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  • Writer's pictureŞafak Göktürk


Updated: Oct 10, 2023

I liken autocracies to a seemingly sturdy rectangular table, only that one of its legs is missing. The regime mobilizes virtually all its resources to keep weighing on the crosswise opposite corner where the leg is in place so that the table does not topple. But it can do little when that weight proves indecisive. And this is the moment when people begin to realize that still investing trust in or remaining silent before a regime whose own fortunes now seem questionable will in fact be putting their own security and well-being at risk in the longer perspective. This is all about crossing that perceived threshold which is more commonly described as overcoming fear. So, they walk to the opposite corner.

And the Iranians are walking indeed. The unrest sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death following her brutal beating in police custody is in its third month and shows no sign of dissipating despite the regime’s ever deadlier tactics and threatening rhetoric.

The current unrest differs from previous bouts of open resentment, notably those in 2009, when disputed election results caused the ‘’Green Movement’’ to rally for reform, and in 2019, when sudden increase in the long-subsidized price of fuel unleashed public anger. Although demonstrators in those instances occasionally uttered condemnations of the regime and its leadership, the main thrust of their demands nonetheless remained in the ‘’box’’, that is within the confines of the Islamic Republic. This time around, their dispute is with the very tenet of the regime itself.

The issue was that hapless young woman’s ‘’failure’’ to cover her hair ‘’properly’’. One thing I can agree with Islamists and fundamentalists is that veil is not just a piece of cloth. It goes to the core of their entire world view. The relationship between the status quo and the status of women is far deeper than meets the eye. It is not simply about a male-favouring society unwilling to accept, seemingly onreligious grounds, gender equality. Gender inequality constitutes a vital pillar of the preserved order. The regime’s very survival is seen contingent also on the subdued visibility and curtailed status of women. Veiled women are seen as proof -not the result- of how socially and culturally things are supposed to be in today’s world from the Islamist’s perspective. Indeed, the women’s resulting diminishedphysical appearance represents the most conspicuous feature of theocratic rule. It is theocracy’s first line of defense. Therefore, women hold key to either the perpetuation or the downfall of the system. The regime cannot tolerate to have its first line of defense breached, because it recognizes, more than anyone else, that it will be the beginning of the end.

It seems that both the dissenting people and the government in Iran have crossed the Rubicon. Why matters did not come to a head in this fashion earlier since the regime has been in place for more than four decades is a valid question. The answer lies in the trajectory.

First, however long resented, the constituent dictates of a repressive regime -and eventually the rulers themselves- become open targets only when popular moodhas already shifted in a way where the government is seen either callouslyindifferent to or impotent in delivering even the basic needs. It takes time for this mood to set in because authoritarian governments are also well versed in manipulating economic hardships, by either making people dependent on handouts or otherwise weaponizing their poverty as an omen for worse to come should theynot behave. Yet these ploys too have their limits. After all, this is about the credibility of the regime’s power. And in Iran that credibility seems to have eroded to the point where the regime is seen increasingly vulnerable, like the Shah was in the year 1978.

Second, the appeal of the Islamic revolution has long run its course. It is not simplythat the enthusiasm has faded. The specific circumstances when the revolution could appeal to or be imposed on people are now in distant past. The 1979 revolution and its subsequent conversion into a clerical autocracy took place in the wider context of the Cold War and geopolitical Islamist militancy. The alienation of the Shah’s increasingly ruthless and repressive regime dependent on the United States and his narrow circle of beneficiaries from almost every section of the population had brought about an unlikely coalition of liberals, communists, Islamists, and others. And that was a time when radical ideologies could trump the true meaning of public empowerment and freedom. The overriding paradigm was to replace the holder of power, not its construct.

Religious sanctification and clerical domination thus easily became the anti-thesis of the Shah’s legitimation of rule. This was not difficult to understand. The Shah had become hostage to his own fantasy of timeless ‘’King of the Kings’’. Yet he failed both in living up to the reputation of his ancient predecessors as a just and benevolent ruler and in balancing his act with the Shiite religious establishment. Iran had already become a Shiite state under the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century. The unlikely duo of Iran’s Islamist revolutionary ideology, one being the Paris educated academic Ali Shariati, and the other, a religious scholar and philosopher Morteza Motahhari set the path for the new regime. Shariati ‘’customized’’ Marxism within the framework of Islam, hence attracting manymiddle-class intellectuals as well as poor city dwellers. He called for collective political role based on religion outside the confines of the seminaries. Motahharihowever countered other ideologies’ juxtaposition with Islamic teachings and concluded that only the Shiite authority at the top functioning as religious reference (Marja al-taqlid) could ensure justice for the whole society and avoidrepetition of the Shah’s injustices.

The contradiction between these two approaches became secondary to their combined impact. The perception among many was clear. Shah was blamed primarily for his ‘’Westoxication’’ and everything that flowed therefrom, and therefore the nation’s course had to be reset to its authentic path. That path was Islam, in the form of Twelver Shiism, which had galvanized a process through which Iran reemerged and then reasserted itself as a distinct society and power in the age of the new religion. The Shah, it was maintained, had broken this mold of national identity. And, in this identity’s modern reconstruction, essentially laid outin 1970 by the revolution’s eventual leader Ayatollah Khomeini in his theological framework, ’’Velayat-e Faqih’’, the religious establishment would directly guard,hence lead, oversee, and guide the state of affairs in its entirety.

So, the dichotomy was postulated as one between the unjust, alienating monarch and the aspired justice to be served through religious reasoning and oversight.What this portended for actual rights and freedoms was sadly the concern of only a few. The rest is history. Revolutions materialize when the militant activism of a sizeable minority, typically consisting of disparate groups, sits on the raw commonfeelings of the majority. Who eventually owns the revolution is another matter. That depends on one’s capacity to capitalize on, then manipulate the public mood, and crack down. It was the mullahs who pulled it off then.

But that is also history. Apart from -and because of- all that transpired in every conceivable respect regionally and globally in the intervening 44 years, which already consign late seventies to history departments, the very existence of the regime in Iran serves as its undoing. Because the regime stands as living proof of the fallacy of its promise for justice and prosperity. Over the decades, ever more people have concluded that the revolution amounted only to a change of guard at the top. The gulf between its convoluted promise and the actual want for freedom and entitlement is a widening one. And it is widening at an ever-increasing rate because Iranians, like everybody else, know the world beyond better.

A more profound shift has also been taking hold, and not only in Iran. The Arab uprisings rocked the wider region in 2011. To discard them today as inconsequential would be a mistake. What followed that momentous year may have understandably disheartened many, but that should not have us overlook the implications of those revolts. I refer to them as ’’citizens’ revolts’’. For peoplerefused to be treated as ‘’subjects’’ any longer. In that sense, Mahsa Amini’s death was Iran’s Tunisian ‘’Mohammed Bouazizi’’ moment. Together, these trendsrepresent a revolution beneath the surface. Individual rights and freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are being decoupled from the troubling aspects of the region’s history with the West. People have acknowledged their true, universalmeaning through suffering their absence. Autocrats, Islamist or not, can no longer dismiss democracy as a mere feature of the ‘’arrogant, alien and Christian West’’.

This takes us back to the role of women. Women doubly suffer under oppression, both like their male compatriots and as the unequal half. In today’s better-connected world, this spurs them to action more forcefully than men. Because they see gender inequality and lack of freedoms as the flip sides of the same coin. And witnessing the progress towards fuller gender equality in democracies onlysharpens their pioneering spirit. Their added value to the opposition cannot be overstated. It becomes a decidedly more formidable one.

Social events are notoriously difficult to predict, and when attempted, forecasts areusually inaccurate. But expanding the time matrix helps. Previous episodes of unrest under the current regime in Iran should be seen as flashpoints of a process as well as in comparison with today’s developments. Every open resentment denotes the limits of a reigning power. An authoritarian government’s ongoing ability to quell such displays of opposition belies the erosion of its own credibility as an uncontested power. Dissenters who initially target mismanagement and the less bearable constraints of the order eventually shift their rage towards the regime itself. This is because people’s misgivings about their rulers ripen while the government stagnates.

And more profoundly, the time under the Islamic Republic falls into line with thelonger, modern history trajectory of Iran. The constitutional revolution of 1905-1911, the nationalist interval with Mossadegh in 1951-1953 and the Islamic revolution of 1979-1981 all represent stages in redefining the source and the houseof authority. The modern element was the people in constituting legitimate power. Yet, in a consuming process shaped by the tug of war among regal, religious and nationalist camps, people were often reduced to mere reference in deals and discussions. Even so, at every new turn, people loomed larger. This did notnecessarily serve people’s interests, as today, Iranians have in their full retrospective view the calamities that befell them, all in their name. But by claiming popular base, the Islamic Republic has also unwittingly reinforced the centrality of people to power, while the regime became a pale rendition of its former self.

There are striking similarities between 1978 and today, regarding the spread of theunrest and the government’s response. Both were triggered by the incumbent regime’s taking a step too far. Then, it was a slanderous article about Ayatollah Khomeini in a government controlled daily, and this time around, the documented fatal battering of Amini. Each initially incited the directly affected communities, and then the rage spread like wildfire across the country, causing scores of new fatalities. In line with the religion’s deep-rooted tradition, every new single death would become a mourning event on its fortieth day, hence setting in motion a perpetual cycle of charged demonstrations with each sustaining more deadlycrackdown by the government. The ‘’bazaaris’’ -the traditional middle-class traders- began gravitating towards the demonstrators. Major universities transformed into platforms of dissent. High schools did not remain idle. Labor action began to pop up. The intensity of the demonstrations does fluctuate, yet there is again no sign of a loss in overall momentum. As then, the government began oscillating between issuing draconian measures, like making anti-government protest a capital offense, and attempting to win back demonstrators by differentiating them from ‘’outside’’ instigators. And this is all occurring in a much better-connected world now, no matter how frantically the regime tries to disrupt digital communication.

Scenarios abound. Many of them center on the lack of any -let alone unifying-leadership in the assorted opposition; who in the established structure would be the immediate claimant of power in the event of an implosion; and whether the countrywould descend into a Syria-type civil war. All valid queries in their standard scholar sense, none of them however seems to sufficiently grasp the context on the ground. First, under the circumstances, rallying around a unifying purpose rather than a leader will be more powerful -and protective. And Iran is a nation that can certainly deliver capable personalities, in the process, who will guide it out of the maze.

Second, whether through implosion or a wider collapse, the power vacuum will be for others to fill, not the regime’s affiliates. Scenarios like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps stepping in can at most be the event of a fleeting moment. IRGC is an adjunct to the revolution and was created by Khomeini in its immediate aftermath to expressly protect the political system. So, it does not have a shelf life on its own. Attention should rather turn to the much bigger Iranian Armed Forces (commanding almost one million personnel when mobilized), and history tells us that professional officers and conscripts do not like to shoot their civilian brethren in Iran. It took only two weeks for the Shah’s formidable army tofully switch sides in 1979.

And third, Iran is no Syria. True, some of the flashpoints of unrest have been in the Kurdish and Baluchistan provinces, and at times the security forces have acted especially brutally in those places. But they remain only as part of the action in the country in its entirety, and Iran’s centripetal pull is not easy to mess with. And that center of gravity consists mainly of ethnic Persians and Azeri Turks who have conjointly claimed and cherished the country in the past millennium. Safavid and Qajar dynasties which ruled the nation for the better part of the last five hundred years were Turks, as many prominent members of today’s establishment are.

I shall end with a metaphor as I began. When we gaze at the sky in a clear, cloudless night, we see sets of stars. What we observe in fact is their past. Because even with the speed of light, the images of those stars reach our sight with long time lags. In a somewhat similar way, when we look at imperious regimes today, we see their retained profiles, belying the emptiness behind.


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