Iran's Younger, Smarter Revolution

The latest wave of protests won't be the last. Iran scholar Hamid Dabashi on a civil-rights movement centuries in the making—led by a generation that knows how to fight with brains.

AY-Collection / SIPA

The paramount question these days, six months into the making of the Green Movement, is will the Islamic republic fall? Is this yet another revolution in the making, like the one we saw in 1979? Or will the military apparatus of the Islamic republic crash through the streets of Tehran and other cities like a fully charged armadillo and turn Iran into a theocratic dictatorship, ruled by a military junta like Pakistan, clad in an ideological fanaticism borrowed and expanded from Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban?

The new generation of Iranians has now poured into the streets not with our habitual chants of “where is my gun,” but with their strange but beautiful incantation of “where is my vote?”

For the last six months and since Day One of this uprising, lovingly code-named the Green Movement ( Jonbesh-e Sabz), I have consistently called and continue to call it a civil-rights movement. This does not mean I am blind to its revolutionary potentials, violent dimensions, or destructive forces. It does not mean that the Islamic republic may not, or should not, fall. I keep calling it a civil-rights movement because I believe that the underlying social changes that have caused and continue to condition this movement are hidden behind a political smoke screen. As our attention is distracted by the politics of the moment, I have kept my ears to the ground listening to the subterranean sounds and tremors of an earth holding some 200 years of an anti-colonial modernity in it sinuous silences.

Beyond the pale and patience of politics, and the attention span of a Twitter phrase, I have called this a civil-rights movement because I see something in that polyclonal green that defies augury. That color green is a sign that signals and means many things to many people, and no one is entirely in charge to legislate or regulate or incarcerate exactly what.

Gary Sick: The Decade’s First Revolution Big Fat Story: How to Help the Green MovementFor 30 years—not just over the last six months—the Islamic republic has systematically distorted a cosmopolitan and multifaceted political culture and, by hook or by crook, shoved it down the narrow and suffocating chimney of a militant Islamism that is, of course, integral to that culture, but has never been definitive to it. From anti-colonial nationalism to Third World socialism (all with an enduring feminist underpinning) many things have been equally, if not more, definitive to that political culture. The Islamic republic, as we know it today, is not a state apparatus—it is the penultimate result of successive scenarios of a crisis of mismanagement: from the American hostage crisis of 1979-1981 to the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, from the mass executions of dissidents in 1988 to the Salman Rushdie affair of 1989, and from then on the successive Gulf Wars, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Afghan and Iraq debacles. From one trouble spot to another, the Islamic republic has managed to keep itself afloat over a sea of troubles. But it has never, over the last three decades, been in a position of permanence or uncontested legitimacy, so it could not suddenly lose it over the last six months.

As the Islamic republic managed its successive crises, a belligerent generation of oppositional figures and forces—now famously summarized in Pahlavi monarchists and mujahideen militarists—followed suit, not carefully choosing its enemies and effectively transmuted into them: undemocratic, dogmatic, cultic, frozen in a time zone beyond human reach. The Green Movement happened beyond the borders of banality and boredom that separate the Islamic republic and its opposition, hovering in a third space that gives life, liberty, and hope to those, the massive millions of them, beyond the reach of the closed society and its enemies.

This generation breaks all the rules. If you want to understand what is happening in the Green Movement, listen to the thunderous and defiant lyrics of the greatest Iranian rapper alive: Shahin Najafi. Look him up! Google him. He has two Facebook pages. If Iranian cinema of the 1990s was the vision and vista of Khatami’s Reform Movement, Shahin Najafi’s lyrics and music are the elegiac voice and loving fury of the Green Movement.

With the contorted character of the Islamic republic's constitution, and particularly the undemocratic obscenity of its office of the supreme leader, my generation of Iranians hit a cul de sac. We had nowhere to go. The new generation of Iranians has now poured into the streets not with our habitual chants of “where is my gun,” but with their strange but beautiful incantation of “where is my vote?” You may hear this generation chant, “I will kill, I will kill, he who killed my brother,” but watch carefully for the instant a basiji militiaman drops his helmet and finds himself in the middle of a chaotic embrace of streets and their claimants, men and women are rushed to have and hold him, pour water over his head to cool him off, kiss and cuddle him as the brother that he is, as they put a green scarf around his neck to make him one of their own. The color green: It means you are a descendent of the prophet of Islam; and it means the poetry of Forough Farrokhzad, the poet laureate of our most cherished moments of solace and solitude:

I plant my hands in the small garden— I will grow green— I know I know I know And sparrows will nest and egg In the grooves In between my inky fingers.

These children you see roaming the streets of Iran with song and dance, they have all been hatched in those inky eggs our sister Forough planted in between her fingers inside that little garden. That’s why they are all so green and beautiful.

Began and continued as a civil-rights movement, its color symbolism running ahead of its politics, this uprising has seen phases of civil disobedience and shades of civil unrest—but its skeletal vertebrae is a nonviolent drive toward democratic institutions that the current republic will either accommodate and survive, or else resist and be washed aside. The evident similarities between what we are witnessing now and what we did some 30 years ago should be carefully assayed—there are similarities, but not everything round is a walnut, as we say in Persian.

To the persistence of this civil-rights movement, the collapse of the Islamic republic is almost irrelevant. The regime is collapsing from under the pressure of its own feeble constitution—a massive military-industrial complex on one side and a simulacrum of republicanism on the other. The course of the civil-rights movement is almost independent of that state apparatus. There is no possible scenario that will divert it from its main objective—of reaching the goal of liberty, the rule of law, democratic republicanism, civil liberties, civil rights, women’s rights, rights of the religious and ethnic minorities.

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Adapting to this movement and its unfolding demands means one of three scenarios for the Islamic republic—in order of the desperation it faces: (1) dismantling the office of the supreme leader ( Velayat Faqih) altogether but keeping the rest of the constitution intact, (2) reconvening a constitutional assembly to rewire a whole new constitution and put it to national vote; or else (3) discarding the very idea of an Islamic republic altogether and putting the next form of the government to a plebiscite.

Against this inevitability, a number of scenarios might also be tempted to impose themselves: the most immediate is an open military coup by the Pasdaran; the second is a combination of U.S./Israel-instigated economic embargo and military attack; the third is the internal implosion of the Islamic republic followed by a militant takeover and hijacking of the uprising by such militant opposition forces as the mujahideen or (with the help of U.S. and Israel military intervention) the monarchists, or a combination of both. All such possible scenarios have only one factor in common. They will categorically fail if they fail to recognize the nature of this movement as a inherently victorious, nonviolent, civil-rights movement that will demand and exact civil liberties—freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom to form political parties, freedom to choose a democratic government.

The color green will remain the uncertain solace of this movement—no one will ever know what it exactly means—and that is a good thing. For it always means something contrarian, something contrary to what the people in a position of power thought it meant. It doesn’t. It never does.

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has written 20 books, edited four, and contributed chapters to many more. He is the author of over 100 essays, articles and book reviews in major scholarly and peer reviewed journals on subjects ranging from Iranian Studies, medieval and modern Islam, comparative literature, world cinema, and the philosophy of art.