Iran Protests Spotlight Nonviolent Action in Muslim Societies
Regardless of how things ultimately pan out in Iran, the protests against the election results in that country provide us yet another example of the use of nonviolent civil disobedience in the Islamic world.
Indeed, defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has invoked the name of the ultimate icon of modern pacifismMahatma Gandhiin urging his followers to fight on. He has asked his supporters to “adopt the tactics of Gandhi, the tactics of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience,” says his spokesperson Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the acclaimed film director.
And 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 protests 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 30 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.
And these are just some very recent examples of nonviolent activism among Muslims. The most remarkable saga is 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 todaythe Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. Khan spent almost thirty years in prisonevenly divided between the British and the Pakistani governmentsdue to his efforts to get self-rule for the Pashtuns, but did not give up his adherence to nonviolence. l
Closer to our time, in Kosovo 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, in spite of the stone-throwing that was a part of it (as it has been in to a lesser extent in Iran). In spite 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. (See article in the March 2008 issue of The Progressive.)
And certainly the 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 Shah’s security apparatus. The anti-Shah forces comprised a broad spectrum of society, ranging from workers and students to intellectuals and clerics (that the mullahs hijacked the movement later is another matter). They engaged in a vast array of devices to topple the king, including strikes, civil disobedience, and massive rallies.
“A month later, at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, one hundred thousand people poured into the streets, the first of the grand marches against the Shah,” writes Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi in her memoir, Iran Awakening. “An ocean of Iranians as far as the eye could see filled the wide boulevards of Tehran and raised their voices against the Shah.”
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 lie to the notion that Islam is an intrinsically violent religion that makes its adherents more inclined to committing mayhem. Too bad that the Western media’s obsession with violence gives short shrift to such wonderful examples, distorting the image of an entire population.
In the current case in Iran, protesters have been smart in depicting themselves as on the side of Islam, defined by them as being for righteousness and justice. This has made it harder for the regime to crack down.
“In the battle to control Iran’s streets, both the government and the opposition are deploying religious symbols and parables to portray themselves as pursing the ideal of a just Islamic state,” reports the New York Times.
And the nonviolent tactics of the protesters are extremely compatible with Islam, as Ramin Jahanbegloo, a prominent Iranian dissident in exile in Canada, tells me.
“Iranians can be inspired by tolerant Islam as much as by other spiritualities,” says 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.”
Amen (or Aameen) to that.
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