Thirty years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini mastered the art of nonviolent confrontation to mobilize grassroots support and respond strategically to repression by the shah's regime. Can today’s opposition learn from his feat?
Ayatollah Khomeini is best known as the stern face of the Islamic Revolution that took over Iran in 1979. But the founding icon of the Islamic republic is rarely recognized as… wait for it… a pioneer of nonviolent strategic activism in the Middle East. At least in his route to gaining power—and certainly not in exercising power—Khomeini and his movement mastered the art of nonviolent confrontation to mobilize grassroots support and respond strategically to repression by the shah’s regime.
Today, 30 years after Khomeini’s revolution, Iranians are unexpectedly taking to the streets again and reviving many of the ayatollah’s own techniques—only this time to protest the actions of the regime he founded. A huge segment of Iran’s population—estimated at 70 percent—never experienced the bearded cleric’s skillful rise to power. But the masses of protesters in the streets of Tehran are proving themselves devoted children of Khomeini’s revolution, in tactics if not objectives.
There exists enough momentum and dissident to potentially open up Iran and help Iranians from within undo the repressive apparatus Khomeini installed.
In 1979, chants of “Allahu akbar” resonated at night from rooftops across Tehran and other major cities. Today, those chants have re-emerged, only with a different message, protesting a perceived election rigged at the hands of the Guardian Council installed by Khomeini himself. The private domestic sphere has again been transformed into an outlet of public protest, with nighttime chants at times swelling to a roar, according to some reports.
Khomeini’s followers also capitalized on their weakness—a lack of weaponry—to become sympathetic victims in the face of crackdowns by the Savak security forces. Today’s students gunned down at rallies or clubbed by Basij security forces have similarly become symbolic underdogs, risking physical harm to take a stand for justice. Weakness, Khomeini realized, can be a source of strength when correctly deployed against repressive thuggery—particularly with an international audience watching every development.
The ayatollah also realized an alternative means of communication was needed to circumvent government censorship. Capitalizing on the spread of cutting-edge technology—cassette tapes—Khomeini’s sermons were spread to followers from home to home via a clandestine tape-swapping network. Today, the spread is global and nearly instantaneous. Updates from random citizens and anonymous eyewitnesses zip from the streets via cellphones and Twitter feeds to a global audience beyond the censors’ reach. The authorities have tried blocking Facebook, turning off text-messaging, and interfering with mobile Internet access, but the flow continues.
The sudden emergence of massive grassroots protests in Iran caught the outside world as much by surprise as it did Iran’s Guardian Council—and those on the outside have largely remained passive observers. A flurry of rallies—almost entirely ignored by the media—sprouted up in major cities (as chronicled at whereismyvote.org). Human-rights groups and diplomats have released statements of concern. And a few hackers have targeted regime Web sites. But aside from following the latest bursts of information from Iranian streets, energy is primarily devoted to debating whether or not outsiders should even get involved.
As Khomeini himself demonstrated during 15 years in forced exile, outsiders have a critical role to play in encouraging burgeoning social-change movements. Indeed, his now-legendary return to Iran, care of Air France, capped months of grassroots protests he assisted from another continent.
Today, effective solidarity actions are definitely in order, and not simply from politicians and diplomats. Social entrepreneurs are ideally positioned now to step up, with individuals and grassroots networks able to move more nimbly than governments. Activists can, for instance, provide proxies to help Iranians circumvent the censors’ blocking of sites.
Outsiders can also pressure and hinder the regime’s censors. On Twitter, for instance, activists launched a worldwide call for people to change their Twitter location and time zone to Tehran. Not simply an act of solidarity, the move makes it much harder for Iranian censors to search for genuine local “tweets” as part of their crackdown.
Some observers worry that offering solidarity simply means empowering Mousavi or Rafsanjani. But the ruling clerical establishment that has ruled Iran for decades is clearly fractured as never before. There exists enough momentum and dissident to potentially open up Iran and help Iranians from within undo the repressive apparatus Khomeini installed.
Unlike in Khomeini’s revolution, not one leader and one clear political ideology is championed. This is a feature, not a bug, increasing the chances of a freer outcome rather than simply replacing one dogmatic system for another.
For the first time in decades, the very people who fueled a popular uprising and understand its power are facing a mass of semi-organized outrage and defiance. The real question is whether a popular pro-Iran movement will emerge in the West to support protesters, pressure the regime, and compel Western leaders to act. In the meantime, Khomeini’s own techniques have been revived to confront the regime he founded—and the world is watching, if not yet acting.
Nasser Weddady and Jesse Sage direct the Hamsa civil-rights initiative of the American Islamic Congress. They have organized numerous training seminars on civil-rights reform and nonviolent direct activism for young Middle Easterners. Weddady's coverage of the Iran protests can be found on Twitter via @ weddady.