The Green Movement’s Worrisome Turn Toward Ashura

Mehrangiz Kar
Mehrangiz Kar Senior Technical Officer, Global Connections, FHI 360; Former Visiting Fellow

December 20, 2009

It is worrisome that both the government and its critics are resorting to using the holy mourning ceremonies and rituals of the months of Moharram and Safar for their own political goals.  For the government, the exploitation of the Shiite holidays commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hossein and his followers in battle against the caliph Yazid at Karbala in 680 is nothing unexpected.  At the same time, emails being exchanged and statements on various Green Movement websites show how enthusiastic and interested the protest forces are about using the arena of the mourning for Imam Hossein for themselves.  Last Thursday, the Iranian police published a warning to the opposition, adding to the acrimony between the two camps, and it appears likely that members of the security forces will be allowed to answer protests during the holy days with a bloody response.

It is worrisome that leaders great and small, young and old, are not ruling out carelessly putting their movement on such a hastily chosen course, and are not warning their supporters that the proper arena for the expression of the ideals of a civil and peaceful movement is not one where their wisdom and tact are replaced by emotion and frenzy, one where the people, regardless of their political affiliation, are at the height of anger and are ready to draw the blood of the ones they see – based on their own views – as today’s equivalent of Yazid’s forces.  This type of scene is incompatible with a truly peaceful movement.

Dangerous consequences lie ahead. Of course, it will be impossible to stop clashes from transpiring when the mourning peaks with the holiday of Ashura on December 27, but it is possible to minimize the inevitable horrors to come.  If wise and logical people raise their voices, calling for protestors to stay away from the ceremonies at which emotion and rage reign above all, it is possible that the dangers now threatening the peaceful nature of this movement can be defeated.  It is the duty of the movement’s influential figures, both young and old, to warn their followers not to enter an atmosphere that is in no way an appropriate venue for the discussion of political questions.  Just as we plead with the political and security officials of the government for the tact and restraint that we have not yet found in them, we must also demand that the leaders of the opposition movement not shrink from responsibility, no matter the demands from various supporters.

This is not to say that the opposition should not use holidays and observances to its advantage.  To date, its use of public events like the Friday prayers of July 17 and Qods (Jerusalem) Day on September 18, has not conflicted with its peaceful nature. But taking advantage of the mourning rituals of Moharram and Safar is another thing altogether.  Everyone must consider the social, historical, and political factors associated with the event before throwing themselves into it.  To bring the protest movement into the mourning holidays is to enmesh its principles with the specific narrative of the commemoration, and this would be an irreversible and historic error.  It must be avoided before it is too late.  There is no use to be found in jeopardizing the very essence of the movement by encouraging protestors to enter a frenzied arena marked by symbolic rage, vengeance, and bloodlust.  Must our young people, in their quest for justice, throw themselves into the roles of a dangerous passion play where the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed are different in the eyes of each player?

These rituals are known for self-abuse, with mourners lashing themselves with chains, viciously beating their own chests, or even cutting themselves with blades, but this can be easily transformed – perhaps at the lead of the security services – into the abuse of others, in some sort of symbolic vengeance for the blood of the martyred Hossein.  Dominating above all in the ceremonies is an energetic hatred of Yazid and his followers, especially Shemr, the soldier who killed Hossein.  When this hatred is intensified in a religious frenzy, it is easy to see those seeking freedom, who have entered the scene with the sole goal of expressing this desire, being labeled as symbols of Yazid and Shemr and being brought into bloodshed.

To this point, when the Iranian people have come into the streets to express their political will at official ceremonies, they have remained under control. But a clash on the holiest days of Shi’ism between a regime that rules in the name of religion against a people captivated by their desire to express their peaceful protest against their government will be nothing short of combustible, and it is best avoided.  A civil movement seeking modern goals of freedom and human rights should not let itself use its claims for justice as an excuse to wrap itself in the cloak of the legendary struggle of Imam Hossein against the army of Yazid – for it will lose its grip on modern human rights. How, I ask, can the movement remain a truly peaceful effort of resistance and protest if it willingly enters an arena certain to bring about rage, violence, and upheaval?

The protest movement, quite simply, must dissociate itself from narratives with which it is incompatible. Yet as the mourning of Moharram arrives, many Green intellectuals are calling for a reconstruction of these religious themes, which will not suit the goals of a modern civil movement based on human rights.  Co-opting Ashura will not help fight the rage of the government’s forces; rather, it will only stoke it.  Where are the voices of the silent modern millions on the opposition’s sites and weblogs?  There are other symbolic events which can be more appropriate places for the Green Movement to express itself, most notably the upcoming anniversary of the Islamic Revolution – a commemoration of the time in 1979 when countless Iranians of a variety of political factions and ideologies came together to express their desires, which have not been realized to this day.

The movement need not be framed in the narrative of centuries-old Islamic history; doing so will only serve to offer a gift to the institutions like the hard-line Kayhan newspaper and its editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, who seizes on any opportunity to escalate conflict.  What we see now in Iran is a movement that has inspired countless people and developed its own narrative over the past six months.  Not only does it not need to enter a dangerous arena which is not the place for political expression, but for its own good, it must not do so.