When every single avenue of organization and communication is either controlled, completely blocked, or under attack by the state apparatus, one place where a form of organization can occur away from the eye of the state is within the realm of the inner, in individuals who witness the same things, the same injustices. Within individuals who feel the same sense of isolation and dread. Alignment between individuals occurs by way of the nature within human beings. While they may not be sharing their sentiments, they are feeling the same pain, and deriving the same thoughts. It’s natural to feel dread when you see someone hanging by the neck from a crane for some banal crime, and to have that dread transform into a kind of disdain, or hate for those who would take a life with such ease and lack of regard.
Individuals may be unable to talk about these things openly and publicly without risking the attention and ire of the state, but they may be able to talk about these things in their own homes, or in fleeting moments between each other where the eye of state is not present. A sort of network of “resistance in the heart” forms in this way, through whispers and shared glances that speak volumes without words being uttered.
But this network isn’t organized, certainly not as organized as the authoritarian state that terrorizes and intimidates it. It can’t hold public discussions and debates to form policies that the majority can adopt and that everyone can respect by virtue of a fair vote.
The authoritarian state controls the population via many layers of intimidation, fear and propaganda, leaving individuals wondering if they are the only ones who feel the fear and helplessness. They may even know that many or even most people feel similary, but they wonder “how can we all unite and act at the same time to resist?” “How can a leader emerge to unite us and guide us?”
Today we are living in the era of the media entity of one. An individual can reach hundreds, thousands, and even millions instantly by sharing a video on YouTube, a post on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter, especially if what was shared goes viral.
In 2009, in Iran, the world witnessed one of the first uprisings powered by this phenomenon–arguably the very first of such magnitude and scale. After the announcement of Ahmadinejad as the winner of of the presidential election under dubious circumstances, initially there were peaceful, silent protests in the streets asking “Where is my vote?”
As the state cracked down on the protesters violently, killing many and injuring many more, we witnessed what happened through the videos recorded by people in the streets on their mobile phones and uploaded to the web.
I partook in the distribution and dissemination of these videos through Twitter and via Iran News Now. It was a fascinating and thrilling and simultaneously frightening and painful time. For me personally, despite being separated from the events on the ground, it was life-altering (as I am sure it was for anyone else who participated whether on the ground or half-way across the world).
People wondered, how did the people of Iran manage to circumvent the government and have their voices heard? How did they organize?
A combination of elements and occurrences coalesced into what became known as the Green Movement.
The regime allows a controlled presidential election once every four years in order to be able to claim that it is popular and legitimate. The field of candidates is narrowed by a vetting body called the Guardian Council, whose members are appointed by the unelected Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. They basically ensure that those who run are loyal to the system of Guardianship by the Supreme Jurisprudent, known as Velayeteh Faghih. This system was formulated by Ayatollah Khomeini, and established in Iran after yet another dubious vote, a referendum that established the system today known as the Islamic Republic.
In the 2009 election, two of the candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, ran under a campaign that promised various reforms, but all within the boundaries of the system. They would not have been able to run if they were not already well-established insiders, considered loyal to the system.
They gave rousing speeches that ignited a sense of euphoria in Iran. The election served as a kind of window of opportunity for what I like to refer to as the 70 million oppositions of one to become a singular, and, at least momentarily, unified, force to be reckoned with. A major turning point was a televised debate held between the incumbent Ahmadinejad, and the leader of the Greens, Mousavi, during which Ahmadinejad used his now infamous “Begam? Begam?” tactic (“Should I say? Should I say?”) in which he threatens to reveal something damning about his adversary to publicly humiliate them. During the debate he shocked Iranians by brandishing a file which he claimed proved Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, had falsified her academic qualifications:
I have a file on a certain woman. You know her. She sits next to you in your campaign broadcasts. In violation of all the country’s laws, when she was an employee [of the government] she studied for two MAs . . . She received her PhD without passing the entrance exams.
This backfired for Ahmadinejad and served to fuel a kind of rage against him, as it offended the sensibilities of many Iranians. Suffice it to say that after this unprecedented live debate in Iran, what was initially a political campaign, where the color green was used to indicate support for Mousavi, began to morph into something bigger–what we know today as the Green Movement. This movement itself is part of something bigger still, which I alluded to earlier…
Ppl think it disappeared but the reality is the green movement was the cloak worn in that moment by something much bigger & more persistent.
— Iran News Now (@IranNewsNow) April 27, 2013
When you have 70 million people, all of whom have lived for thirty years under an uncompromising, brutal, authoritarian system that brandishes insults to their sensibilities on a daily basis and in every nook and cranny of their lives, all it takes is the right fuel, and a spark. That’s what Iran had in 2009.
There was unity and cohesion between people who suddenly woke up to a feeling that that they were marginalized, in the one supposedly open space that the regime gave them to express a voice–the presidential election. And in that one space, they felt that they had their voice taken from them.
The rest of what we saw was history. It was a pivotal moment for Iran and for the world, both in substance and in form. This was, in my view, the precursor to the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, and to a new kind of digital activism combined with real world activism that is still manifesting and unfolding. We still have not seen completely how it will play out.
There were many unbelievable parts to the tale that ensued. Iran’s Green Movement has many fallen heroes. Martyrs in the truest sense of the word.
One of these martyr’s passing was caught on video. This was a horrific, sad and iconic moment for Iran’s Green Movement.
Neda Agha Soltan. God forever bless her soul.
One of the people present on the scene when she was shot was Arash Hejazi, who tried to save her life. Today on Twitter he tweeted this Washington Post article:
— Arash Hejazi (@ArashHejazi) April 27, 2013
From this article:
Iranians who remained in the country after the election say that those 2009 protests, known as Iran’s Green Movement, included two very divergent strains — those who believed that the election was tainted and those who sought the end of the Islamic republic.
“We can’t really say it was a movement, because we all wanted something different,” said Abbas, a classically trained poet who is now one of several hundred traders in Tehran’s unofficial currency bazaar. “When I hear people opposed to the Islamic republic on satellite television still talking about the Green Movement, I realize how removed they are from the situation here.”
Abbas said he has one brother who is prison for his leftist political tendencies and another who is an officer in the Revolutionary Guard. Like several others interviewed for this article, Abbas said he took part in the 2009 protests because he regarded it as an historic moment.
“It’s been four years, and I’m still asking myself whether it was all worth it or not,” Abbas said.
Others say they are eager for a reason to get involved again.
“I’m waiting to see if Khatami becomes a candidate,” said Massoud, an electrical engineer who supported reformers in past elections and voted for Mousavi in 2009.
It is natural that four years after this pivotal event in Iran, many are asking if it was worth it, if the movement is still alive. Many bear physical and psychological scars and emotional burdens of a potential that held so much promise, that–at least for now–appears to have faltered. Cameran Ashraf, one of the people at the forefront of the digital side of the struggle (in 2009 and since) recently wrote a must-read piece on the psychological toll of a digital activist’s work:
There are different kinds of digital activists. Some focus on Twitter or spreading information. Others mobilize support on Facebook. A few make posters, motivational videos, or leverage other talents. Some, and I include myself in this class, provide direct technological support to movements and activists in-country. Our team provided secured hosting to dozens of key websites and supported key reporters and activists in-country, and I facilitated more than 3 million video downloads from inside Iran, among other activities. I was on call 24 hours a day from 2009-2011 and can only rarely recall getting more than four hours of sleep a night.
If it sounds as if I am bragging or inflating myself, I am not—this is part of the healing process and part of coming to terms with feelings of not doing enough, not helping enough, and not being enough. There is something to geographically distant material engagement that pushes one’s feelings to the margins, to the point where your body lives on the time in another land and the only thing motivating you is the pureness of help itself.
This healing process that Mr. Ashraf speaks of is universal. He is experiencing it, and by sharing his experience he is helping others who have struggled with the difficult feelings and questions that are not yet resolved or answered, to cope.
Another tweet today from Arash Hejazi reveals what I believe is yet another universal feeling among Iranians:
Nothing about Iran makes sense anymore. Neither the regime nor the opposition.
— Arash Hejazi (@ArashHejazi) April 27, 2013
What is clear is that as Iran approaches yet another presidential election that the regime will try to control, reflection is taking place among Iranians of all stripes. Those 70 million oppositions of one are holding internal dialogues, trying to make sense of what happened, form new insights, to heal, and ultimately to forge ahead.
Let me be clear on my view on all of this. None of this should for a second be seen as weakness or lack of resolve. Not for a second.
It took thiry years for Iranians to find the window of opportunity to express themselves in the form that was the Green Movement.
Iran’s Green Movement was essentially a manifestation of something that was there long before it appeared in the form of the Green Movement itself. And it is still there. It is still strong. It is still vibrant and it will bring about the change that Iranians long for. Of that I am certain.
This is a living and breathing entity, and it sits in the hearts of all those 70 millions Iranians that I have repeatedly spoken of. It is a yearning for justice, for breathing space, for openness, for love and laughter, for happiness, for unity, and for freedom.
It is crystallized and atomic.
This entity is a fractal social network. Every individual that forms a node in the network has his or her own views. There is significant convergence. And there is significant divergence. But one big service that the Islamic Republic of Iran has provided to Iranians is that it has planted a great seed in our hearts for change. Change in profound terms. I believe there is a commonality to be found within the union of all of these individual’s hearts that will be the basis for the new Iran that will one day emerge. I am not talking about simplistic notions like regime change. I am talking about change that supersedes any regime. Change that is above and beyond politics.
I’m not saying it will be easy. But I believe that most Iranians have realized since the revolution that there is no such thing as easy change for Iran. The road is fraught with risk and peril. There will be sadnesses to come. And there will be profound moments of victory along the way. But it is a journey in the truest sense. And we are already embarked upon it.
So what happened to Iran’s Green Movement? It’s like a dragon that slumbers. It is metastasizing. How it will show itself again is not yet known or obvious. But it will show itself again. And most likely it will be under a different guise, a different cloak. But it’s essence will be what it always was.
The character of Iran. Iranian culture. The Iranian People.
~ Dave Siavashi
[Edit – Changed title from “What happened to Iran’s Green Movement? It is Metastasizing.” to “What happened to Iran’s Green Movement?”]