Power of peace in Iran’s protests

The values behind the nonviolent resistance of Iranian demonstrators are helping erode the legitimacy of a violent regime.

Women not wearing Islamic headscarves check the sunglasses of a street vendor in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 7.

Last week, Iran’s ruling clerics began a 10-day anniversary celebration of the 1979 revolution that created the Islamic Republic. Yet nearly five months into mass protests against the regime, public enthusiasm for the commemoration is, to say the least, quite low. In fact, the mass abstention is an example of what has marked the protests: the use of nonviolent resistance.

The protests, which erupted in September after police killed a woman for the way she wore a head covering, have been largely peaceful. They are also largely led by women, many of whom defy a mandatory hijab law. This has raised the moral legitimacy of the protesters’ cause while delegitimizing the regime – especially its horrific use of violence to suppress the protests.

In December, the government executed the first protester (on a charge of “corruption on earth”). More than a hundred protesters reportedly face the death penalty while thousands remain in jail. A poll in December found 81% of Iranians do not want the Islamic Republic while 67% believe the protests will succeed, offering the biggest challenge to Iran’s theocrats in decades.

Officials now worry about defections in the military, and, according to the Shargh news agency, the regime has consulted one of Iran’s leading scholars of peaceful protests, Saeed Madani – who was jailed last year. His books have also been banned. Yet that has not stopped the regime from seeking advice from the sociologist on how to deal with the uprising.

Another scholar of nonviolence, philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo at the University of Toronto, says Iran is undergoing a revolution of values, led by the values of compassion and tolerance, which lie at the heart of nonviolent tactics.

Those values are feminine, reflected in the women who lead the protests. “For the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the world is dealing with a feminist revolution in the Middle East,” Dr. Jahanbegloo wrote in The Indian Express. The slogan for the protests is “women, life, freedom.”

The poll in December by GAMAAN, a nonprofit foundation in the Netherlands, found a third of Iranians have engaged in acts of civil disobedience, such as taking off headscarves or writing slogans. Only about 8% say they have committed acts of “civil sabotage.” Nearly half joined mass strikes, and three-quarters approve of boycotting certain products.

Their cause was bolstered Sunday when a Grammy award for social change was given to Iranian singer-songwriter Shervin Hajipour. His song “Baraye” (“For”) became an anthem for the demonstrators in expressing their peaceful aspirations. Far more Iranians probably watched the award presentation than have participated in the anniversary of the Islamic Republic.

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