however, the students had changed the lyrics. They had replaced the lyrics “Who can solve this problem except for you and I” with “Who can topple this government except for you and I”. The genie is out of the bottle.
The generation that toppled the government of the Shah in 1979 was ideological. Moved by anger and hatred, it sought revenge. The young participants in the Green Movement are, however, creating a non-violent movement for social change. They are joyous, and guided by the longing for a better and more open life. Theirs is a movement for joy.
They fight not for isolation from the rest of the world, but inclusion and coexistence. And, once again, Iranian children are setting an example. The 12-year old daughter of a manual labourer challenged a teacher who asked her to step on an American flag before entering the classroom.
“People of another country love this flag. Why should I disrespect them?” she told her teacher. She and others are the face of a new Iran in the making.
Behzad Yaghmaian, a professor of political economy at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is the author of Social Change in Iran: An Eyewitness Account of Dissent, Defiance, and New Movements for Rights; and Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West. He can be reached at email@example.com.