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“Persepolis” and the Middle East Today

By | February 16, 2012 - 1:25 pm

by Kelly J. Shannon, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History
University of Alaska Anchorage

Since the publication of its first volume in 2003, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis has rightly received critical and scholarly acclaim. Time, Newsweek and the New York Times praised Satrapi’s autobiography, both for its innovative use of comic-book format and for the insight it provides into life in revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran. High school teachers and college professors around the country have used the book to teach about Iran, Islam, Muslim women, art, war, and many other themes.

I have assigned the book to students in my courses at Temple University, La Salle University, and the University of Alaska Anchorage with good results, so I was pleased to hear that Anchorage Public Library had selected Persepolis for this year’s Anchorage Reads. Not only is this book a marvelous tool for studying the Iranian Revolution, it is very useful for understanding current international affairs.

Official 2012 Anchorage Reads selection.

As tensions between the United States and Iran ratchet up to their highest levels since 1979, Persepolis reminds us that the leaders of the Islamic Republic are not representative of Iran’s people. Ayatollah Khomeini and Islamic fundamentalists never spoke for all Iranians. Satrapi’s memoir argues that, although the majority of Iranians did oppose the Shah, people belonging to many factions advocating different political ideologies participated in the Revolution.

Secular democrats, moderates, communists, socialists and traditional religious groups also helped to overthrow the Shah. These groups were later pushed aside by the more organized fundamentalists. Though many Iranians did support Khomeini and the imposition of Islamic law, many others – like Satrapi and her family – saw the development of clerical rule as a betrayal of the revolution.

Of course, Satrapi’s family was not representative of all Iranians, either. They were more economically privileged and cosmopolitan than most, but their discontent with Khomeini’s regime during the 1980s was not unique or confined to people of their class. The tens of thousands of Iranian women who took to the streets in Tehran, Qom and other cities in March 1979, and again in 1980, to protest new laws meant to strip them of rights – including Khomeini’s decrees for compulsory veiling – are just one indication of more widespread discontent in post-revolutionary Iran.

Today, after over three decades of political repression, enforced morality and the policing of private behavior, there is compelling evidence that discontent with the Islamic regime has only grown deeper. The majority of Iran’s population is young. Most estimates indicate that 60-70 percent of Iranians are under age 35; the CIA World Factbook lists the median age of Iranians as 26.8 years. This rising generation, born after the revolution, is increasingly at odds with their government. Their disaffection bubbled to the surface during the election protests that swept Iran in the summer and fall of 2009.

Exactly 30 years after the revolution that brought the Islamic regime to power, Iranians once again took to the streets in protest. Though ostensibly an outcry about the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the protesters – dubbed the Green Movement – were also expressing pent-up frustration with the entire regime and demanding a more open, democratic system. Young people led the charge, risking violent reprisals by the government to call for a freer society.

The 2009 protests failed to unseat Ahmadinejad or alter the political system. Though the government – led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – continues to crush dissent and persecute reformers, I suspect a sizeable number of Iranians oppose the hard-liners in their country. The revolutionary generation can’t keep the next generation at bay forever.

The conservative ruling establishment is already showing new signs of strain. The BBC reports that Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, just this month summoned President Ahmadinejad for questioning, the first time they’ve exercised that constitutional right. The move is evidence of a growing power struggle between the Supreme Leader, clerics and their supporters in the Majlis on the one side, and Ahmadinejad and his supporters who wish to limit the influence of the mullahs, on the other. The split may provide an opening for the Green Movement to regain some momentum during parliamentary elections this fall, when Iranians go to the polls for the first time since the 2009 presidential election.

It is important to keep Iran’s internal turmoil in mind when considering the current behavior of its government internationally. Perhaps the Islamic Republic has taken a belligerent stance toward the U.S. and international community regarding its nuclear program in order to enhance its credibility, demonstrating to the world and its own people that it remains firmly in control of its destiny. Most Iranians, regardless of their political stance, appear to be in favor of developing a nuclear energy program. Perhaps it is attempting to rally Iranians around a unifying issue: resistance against foreign attempts to manipulate them. Or perhaps if Iran provokes a conflict with Israel, the United States or some other foreign government, it will provide an excuse for the regime to reestablish its grip on its own people, just as it used the Iran-Iraq War to crack down at home.

While the motivation of the Iranian government remains unclear, remember that the Iranian government and the Iranian people are not one and the same. As Satrapi wrote in the introduction toPersepolis, “an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists.” Should the current cold war between the U.S. and Iran become a hot one, Iran’s people – who are, as Satrapi’s book reminds us, just regular people trying to live their lives – will be caught in the crossfire.

Persepolis and the 2009 election protests are also useful for understanding recent developments in the Middle East. Though the protests in Tunisia that brought down President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last January marked the official start of the Arab Spring, I would argue that rumblings of revolution actually began with the 2009 election protests in Iran. Though unsuccessful, these protests provided a model for those that followed.

In Iran, young men and women took to the streets for weeks on end, becoming in essence professional protesters committed to their cause regardless of the risk of violent reprisals from their government. The protesters called for democracy and for the people’s will to play a real role in government. They decried economic inequity. They used the Internet and social media to spread their dissenting messages and coordinate protest activities. They used camera phones to publicize internationally the regime’s violent repression of peaceful protests. The Iranian government simply could not control dissent the way it had during the pre-digital age. What happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in 2011 looked a lot like what happened in Iran two years earlier. Only this time, the protests became successful revolutions.

Iran can serve as another kind of model when assessing the Arab Spring. The Revolution in 1979 – detailed in Persepolis – provides a lesson for revolutionaries today regarding what not to do after successfully overthrowing a government. In the Iranian case, multiple factions united in opposition to the Shah. But once they accomplished their goal of removing him from power, they faced the task of forming a new government. In a country in which political dissent had been suppressed for decades, the only faction that was organized and influential enough to take power quickly was the fundamentalist faction led by Khomeini.

The Shah had suppressed other groups with impunity, but in an Islamic country, he could only suppress religious leaders like Khomeini so much, leaving religious fundamentalists in a position of relative strength. Iranians went to the polls in March 1979, to vote “yes” or “no” on Khomeini’s proposal to create an “Islamic republic.” That was just two months after the Shah fled the country, and other political groups who had alternative visions for Iran’s future were not organized. Nor did Khomeini and his supporters explain exactly what this new system of government would look like. Believing that Khomeini, the hero of the Revolution, had the best interests of the people at heart, the Iranian public voted “yes.” Thus the repressive and intrusive theocratic regime of the Islamic Republic was born.

Iran therefore serves as a cautionary tale. In countries in which democracy and political parties are immature due to previous repression, it is best to allow time for different parties to develop instead of rushing to the polls. Otherwise, the most organized and radical groups might seize power and create a new government not in line with the wishes of the majority. When these groups are fundamentalists, they could create an even more broadly repressive regime than the one they’ve replaced, particularly for women.

The revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya appear to have learned this lesson. None of the revolutions of the Arab Spring have a charismatic figurehead like Khomeini, allowing a number of groups to negotiate their future and compete for power on more equal footing. Despite ongoing tensions between the Egyptian military and the Egyptian public, the delay in elections there is giving various factions a chance to organize and make their pitch to voters before the post-revolutionary government is formed. Similarly, Tunisians waited several months before electing delegates to write the state’s new constitution. Though “Islamist” candidates have won the majority of the seats to the constitutional convention in Tunisia – and seem poised to do well in elections in Egypt and Libya – they seem to be advocating new governments based on the model of Turkey rather than Iran.

The Iranian Revolution certainly encouraged religious revivalists in the Islamic world to seek political power, but those groups have followed their own path. The young people who took to the streets across the Islamic world last year do not appear willing to accept new governments that ignore their voices and limit their freedoms. They may wish for a government more in line with Islam, but I doubt we’ll see a repeat of the Iranian Revolution.

Iran seems to recognize – though does not accept – that it is no longer the standard-bearer of revolution in the Islamic world. As the New York Times reported on February 2, the Iranian government’s recent attempt to rebrand the Arab Spring as the “Islamic Awakening” flopped, both with Muslims in other countries and with its own people. According to the paper, “One popular text message, circulated widely on cellphones around the capital [Tehran], went: ‘If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, don’t worry: it’s not the high prices, poverty, or unemployment. You are suffering from Islamic Awakening.’”

If Persepolis has taught us anything, it is that the Iranian people persevere. The winds of change wrought by the Iranian Revolution, which in turn helped to influence the Arab Spring, may yet blow through Iran once more.

Dr. Kelly J. Shannon, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alaska Anchorage, specializes in the history of 20th century U.S. foreign relations with a particular focus on the Islamic world and women’s rights. Her current research project, “Veiled Intentions: Islam, Global Feminism, and U.S. Foreign Policy Since the Late 1970s” traces how broad American public concern for Muslim women’s rights has been integrated into U.S. foreign policy toward Islamic countries since 1979.

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