Iran Goes on Strike

Reza Aslan reports that opposition leaders in Iran are planning a three-day strike to be carried out under the cover of a religious holiday. The revolution, it turns out, is far from over.

AP Photo

A massive sandstorm swept into Tehran Monday morning, blanketing the streets in a dark and dreamy haze. The tops of buildings, where, last night, the protest calls of “God is great!” rang out for the 21 st consecutive day, are barely visible. Most of Tehran’s bustling downtown appears abandoned. The air quality is so bad that people say it is difficult to breathe. An eerie calm has descended upon the city.

Perfect weather for a strike.

Monday is the start of an unusual three-day Islamic holiday called Itikaf. Sometimes translated as “seclusion” or “retreat,” Itikaf is a time when particularly pious Muslims cloister themselves inside homes or mosques for a period of intense prayer and deep spiritual reflection. It is a practice that the Iranian regime has long encouraged the country’s citizens, particularly the youth, to take part in, usually without much success.

“Let them beat us in the mosques if they dare,” said one. “Let them beat us while we are fasting and praying.”

But this year, supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are planning to take up the government’s appeal for religious observance. Mousavi’s Web site has called on Iranians to use the state-sanctioned holiday to launch a three-day, nationwide strike and boycott of businesses and banks in hopes of re-sparking the popular demonstrations that brought the country to a halt two weeks ago.

“The regime likes to defend its religious practices,” an aide and close confidant of Mousavi (who wants to remain anonymous for his own protection) told me. “We will use their religion to launch a widespread strike, to save Mousavi, and to annul the elections. [Itikaf] is something the regime has encouraged for years, so they can’t fight it.”

The practice of Itikaf allows Muslims to refrain from appearing at work, without facing any consequences. Indeed, it allows people to simply disappear from public without need for explanation. It also allows for mass assembly inside mosques, homes, and other gathering places—the equivalent of a peaceful sit-in (thus far, locations of the gatherings have been kept secret but organizers tell me there is hope that at least Mehdi Karroubi, the other reformist candidate, will join one of the gatherings). Mousavi’s Facebook page recommends using the religious holiday not only to refuse to go to work but also to refrain from spending any money and even to pull money out of state-run banks for “religious” reasons.

According to the organizers of the three-day strike, the protesters plan on using the religious observance to test the limits of the regime’s security apparatus. “Let them beat us in the mosques if they dare,” said one. “Let them beat us while we are fasting and praying.”

There is a sense among Mousavi’s supporters that, despite the brutal government crackdown on protesters and the Guardian Council’s confirmation of Ahmadinejad as the next president, the political tide may be turning in their favor once again. A number of powerful conservative figures, including three advisers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—the speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani, former speaker Ali-Akbar Nateg-Nouri, and former foreign minister Ali-Akbar Velayati—have begun to condemn Ahmadinejad’s heavy-handedness in dealing with the election crisis.

On Saturday, one of the most influential religious bodies in Iran, The Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom, issued a statement denouncing the election and calling the government of Ahmadinejad illegitimate. The association’s statement represents a direct challenge to Khameini's supposed infallible authority.

Meanwhile, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the most powerful leader of the anti-Ahmadinejad/anti-Khamenei coalition and the head of the Assembly of Experts (which has the authority to remove the supreme leader from power), has become increasingly bold in his criticism of the government’s handing of the election crisis. In an interview with the Iranian Labor News Agency, Rafsanjani claimed that the election and “the events that occurred after” had left “a bitter taste,” in the mouths of many Iranians, and he warned that the “wakened consciousness” of the people will not be satisfied with “the resulting situation.”

Mohammad Khatami, the wildly popular former president, has also broken his silence. In an address to the families of protesters who have been arrested or are otherwise missing, Khatami accused “those who have suppressed people’s protests” of destroying “the greatest asset of this system, the confidence of the people.”

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In a brilliant act of political acumen, Khatami threw the most common accusation of the government—that the protests were a foreign plot to overthrow the regime—back in the face of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei by claiming that the stolen elections represent “a velvet revolution [that] is being staged against the people and against the republicanism of the system.”

How successful the three-day strike will be remains to be seen. It is important to note, however, that the Itikaf holiday will end on Thursday, July 9, which is 18 Tir in the Islamic calendar. That date marks the 10th anniversary of a savage crackdown on students who had been protesting the closure of a reformist paper, Salam, inside of Tehran University. After six days of peaceful demonstrations, plainclothes officers and Basiji militants stormed into the university, ransacked dorms, threw students out of windows, burned books, arrested and beat the protesters into submission. To this day, the events of that summer day in 1999 are referred to as “The 18 Tir Massacre.”

For 10 years, the regime has outlawed all public commemorations of the massacre. However, this year, protesters plan to use the three-day holiday/strike to prepare for a huge demonstration to observe 18 Tir, and to openly challenge the regime to respond.

The revolution, it turns out, is far from over. Now if only Iranians can get the rest of us to care.

As I ended my phone conversation with the Mousavi aide, he pleaded with me to “please tell the Western media to keep paying attention to us. Please let them know that if they are watching, fewer of us will be killed. It is when America stops paying attention that the regime loses all restraint.”

Well, America? Are you watching?

Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.