Sunday, September 27, 2009

Islamic nonviolence: The Iranian example


Sunday, September 27, 2009 | 07 Shawwal 1430  



Islamic nonviolence: The Iranian example


As Ahmedinejad visits New York City, it's important to remember that the repeated practice of nonviolence by Muslims in Iran and elsewhere gives lie to the notion that Islam is an intrinsically violent religion that inclines its adherents to committing mayhem.




No bombs here


Regardless of how things ultimately pan out in Iran, the protests against the election results in that country provided us yet another example of the use of nonviolent civil disobedience in the Islamic world.


Indeed, defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi invoked the name of the ultimate icon of modern pacifism—Mahatma Gandhi—in urging his followers to fight on. He asked his supporters to “adopt the tactics of Gandhi, the tactics of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience,” said his spokesperson Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the acclaimed film director.


So measured was the protesters’ response to the violence the government unleashed on them that when people caught the suspected killer of Neda Agha-Soltan, whose murder became a global symbol of the repression, they let him go after confiscating his weapon and ID.


“What we are witnessing since the first demonstrations against the results of the presidential elections might very well be considered as a major nonviolent movement in a Gandhian style,” writes Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian dissident in exile in Canada. “Today, Mousavi has become the symbol of nonviolent protest in Iran, but the true hero of the Iranian civic movement is the emerging republican model of nonviolent resistance and non-ideological politics that provide the clearest guideline and vision for Iran’s gradual transition to an open society.”


A significant part of this movement consisted of artists, who hoped for a cultural thaw after the repressive freeze of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Among Mousavi’s supporters were a who’s who of the luminaries of Iranian cinema (perhaps the best in the world), with names like Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, and Dariush Mehrjui.


Artists were just a small part of the protesters, however. It was an inclusive movement that encompassed many segments of Iranian society, from students to unionists, posing the Islamic Republic a threat like no other since the Iranian Revolution thirty years ago.


“Grandparents walk alongside their children and grandchildren,” reported the Inter Press Service. “University professors, artists, and intellectuals have joined. Even some members of the Iranian national soccer team wore the color of protest—green—on their wrists while playing South Korea to a 1-1 draw earlier in the week.”


A wonderful aspect of the mass mobilization was the prominent role played by women. They were in the forefront of many of the protest events, often jostling with the security forces. Underlying this activism was a paradox: While the Iranian social setup discriminates against women on several fronts, women have taken full advantage of the limited opportunities offered them and now comprise, for instance, more than 60 percent of university graduates. The result: Women increasingly chafe at the restrictions placed on them.


“The root of the current unrest is the people’s dissatisfaction and frustration at their plight going back before the election,” says Iranian Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi. “Because women are the most dissatisfied people in society, that is why their presence is more prominent.”


An additional factor in the mobilization of women was Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a former university chancellor who campaigned prominently alongside her husband. Even as timid a public display of affection as the couple walking into public meetings while holding hands galvanized young women.


“Many compared the role of Rahnavard with Michelle Obama,” Kianoosh Sanjari, an Iranian blogger, told reporter Benjamin Joffe-Walt. “She has become a symbol for the women’s rights movement.”


Iran is hardly the first Muslim country even in the recent past to have seen the use of peaceful protests against an authoritarian regime. In fact, in a number of other instances, these have been successful. In a remarkable one-two punch, a mass street movement led by lawyers in Pakistan was able to twice successfully press its case for the restoration of an independent judiciary, playing a key role in the toppling of U.S.-backed dictator General Pervez Musharraf. When the democratic government of President Asif Ali Zardari dithered on restoring the judges, the lawyers again came out in force earlier this year and forced Zardari to finally reinstate them. The lawyers had to face tremendous repression at the hands of Musharraf, including government-approved attacks on a lawyers’ gathering in Karachi in May 2007 that left almost forty people dead.


In a little-known instance, late last year the people of the small Indian Ocean island nation of Maldives toppled a dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, after more than thirty years of his autocratic rule. Mass peaceful mobilization by the opposition candidate, Mohamed Nasheed, helped ensure that Gayoom finally conceded when he lost the presidential election to Nasheed in October. Gayoom was no slouch in the repression department. Demonstrators were badly beaten by the police, and critics were sentenced to long years in prison. Nasheed himself was brutally tortured before being forced into exile.


These are just some very recent examples of nonviolent activism among Muslims. The most remarkable twentieth century saga was that of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a friend of Gandhi who led in the 1930s and ’40s a nonviolent peaceforce of more than 100,000 Pashtuns for social reform and against British rule in a region synonymous with violence today—the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. Khan spent almost thirty years in prison—evenly divided between the British and the Pakistani governments—due to his efforts to get self-rule for the Pashtuns, but did not give up his adherence to nonviolence.


Closer to our time, Ibrahim Rugova led a remarkable project of peaceful noncooperation by the Kosovar Albanians in the 1990s, where for a decade they set up a massive parallel social system, including schools and hospitals, in response to Serb repression.


The First Palestinian Intifada was a largely nonviolent movement. And despite of a distressing reliance on violence in the Second Intifada, there have even here been heartening instances of nonviolent civil disobedience, such as a protest against the Israeli separation wall in the village of Bili’n that got the Israeli Supreme Court to rule in the village’s favor.


The 1979 Iranian Revolution itself was essentially a broad-based nonviolent uprising against the Shah, with nearly all the violence being inflicted on the protesters by the monarch’s security apparatus. The anti-Shah forces comprised a broad spectrum of society, ranging from workers and students to intellectuals and clerics. They engaged in a vast array of devices to topple the king, including strikes, civil disobedience, and massive rallies.


The anti-Ahmadinejad protests in Iran inspired a mix of awe and disbelief in Iran’s Arab neighbors such as Egypt, with activists in these countries wondering why they couldn’t emulate their Iranian brethren.


In Iran, protesters depicted themselves as on the side of Islam, defined by them as being for righteousness and justice. The opposition often draped itself in green colors, identified with Islam, and invoked the cry of “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great.” Their struggle was helped by the fact that Shiite Islam, the predominant form in Iran, has a reverence for the underdog and for social justice.


“Iranians can be inspired by tolerant Islam as much as by other spiritualities,” said Jahanbegloo, a professor at the University of Toronto who was imprisoned by the Iranian regime for four months. “Nonviolent resistance against injustice, which has come to be closely associated with a ‘Gandhian ethos,’ has strong resonance within Iranian Islam.”


Now, not all peaceful movements in Muslim societies have been primarily religious in character. While some have derived a lot of inspiration from Islam (Ghaffar Khan’s peaceforce), others have been much more secular (the Pakistani lawyers). Regardless, the fact that Muslims are engaging again and again in the practice of nonviolence gives the lie to the notion that Islam is an intrinsically violent religion that inclines its adherents to committing mayhem. Too bad that the Western media’s obsession with violence often gives short shrift to such wonderful examples, distorting the image of an entire population.


We all need to extend our solidarity to the people of Iran and their courageous mass nonviolent struggle.


Amitabh Pal is the Managing Editor of The Progressive, where this article was previously published. He has interviewed the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter and John Kenneth Galbraith for the magazine. In addition to his role as the Managing Editor, Pal is the Co-Editor of the Progressive Media


Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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