Thirty one years ago, death was a serious possibility for Iranian protestors confronting the Shah's army. Every day before leaving the house, I thus put a piece of paper in my pocket, detailing my name, phone number and blood group so that if I got shot they might be able to treat me, and if I were killed they could let my family know. Then a bullet exploded my nineteen-year-old brother's heart. Masoud saw it coming, but was not prepared to be silent; he preferred death to a life without freedom and justice. I feared death more than he did, but my anger against tyranny and yearning for freedom had also outpaced my fear. We simply could not stand to be quiet anymore.
Now, one student has responded to the many reformist politicians who are warning young people against the risk of being killed at the upcoming demonstrations marking the thirtieth anniversary of the 1979 revolution: 'scare us with silence, but not with death.' That this revolutionary uprising is now in its eighth month, despite massive atrocities committed against demonstrators and supporters of the opposition, suggests that this man speaks not only for himself but for many others ready to say the same.
Could we have imagined that the children of the 1979 revolution -- many of whom had grown to resent and fear their parents' revolutionary actions -- are now pouring into the streets, making similar demands for freedom and risking their lives again? Are we simply back to where we began after all these years? No, because the monarchy and its particular sort of despotism are gone; yes, because a new and more brutal form of power, one that camouflages itself as religion, has emerged in its wake.
Europe knows this well, and Iranians have been living with the consequences every day for nearly three decades. And this is not simply a continuation of the 1979 revolution. The present uprising carries forward the unfulfilled potentials of that revolution, and uses many of the same nonviolent methods of struggle and slogans for mobilization. But it is has a secularised character all its own. This generation has learnt that when a state uses religion as a tool for its own legitimacy, religion itself is brutalized and corrupted. But this is not a movement against Islam. The opposition demands the separation of state and religion, while at the same time incorporating Islamic principles into its tactics of everyday struggle and methods of social and political resistance. Most of those participating are Muslim, and the non-religious sections are united with religious protestors in the common pursuit of social and political freedom.
The situation is not a battle between religion and non-religion, but as the revolutionary Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati once suggested, a struggle between two different forms of religion: one of 'legitimation' and one of 'revolution'; the struggle of a religion of freedom and liberty against a religion of despotism, fanaticism and violence; a religion of oppressors against that of the oppressed.
But the movement must overcome two major obstacles in order to succeed in bringing about a democratic system, based on the principles of human rights, and wider freedoms within and independence of Iran.
The first and obvious obstacle is that the ruling regime itself, despite being deeply divided, is also strongly united to crush the uprising. The factions within it differ only in their methods for doing so. The stakes for them are enormous: the rentier state controls the country's oil revenues, the revolutionary guards control around 80% of the economy. They have astronomical interests in maintaining the status quo.
The second, and more serious obstacle, is the large number of respectable reformist leaders and intellectuals who have one foot planted in the regime and the other in the opposition. These are the people warn constantly about the "vices" of revolution and advocate respect for the existing constitution, which stipulates that the supreme leader has absolute power and authority over all branches of state and the government. They realize, perhaps correctly, that the relative democratization of this system would be an antidote to widespread corruption, the inefficiency of the state and mass discontent. But they suffer from intellectual rigidity and are torn by their emotional loyalty to the regime, and thus try to pull the opposition back from its more serious demands. So, too, does the army of intellectuals that surround them, who through various forms of sophistry have succeeded in equating revolution with violence and reform with non-violence. These intellectuals, now spread from Tehran to London and Washington, have appointed themselves the think tank of the green movement, re-delivering old messages in new packages, and burying their heads in the sand so as not to hear the chants for revolution in the streets. By defining the uprising as either a reformist or civil rights movement, they recommend methods that can only be self-defeating.
Hence, the 31th anniversary of the 1979 revolution will be a test of the movement. Afterwards both they and the world will know whether they are still willing to demand the kinds of changes that will bring the regime to its knees. Thus far, all indicators signal this possibility. Dictatorships always maintain a fragile balance of fear and anger in order to rule; more so when they are dying. When this balance tips, feelings of anger may begin to supersede responses of fear. That balance shifted long ago in this uprising, though, so much so that any state violence used to terrorize now often produces greater anger and determination. The movement will not return to where it began over seven months ago, and it can no longer be so easily repressed. The words of the student choosing death over silence were very possibly those of a generation that is determined to reclaim its society and its freedom.
Ali Shariati, Religion vs Religion (Kazi Publications, 1993)