The death of Neda: Iran’s potent history of martyrdom
UPDATE June 25: The Twitter user quoted at length in this column reappeared after three days of silence, saying he was stiff, sore and bruised, and now outside Tehran, but still alive.
It seems to me that many people are still trying to find out as much as they can about the situation in the Islamic Republic, even though a week-and-a-half has gone by since the election.
Journalists tend to treat stories like, literally, ‘nine-day wonders’, because few, anywhere, about anything, stay on the front page for much longer.
Yet at least on Twitter, as I write, among the top ten trending topics are ‘Iran elections’, ‘Iran’, ‘Tehran’, ‘Mousavi’, and ‘Neda’. Neda, by the way, was the name of the young woman shot dead by paramilitary forces at the weekend.
If you haven’t seen the footage or the still picture of her lifeless, bleeding face already, it’s probably because you can’t face it. I sympathise; yet Neda’s may yet become the face of events as they unfold in Iran. Whether it’s a revolution or a counter-revolution, and whether or not it succeeds, it will make martyrs, and martyrs are central to Iranian culture.
Shi’a Islam, the State religion of Iran, is in some respects itself a cult of martyrdom.
We are less than a month from Moharram, the festival in which Iran remembers the death of Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed.
This was no ordinary death, as commemorated by Shi’ites; it was treacherous betrayal. They remember Hussein as a fighter against tyranny, who was ambushed and shamefully killed at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.
It is a pivotal moment in history – it marks the split between Sunni and Shia Islam, and each year ordinary Iranians remember it , crying“Ya Hussein” with profound mourning and, in some cases, literal self-flagellation.
It’s a pious national ritual, brilliant and graphically described by the Tehran-based author Christopher de Bellaigue in his book ‘In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs’.
This national obsession with martyrdom runs like a skein through a carpet in the history of Iran. Three years ago, the regime was using it to threaten that it could raise 40,000 ‘martyrs’ to act as suicide bombers against the Americans. Now, in a reversal, it may form one of the reasons why the regime has not yet brought in the tanks. The potency of martyrdom is greatly inflated in the Iranian context, and martyrs who are seen to die fighting tyranny are potentially of immense importance.
Alongside this, understand that some in the church hierarchy, even at the level of Grand Ayatollah, have never been entirely happy with the Islamic Constitution as set down by Ayatollah Khomeini, and you begin to get a clearer picture of why the situation in Iran remains balanced, despite the immense political and technological power of the State.
For Grand Ayatollahs such as Hossein-Ali Montazeri, and Yousuf Sanei, there are and have been for a long time strong arguments that the Mosque has no business in the affairs of Government.
In other words, the Supreme Leader should not be the Head Of State at all. No wonder that Tehran has been buzzing with rumours that the immensely rich and influential former President, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a long-time opponent of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, has been in the holy city of Qom, canvassing opinion among the most senior clerics; or that (probably in a regime counter-strike) Rafsanjani’s daughter and other relatives were rounded up briefly before being released at the weekend. Whatever the power struggle on the streets, the secretive conflict behind the scenes may be the one to watch.
Meanwhile, though, the world strains to watch ordinary Iranians trying to assert their rights; the barriers are censorship, the banning of most foreign journalists and what is clearly propaganda emitted from the regime.
Social media like Twitter, as the rumours fly, and government agents spread disinformation, are less of a source than they were. But when a reliable ‘tweeter’, like one student I’ve been following since the unrest began, speaks, don’t let anyone tell you that Twitter can’t tell a story. I have merely tidied up the punctuation and a couple of spelling errors in his account of Saturday’s demonstration, sent painstakingly in 140-character chunks:
It was a nightmare, I can barely breathe & my face is burning, Masood got shot in the arm & Shayan’s brother is missing. I don’t know where to start with, first they attack our peaceful memorial gathering in front of the university with water gun. The university’s doors were close, we couldn’t run everywhere! & then they start shooting tear gas at us.
They were so many! riot police, normal police, intel, IRG (Revolutionary Guard), Basij! I managed to scape, but they captured so many people. All routes to Azady square were blocked & if anyone stopped walking or walking slow they hit him/her brutally. There was no safe path, people were walking in circles between all variety of security forces.
I think they made fun of people, don’t go here, go this way, not that way & for no apparent reason suddenly attacking random people. We tried our best using all known shortcuts for reaching Azady SQ where Mousavi was, but ended up in face to face with IRG. They weren’t just the ordinary police or motorcycle riot guard, they were soldiers holding MP5 supported by reinforced military cars . We didn’t realize for a moment they started shooting at people, the gun’s sound was like a toy gun, not loud & the soldiers were smiling.
I was going to tell Masood they are using fake guns for scaring people! until people started screaming in agony. We were at Nosrat st, and that part of that damned street had nowhere for covering. We ran as fast as we could in the opposite direction, at the same time Basiji bastards started to hit fleeing people. I think I saw 2 or 3 people lying on the ground in blood & IRG started to move them, probably hide them. I lost Masood in the crowd in upper streets of Nosrat the irony was everything was calm there & people over there shocked by the looks of us.
He’s gone quiet in the last couple of days. I just hope he’s all right.
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