Appropriating the Past: The Green Movement in Iran

by Abbas Varij Kazemi, New York University, USA

 

In 2009, Iran experienced an unusual social movement, known then and now as “The Green Movement.” This was not an environmental protest but was prompted by contested presidential election results, youthful desire for expression and reform, and a collective wave of national political optimism. Iranians at home and abroad demonstrated in the streets calling for legal and political reform. Some characterize the Green Movement as a religious movement. Although the movement did incorporate religious iconography and vocabulary, these elements became free of their initial religious significance when demonstrators used them in a newly defined context and political environment. This process of redefining symbols and rituals exemplifies Michel de Certeau’s[1] concept of tactic, which states that if the state refuses to grant a space for protest, the people will seize what is available to them, which, in the case of Iran, meant the realm of religion.

The state’s strategies were no match for the people’s tactics. In a country awash with state-sanctioned and organized rituals of religiosity, there are many arenas – times and spaces – that can be manipulated. Thus, the religiosity of the Green Movement, its “Green Islam,” is simply a discursive element of a new social movement. The Green Movement was to a considerable extent, a movement of a subaltern group, Tehran’s middle class, which from time to time has asserted itself in spectacular ways. Thus, Iranian social transformations are invariably linked to the types of protest methods adopted by the Iranian middle class in negotiating religion and authority.

 

“Demonstration of Silence”

On June 15, 2009, a “demonstration of silence” blanketed Tehran’s main streets. Only three months before the silence had descended, election culture filled street life with vitality and hope. Before the June 2009 election, everyday life was emboldened by the spirit of optimistic politics. People became accustomed to gathering in the streets without fear of police intervention, cars’ headlights shone, and people’s hands were raised with a sense of hope. After the election, the June 15 “demonstration of silence” was considered a watershed in the fate of Iran’s Green Movement. The demonstration drew hundreds of thousands of protesters to Azadi Square, where attendees marched in silence. Protestors’ hands were raised, not with pre-election enthusiasm, but in protest. This silent protest was fueled by the people’s anger with the government’s decision to prohibit public gatherings or organizing after the contested presidential election. Unlike their predecessors who led the 1979 revolution to oust the Shah, Green Movement participants did not return home to resume their normal lives, leaving the revolution in the care of the government, or the state. The Iranian middle-class youth sought ways to remain engaged and continue the fight for their demands. Although the government continued to crack down on Green Movement activities, participants pursued innovative approaches to continue protesting.

Within Iran’s rigid and intolerant political structure, how are social movements possible? I believe that de Certeau’s concepts of tactic and strategy address such possibilities. Within his framework, resistance in societies with a highly intricate power structure and pervasive state presence can only come through invisible, tactical, and concealed practices. Following de Certeau I shall show how the Green Movement managed to redefine the purposes and roles of specific places and symbols.

 

Re-politicizing the Color Green

We can start with the name of the movement and its symbolic color – green. During the politically turbulent months after the presidential election, the color green symbolized protest and dissent, which has to be understood within the Iranian historical context where the color has deep cultural and religious roots. On the one hand, the color green holds religious meaning. Among Shia Muslims, it is seen as a sacred reference to the Prophet Mohammad and his family. In the past, green’s sacred nature also represented protest, signifying Shia Muslims’ opposition to the dominant religion (Sunni). Throughout its history, Shia culture developed around active opposition to threats from ruling parties that included the formation of underground resistance networks. Over centuries, Shia Muslims expressed their protest by displaying and utilizing the color green, for example, by ritualizing the mourning of fellow martyrs. Since the 16th century when Shia Islam became dominant the color green has been a sacred part of Iran’s cultural fabric. Therefore, green already held political significance in Iran prior to June 2009 when the urban middle-class leaders turned it from a symbol of religious resistance and pride into a symbol of political protest against the regime.

Several months before the 2009 presidential election, Tehran’s streets, cars, and its people were covered in green – green was visible everywhere. Even online, Iranian bloggers demonstrated their support of the Movement by covering their websites in green. Its ubiquitous presence brought fresh life to the city, its citizens, and the potential for political reform. Green cloth wristbands, once considered a talisman for the terminally-ill seeking mercy or a miracle, became an essential part of the uniform worn by Tehran’s middle-class youth. This adoption no longer represented the healing of physical ailments, but referred to the more critical illness – rehabilitating Iran’s political and social health. At this juncture, the collective adornment and display of the color green became a new protesting space.

Inverting the Old Slogans

The strategy of the Green Movement was to appropriate the political slogans used in Tehran’s streets during the 1979 revolution – slogans representing defiance against the state. Following the 1979 revolution, the new government, the Islamic Republic of Iran, adopted the slogans and rhetoric of the protestors as a part of its official ideology. With time most Iranians forgot the revolutionary rhetoric as the state no longer represented the original life of the movement. But in 2009, the protestors exhumed the slogans, bringing 1979 back to life but free of the current regime’s influence or agenda. Young middle-class Iranians wearing green armbands of hope filled the streets marching and shouting repurposed 1979 slogans. Such slogans and sentiments represented Ernst Bloch’s idea of drawing on unfulfilled aspirations of the past (1979 revolution) in order to attain “potential possibilities in the future.” Thus, the Green Movement reclaimed the popular 1979 revolutionary slogan, “Independence, Freedom, and Islamic Republic,” which the state-run media had transformed into a cliché and which was now chanted against the state.

Although the protestors’ slogans seem to mirror those of the Islamic Republic, they have lost their original implications to convey brand new meaning, namely that the 1979 Revolution is an unfinished project. Once forgotten politics returned with slogans such as “Allah o Akbar” and “Ya Hussein, Mir Hussein.” The former, a 1979 slogan, was turned into a military slogan during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War when Iranian soldiers shouted “Allah o Akbar” or “God is great” upon attacking the enemy. The slogan was repoliticized during the 2009 post-election protests. “Ya Hussein, Mir Hossein” referred to the dead Shia religious leader Imam Hussein, who was being called upon to help Mir Hossein, a reference to Hossein Mousavi, the opposition leader and Green Movement hero. In this way slogans of a state-sponsored religion were turned into political chants of the opposition.

Politics of Commemoration

The Green Movement’s different use of space and place originated within Shia culture. Such culture has roots in its role as a once minority religious sect. Following the government’s killing of the religious leader Imam Hussein in Karbala on Ashura Day (680 A.D.), Shia Muslims adopted the slogan, “Every day and place is Ashura and Karbala.” Shia Muslims internalized this slogan and it became symbolic of Shia culture – its legacy continues in the retelling and acts of remembrance. Although the initial events were not a victory for Shiite Muslims per se, the act of retelling was considered triumphant, turning Ashura into a modern-day ritual in Iran. Like early Shia Muslims, Green Movement protestors used national holidays such as Student Day, Palestine Day, and other national and religious events as opportunities to organize protests and sites of resistance. This phenomenon also led to unofficial holidays such as Green Friday Prayers or Green Mountain Excursion, as other opportunities to continue speaking out against the government.

Small Media and Politics

“You are the media,” was a powerful Green Movement slogan, a message to the government, demonstrating that the media is a powerful weapon which everyone can use to communicate and express dissent. Opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, declared that: “Once the government closes a door, we must seek an alternative window. Once a newspaper is closed another one must be created under the legal framework. For every blog that is shut down, tens of alternatives must be opened up”[2]

As many independent newspapers and websites were shut down, e-mail and text messaging were vital tools used to inform people when to take to the street. Social media sites like Facebook also became a go-to source as the BBC and other traditional media organizations fought to keep up with events. Protesters instantly became citizen journalists and content providers as they used their cameras and phones to share news and information. Consequently, events were often broadcast live by overseas media agencies.

Territories of Power and Acts of Remembrance

The Green Movement takes its cues from post-religious social movements. Although the movement deploys religious iconography and vocabulary, these elements became free of their religious connotations in a new representation. The one thing we should keep in mind is that the powerful structures of the state regain their domination. Efforts of resistance are often forgotten when spaces and occasions are recaptured by the state rendering the resistance apparently in vain. After the post-election protests, the resistance activities were brought to a halt – cell phones were cut, text messages were monitored, and, eventually, wearing Green Movement symbols was forbidden. Public gatherings or crowds of people in Tehran became few and far between. Six months after the Movement began, all signs of protests withdrew from the streets and people were returned to normalcy. At the same time, underground life signs, graffiti, and most importantly, the act of remembering, are still available to be used as mechanisms for spreading protest. A new underground culture was born, with the people as the storytellers.[3]


[1] De Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[2] http://www.irangreenvoice.com/article/2010/apr/18/2594

[3] I would like to thank Ali Sabbagi and Halima Adam for their excellent editing of the English version of this article.

Iran, United States, Volume 3, Issue 3

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