Thirty years ago, during the several months past, my generation was restructuring social life in Iran, breaking down government doors previously impervious to people’s demands, evicting a dictatorial bunch of idiots who had been imposed on us in 1953, in a coup inspired in the U.K. and carried out by the CIA.
And so it was, thirty years ago, during these very months past, that we stormed ministries, prisons, and government buildings, sat down in school yards, refused to go to or teach classes, went on strike in factories, oil refineries, and petrochemical plants, marched in the streets in hundreds, then thousands, and soon in hundreds of thousands.
The revolution had such a force that even in the most laidback towns, like Shiraz, people started taking to the streets in the tens and hundreds of thousands. In the famously mellow town of our beloved poets Sadi and Haafez, where martial law was declared last and lifted first, I saw hundreds of thousands in the streets. It was a sight to behold.
Back in those days thirty years ago, we were storming SAVAK buildings after pitch battles, some lasting hours some days, finding instruments of torture . . . and files, files, and more files. All those files that our rulers had indeed been keeping: on us, on our friends and classmates, our fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, and more. Those files, the cumulative result of diligent work, of years of training by the Israeli Mossad agents bringing the Shah’s ability for secret information gathering up to par.
All those files, just as swiftly as they were unearthed, were trucked away to the mosques. For safekeeping, they said. But, soon, those files would be added to and exploited by a far greater secret service than SAVAK that the theocrats had in mind.
Yes, truckloads of those files were quickly hurried to the mosques. A regime we did not see clearly — or rather, a state of affairs developing right in front of our very eyes that we nevertheless refused to believe — was creeping slowly into formation, moving steady, gleeful and quietly smirking, ready to make the final leap, which it did soon enough.
Must hand it to them; the mullahs, the ideologues who had shared power with temporal rulers for longer than a thousand years, successfully blind-sighted much of the left.
In Iran, we have a very telling and popular expression for being cheated, for having what honestly and deservedly belongs to you stolen from you. The expression is: it [the stolen item] was “eaten by the mullah” (mollah-khor shod). Popular street language that has traveled through the ages, more often than not, carries lessons bitterly learned.
Our generation, by force of necessity, came to learn this socio-linguistic lesson painfully, at a huge cost to us. No shame in saying it. We carried out a revolution with everybody else in the country. We became humans just like everybody else. We did our fighting and got our butts kicked. The fight is not over, though, and will not be any time soon. We are still here and still doing what we can, and the next generation of socialists inside the country has picked up beautifully where we got beat, imprisoned, executed, or driven out of the country.
We created a legacy that cannot be taken away. It is a lesson that puts the deepest fears in any dictatorial regime. We proved that it is possible to get rid of tyrants. Sure, it’s easy when the armed forces step aside. True, but there is a lesson there, too: befriend the armed forces and make them your own! We proved how hollow Government was without the armed forces standing on its side to back up its lies and abuses.
Thirty years ago right around these past months and the months to come, we didn’t just take to the streets. We owned the streets.
We turned the sidewalks into abundant libraries of literature previously banned. No longer were we bound by dictatorial rules banning books, a form of stupidity verging on insanity, dictating that reading a book like Bread and Wine (by Ignazio Silone) should land you in jail, with harsh interrogation methods reserved for the imbibers of such an extreme revolutionary manual.
I finally read the book in English when I was a student in England, not quite getting its full significance since I didn’t know the historical background (a condition shared by all those millions who were banned from reading the same book during the Shah’s dictatorship). I did not see all the fuss. Surely, a dictator should have been far more worried by really significant problems shaking the foundations of his little “kingdom”!
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After shaking off the Shah, we the Iranian people, everybody, had the streets. For a while.
The newly conquered streets started to be taken away soon enough, though, and by large chunks. First attacks targeted national minorities in Turkmenistan and particularly in Kurdistan. Then came the attacks on women, in the form of introduction of mandatory hejab and the backward “reform” of family laws (regression to early 20th-century Iranian laws) that eradicated a whole host of rights previously granted to women; social rights such as voting and rights of women as spouses and mothers in cases of divorce. These regressive reforms by the new regime set the women’s rights back many decades and were naturally opposed by a majority of women, especially in urban areas. Their fight continues to this day and will do so for a long time to come.
After the overthrow of the monarchy, there was naturally a public arena opened up by the revolutionary leap made by the people. The old-timers warned that a fiercer dictatorship was in the offing, and perhaps had foreseen hints of it in more detailed horror, but somewhere in the back of everybody’s mind there were suspicions that what we were experiencing in that one year between the overthrow of the Shah and the total consolidation of the new regime — a period of what I would call absolute political freedom — was just too good to last long.
The attacks started to widen in scope. At the time the attacks started picking up, I was a first-year university student in Shiraz and was a supporter of the Marxist organization Fedayeen Khalq. Soon, our demonstrations were disrupted and attacked by Hezbollahi vigilantes, already in formation. Whereas previously, in the overthrow of the monarchy, people had indulged joyously in absolute unity of purpose and will, the walls separating the secularists and the religionists were now being erected. And, as our demonstrations would witness, those attacks would become more frequent, more violent.
This war to beat back the left, dispersing our forces and not letting us gain any deep roots, started early, only a few months into the new revolutionary government, a wide coalition of religionists, nationalists, and religious-oriented liberals. Leftists like myself remember many an occasion when peddling leftist papers in working-class neighborhoods, setting up sidewalk shop, we got shown the way out of the neighborhood after being relieved of our newspapers, not to be read but all torn up or burned right in front of us. The beating was optional and dependent mostly on how cooperative we were in leaving.
As leftist demonstrators, we soon found that along our rally routes, we should expect to face well-organized contingents of very energetic, very hard-looking, mostly lumpen-proletarian vigilantes, backed by deliveries of truckloads of bricks to be thrown at us and our banners for nationality rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, freedom of expression and against new laws abolishing one after another of our newly won rights.
These skirmishes would proliferate until the final assault, which was inaugurated by the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, an event whose importance in the consolidation of the theocracy cannot be over-emphasized.
Several months after that, in March of 1980, about two weeks after I, pushed persistently by parental foresight, had left the country, the new regime shut down all universities, strongholds of leftist organizing. They would remain closed for two years, during which all leftists were systematically pursued and silenced one way or another. The arrests, tortures, and summary executions followed.
The final plank in the consolidation of the new regime came as a gift from Saddam Hussain, whose armies invaded Iran in September 1980. Imam Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of the religionists, in fact, declared the war as a gift from god. The Iran-Iraq war was on, and any opposition to the new regime could be branded as treason. More arrests, tortures, and summary executions would follow.
The circle of the new religious state’s intrusive authorities kept widening until every form of behavior had a sanctioned manual issued for it. In the words of Shamloo (1925-2000), our greatest contemporary poet, writer, and journalist, in a poem on the intrusiveness of the religionists’ rules of conduct, which look into every private space they shouldn’t: “They smell your breath, lest you have said, ‘I love you!'”
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The crimes committed by the Islamic Republic against the people of Iran started from the earliest stages of the regime’s life. It started with the graveyard-shift kangaroo courts that tried, and executed by the next morning, the civilian and military leaders of the previous regime. This was a crime since it is the people (not just a posse of religious vigilantes headed by a mullah) who had the right, the fundamental right in any revolution, to try previous leaders for accountability.
People, not a posse deputized by the neighborhood mullah or Imam, had the sovereign right to try the leaders of the Shah’s regime, overthrown by the people. The real and meaningful objective of any such trial is not, and must not be, revenge. The objective is to get a detailed account of all the crimes committed by the previous regime, so as to make sure no future government can repeat those crimes. But, the way the new regime dealt with those “trials,” no enlightenment came of them. Only blood.
The Islamic Republic’s crimes against the people continued when it started its campaign of terror against all opposition in all spheres, imprisoning thousands based purely on political affiliations; torturing people with impunity, executing hundreds after phony “trials,” in which no right of attorney was ever considered. Those imprisoned and executed included people who did not even directly oppose the new religious state. The Tudeh Pary, for example, the most right-wing of the leftist parties, stayed loyal to the new state. But, even they, after their services were no longer needed, came under the blade.
The persecuted thoughts were not limited to the realm of politics. Members of the Bahai faith, a minority sect of Islam created in the 19th century in Iran, were likewise pursued.
Other crimes of the regime includes the constant and systematic attack on women’s rights and freedoms, including the suspension of their right to initiate divorce or have child custody, the suspension of their right to travel without a male relative’s permission, halving of the worth of women’s court testimony, halving of damages permitted in a lawsuit, halving of a woman’s inheritance, and the barbaric introduction of stoning to death in cases of adultery.
The Islamic Republic’s crimes against our people include also a most ghastly case of a masse execution of hundreds of political prisoners in the summer of 1988 and the mass burial of the bodies in the Khavaran grave site, in south Tehran. Ever since the summer of 1988, the families of political prisoners who were summarily killed extra-judicially have been demanding to be given exact details of the executions and places of burial of their loved ones. To no avail.
Not only has the Iranian government not pursued any legal actions against those involved in the mass killings of the political prisoners in the summer of 1988, the government has also started a project even more ominous and sinister this year. According to Iranian human rights activists inside and outside Iran, and according to Amnesty International, starting in early-to-mid-January 2009, the government began moving tons of earth onto the Khavaran grave site, covering the graves with a thick layer of earth, with trees being planted every two or three meters. In other words, the Iranian government is now attempting to literally cover up key evidence of one of its most heinous crimes. This is the mullahs’ gift, on this thirtieth anniversary of the revolution, to the families of all political prisoners. It is also another reminder of how a popular revolution was stolen by a new dictatorship, which has been attempting to bury all the gains of the revolution.
Thirty years ago these past months and for several more to come, we were free. We were free to read whatever we wanted. We were free to write and say whatever we wanted. We freely printed and handed out fliers with whatever message or information about a gathering we wished to announce to the world, unafraid of a secretive police that would snatch us in the middle of the night to dark dungeons to torture us. In the aftermath of the overthrow of the Shah, we held impromptu street discussions on social subjects that mattered to us, we deliberated on social forces affecting us. We held street parliaments, debating those willing to give us an argument.
In those days, we did not feel fearful facing the religionists, because, unlike now, back then we were equals, both equally human, equally rightful to have our opinions and political thoughts, both equally justified to have a say in the political matters of our lives. Certain religious thugs would attack our demonstrations, but in presenting our ideas and thoughts we were unafraid. We had just carried out a revolution and kicked out a most arrogant state, exactly to assert our right to free speech, to freedom of assembly and association, to freedom from state harassment based purely on our political ideas. Who was anybody to want to drive us back to the same fearful corner, just because of our political thoughts? We were righteous and we were free.
Thirty years ago we had a moment. An opening. Universities were used by political organizations to hold free classes, in which we learned about all ideas we had been denied the right to even study. We were learning. We were growing.
Building democracy and democratic institutions requires not only the absolute freedoms we had just gained. But such an immense social task requires time, too. Time that we thought we would have plenty of. Or, rather, time that we wished we had plenty of.
To a lot of Iranians it became soon clear that we were not to be given much time to develop much of anything resembling democracy.
A vote-producing machinery, a purely perfunctory façade, was soon erected by the new regime, one in which the public would be given vote-casting opportunities, within a very narrow political range limited to the religious right, but absolutely no real democracy. The parliament (majlis) may pass laws, but those laws are subject to review by two other extra-parliamentary bodies (Guardian Council and Expediency Council) and finally by the Supreme Leader (the faqhih), rendering the parliament a farce. To make parliament a further farce, numerous ideological requirements, including explicitly stated requirements for holding a very narrow definition of Islam as your guiding ideology, are applied to determine eligibility and the right to run as the representative of a community. And this fraud is sold internationally as holding “elections.”
So, we had a moment, but the moment was stolen. The thieves are still in possession of our jewels. We, however, have not died out. Worse for the mullahs, those who hate their rule constitute an absolute majority of the Iranian population. Yes, indeed, we have not gone away. The thieves may be in power, but everybody knows they are thieves. They have no credibility, and that is why they have to employ vast networks of terror against any existing or potential opposition, even if the opposition is merely in thought.
As Iranians, we have had strands of socialist thinking in our own local, historical consciousness in the form of Mazdak (died c. 525), a popular and true maverick leader of old who advocated for the equality of all and for fair distribution of all wealth. This is simply a positive affirmation that socialist desires are historically just and have existed in different forms and expressions throughout the ages in different regions of the world, expressed by people wishing to establish societies without the horrible destructions associated with class-based societies.
And so, on this thirtieth anniversary of an immense uprising that was suppressed, we look forward to a future when we the Iranian people will be free from all dictatorship, when we have gender equality, when we have social justice, when our thoughts will not be subject to persecution, when our mouths will not be smelled by religious police in search of evidence of sin. And we look forward to a time when we will be able to rejoice, with sighs of relief, in the passing of clerical tyranny.
The Iranian Revolution of 1978 is not dead. Long Live the Revolution!