Monday, December 14, 2009

Iran's slow revolution

Six months after Iran's disputed presidential election triggered widespread demonstrations, the country's pro-democracy movement is as strong as ever, experts say.

As this week's protests show, opponents of Iran's regime have taken to using officially sanctioned demonstrations to turn out in large numbers and publicise their message.

But do not expect another revolution.

"This is a civil rights movement working through self-propelling acts of civil disobedience," Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, says. "It will change the very political language of the region."

Asef Bayat, a sociologist and Middle East expert, agrees. Speaking at a panel discussion last week, he argued that Iranian society is beginning to shed its revolutionary tendencies.

"Iranians once saw liberation as simply overthrowing an unjust shah, without much thought as to what would come next," he said. "Thirty years later, that definition has grown to include concepts of individual civil liberties. This has led to a far more mature civil society, that seeks change in increments, not explosive revolution."

The so-called 'Green Movement' was formed after hundreds of thousands of supporters of Mir Hussein Mousavi, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main rival in the presidential elections, took to the streets to protest the result of the poll.

They believed that Ahmadinejad had orchestrated a massive campaign of vote-rigging that returned him to power unfairly. The demonstrations were met with a brutal crackdown, sanctioned by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.

Eventually the protests died down and the 'Green Revolution' lost its news value. The Iranian opposition disappeared from the mainstream media and went back underground, manifesting itself in postings on Facebook and Twitter and in snippets of mobile phone video posted to Youtube.

While it may not be visible, some believe it is effective. Behzad Yaghmaian, an Iranian author living in the US, says that a more politically mature and multi-layered movement is emerging, and that its strength derives in large part from its non-violent character.

Even Iranian children are setting an example, he says, recounting the story of a 12-year-old student who refused to step on an American flag before entering the classroom. "People of another country love this flag. Why should I disrespect them?" she asked her teacher.

Yaghmaian believes the grassroots movement has bypassed the limited political demands of Mousavi and other reformist leaders and has become a more profound movement fighting for human rights. There is, he says, little desire to work within the framework of a theocratic political regime.

For the first time in 30 years, people on the streets of Iran are openly rejecting the constitution of the Islamic Republic and demanding a secular republic.

"There's a call for political secularism emerging in Iran, a call that is coming out of the movement itself," he says.

In making that call, the demonstrators are taking a risk. Iranians are well aware of the regime's willingness to use force against them, and as a result, much of the political organising is done out of view of the authorities.

"They cannot have a fully fledged organised structured movement in the way that you have in Western countries, because they would easily be the target of appraisal and repression," Asef Bayat explains.

Instead, Iran's Green Movement operates through loose networks of friends, family, and colleagues, says Yaghmaian. The risks are enormous.

In the first half of 2009 alone, there were 196 executions in Iran. Former officials, intellectuals and journalists have received long prison sentences after brief televised trials and torture by the authorities is commonplace.

"The human rights situation has deteriorated considerably," says Hadi Ghaemi, a spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "Capital punishment is on the rise and execution sentences for political prisoners has resumed. Torture and even rape of detainees have taken place."

Despites this, Ghaemi believes nothing will deter Iran's burgeoning civil rights movement. He says: "It will seize every opportunity to display its resilience."

Al Jazeera

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