Decoding the Iranian Demonstrations

How today’s protesters are co-opting the symbols and slogans of the 1979 revolution.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Iran’s June 12 election and its aftermath.

Iranian protesters

“This is so much bigger than 1979,” exclaimed a friend in Tehran as we spoke this morning by Skype. She had heard the phrase echo through the huge crowds of protesters yesterday as she marched from Revolution Square to Freedom Square—both focal points of the revolutionary protests that toppled the Pahlavi monarchy of Muhammad Reza Shah in 1979. Today, the Islamic republic faces a dual existential threat from the mass protests that have brought cities across the country to a standstill and from the deep fissures visible within the ruling political and clerical elite. Although the opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s June 12 election grab has been historic in scale, a revolution is not yet under way, and future protests may well be brutally extinguished. Still, the idea of revolution is at the forefront of the Iranian popular imagination, and today’s protesters are cleverly deploying the symbols, language, and mechanisms of the revolution of three decades past.

All Iranians—even the majority born since the fall of the monarchy—are deeply aware of their revolutionary history, so these symbols are vested with a meaning comprehensible to all. Given state censorship and repression under both the monarchy and the post-revolution republic, the population is practiced in decoding allegorical allusions and loaded symbols. Protesters have co-opted these images and phrases for two reasons: first, as pre-emptive protection from inevitable charges of counterrevolution brought against anyone daring to call for substantial change and, second, because the protesters understand that other Iranians will immediately recognise the significance of these symbolic actions.

During the revolution that deposed the shah, the rooftops rang with nightly cries of “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”). In recent nights, the same cry has reverberated across the capital. The slogan has also been adopted during protests to afford protection to demonstrators—it would be shocking indeed for police or militias in a purportedly Islamic state to attack crowds openly professing their devotion. Displaying respect for religion may also be an indication of the protesters’ hope that the divided clerical elite will come down against Ahmadinejad.

Another slogan that has been co-opted is the Muslim testament that “there is no God but God.” This phrase is a subtle jab at the authority of the supreme leader and head of state, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In Iran, the supreme leader has enormous power—he even has authority to overrule Sharia law. Consequently, there are some pious believers who oppose the theocratic state, rejecting what they see as a usurpation of the authority of God’s words. Others, secularists and liberals, employ the same slogans to further their own goals. By keeping their language general and inoffensive, they avoid alienating potential allies.

In 1977 and 1978, protesters killed while opposing the shah were commemorated as martyrs. Services memorializing their passing then sparked fresh protests. On Monday, fallen protesters were already being referred to as martyrs within Iran. Another slogan from the ‘70s has returned: “He who kills my brother will be killed by me.”

During the time of the anti-shah protests, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was exiled near Paris. His speeches were transmitted by telephone into Iran, recorded onto cassette, and then thousands of dubbed copies were distributed to his followers. Today, opposition figures in Iran and abroad are using social-networking technology to publicize their protests. Both then and now, international media—above all, diaspora Persian-language news broadcasts—play a critical role in expanding the opposition forces.

Finally, by choosing green as his signature color, reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has emphasized that his reformist vision remains compatible with Islam.

Iran is at a turning point, and the coming days will determine the future path for the republic. A broad cross section of Iranians—women and men, rich and poor, pious and secular, educated and illiterate—are opposing Ahmadinejad’s coup and demanding change. At this stage, it is essential that protesters mobilize the widest possible support for their cause. They are doing so by using the flexible language and symbols made iconic by the 1979 revolution, thus reminding Iranians of their own potential to bring about revolutionary change. Protesters are taking the methods that helped bring Ayatollah Khomeini to power three decades ago and using them to oppose the Islamic republic of today.