28-Mordadism: A Postmortem
by HAMID DABASHI in New York
03 Dec 2009 09:36
For generations of Iranians, the coup of 1953 is not a mere historical event. It is the most defining moment of their lives, for it is the most haunting national trauma of their modern history -- of foreign intervention followed by domestic tyranny. Iranians cannot speak of 28 Mordad without a certain raw nerve suddenly springing up and about entirely involuntarily. The first thing that Iranians do when they speak of 28 Mordad is to remember a personal story, where they were and what they were doing, very much like the assassination of John F. Kennedy (on November 22, 1963), or Malcolm X (on February 21, 1965), or Martin Luther King Jr. (on April 4, 1968) for Americans. When it happened something died and something else came to life.
The post-traumatic syndrome of the coup of 1953 was best summed up and captured in "Zemestan/Winter" (1955), the now-legendary poem by Mehdi Akhavan Sales (1928-1990). "No one returns your greetings/Heads are dropped deeply into collars," became the talismanic opening of a poem that defined an entire generation of fear and loathing, self-imposed solitude and forsaken hopes. Akhavan Sales's other poems, including "Marsiyeh/Requiem," "Shahryar Shar-e Sangestan/the Prince of Stoneville," and Chavoshi/Ballad," were all written and read as lachrymal melodies for what could have or might have been but was not.
When in 1978, "Marsiyeh/Requiem" gave Amir Naderi the inspiration for his dark foreboding of the revolution to come, in his feature film of the same name that year -- not long after he had made Tangsir in 1974 -- the coup of 1953 was running quietly through the heart of the Pahlavi regime in two opposing directions, pitting a quiet desperation against euphoric hope.
Between Amir Naderi's Tangsir and Marsiyeh, we might say, or between Ahmad Shamlu's defiant cry for freedom and Akhavan Sales's painful dwellings on our lost future in our nostalgic past, or living in the middle of Forough Farrokhzad's poem "Kasi keh Mesl-e Hich Kas Nist/Someone who is like no one" and Sohrab Sepehri's "Seda ye pa-ye Ab/Sounds of Footsteps," an entire nation born and raised in the aftermath of the 1953 coup learned how to oscillate between depth of despair and ecstatic visions of hope.
By now we had become bipolar in our schizophrenic remembrances of 28 Mordad. Thus 28-Mordadism, as if absorbing all our history in one sound bite, felt like the birth pang of delivery into an overwhelming awareness of our colonial modernity, of not being in charge of our own destiny, of everything that was best in us collapsing into mere phantom liberties, devoid of substance, of material basis, of formative force, of moral authority.
History and politics
28-Mordadism is the central trope of modern Iranian historiography.
On the political stage, not just everything that occurred after 28 Mordad, but even things that have happened before it suddenly came together to posit the phenomenon of 28-Mordadism: foreign intervention, colonial domination, imperial arrogance, domestic tyranny, an "enemy" always lurking behind a corner to come and rob us of our liberties, of a mere possibility of democratic institutions. The result has been a categorical circumlocution -- at once debilitating and enabling -- that begins with the Tobacco Revolt of 1890-1892, runs through the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, and concludes with the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Under the colonial condition that has originally occasioned this mental state of siege and enabled it to spin around itself, we have lived through a persistent politics of despair in which we have placed a revolutionary expediency where our public reason should have been cultivated.
I believe that the June 2009 presidential election marks an epistemic exhaustion of 28-Mordadism, when the paradigm of a politics of despair has finally conjugated itself ad nauseum. In the most recent rendition of it by the custodians of the Islamic Republic, best represented in the public prosecutor's indictment against hundreds of reformists, this political abuse of 28-Mordadism has in fact degenerated into a political Tourette Syndrome, whereby a psychotic political disorder has begun to tic involuntarily, with vile and violent exclamations of coprolalia. The fate of the Islamic Republic, carrying 28-Mordadism ad nauseum, is now coterminous with an epistemic passage beyond that predicament.
At the more commanding level of the Iranian political culture, we are now witness to a discursive sublimation that is predicated on a crucial closure of a posttraumatic syndrome that commenced soon after the 1953 coup and concluded in the course of the Islamic Revolution of 1977-1979. Our entire nation can now breathe more freely, as a younger generation of hope and promise has finally learned from 28 Mordad all that it must, deposited its traumatic memory to its museum of political history, and moved forward to brighter days and greener pastures.
The traumatic memory of the coup of 1953 was very much rekindled and put to very effective political use in the most crucial episodes of the nascent Islamic Republic in order to consolidate its fragile foundations. When on February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, soon after the Shah had left, the idea of an Islamic Republic was far from certain and there was an array of political positions and forces ranging from nationalist to socialist to Islamist.
On March 30-31 Khomeini ordered a national referendum, and on April 1 he declared that the Islamic Republic had been overwhelmingly endorsed and established. But by no stretch of imagination was this referendum convincing to major segments of the political and intellectual elite or the population at large, for which reason as early as early June Khomeini was lashing out against what he termed "Westoxicated intellectuals." By mid-June, the official draft of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic was published. But there was no mention of any Velaayat-e Faghih in it. Khomeini endorsed this draft, as he continued his attacks against the "Westoxicated intellectuals," who at this point were actively demanding the formation of a Majles-e Moassessan, or Constitutional Assembly, to examine the terms of the Constitution (I was present in one such meeting in Tehran University in July 1979). Khomeini openly opposed this idea and announced that there will be "no Westernized jurists" writing any constitution for the Islamic Republic, "only the noble clergy." Meanwhile Khomeini's doctrine of Velaayat-e Faghih was being actively disseminated in the country. By early August, Ayandegan newspaper, which was actively questioning the notion of Velaayat-e Faghih was savagely attacked by the Islamist vigilantes and then officially banned. At the same time a major National Democratic Front rally at Tehran University soccer field was viciously attacked (I was present at this rally). By mid-August, the Assembly of Experts had gathered to write the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, and by mid-October they had completed their deliberations and drafted the Constitution, with the office of Vali-ye Faghih in it.
The constitution of the Islamic Republic was written under conditions that there were both intellectual and militant opposition to it, and Khomeini's circle was in a warring pose to consolidate and institutionalize it at all cost. A perfect opportunity was given to them when on October 22, the late Shah came to the United States for cancer treatment, which Khomeini instantly called a plot and invoked the memory of 1953 to make it credible. When, on November 1, the liberal Mehdi Bazargan was pictured shaking hands with Zbigniew Brzezinski in Algeria, not just the Islamists but even the left thought the Americans were on to something again. Iranians were bitten by a snake in 1953, and as we say in Persian, they were afraid of any black or white rope.
The American hostage crisis began on November 4, 1979, lasted 444 days, and by the time it ended on January 20, 1981, it had used and abused the memory of the 1953 coup to consolidate the fragile foundations of an Islamic theocracy. Two days after the hostages were taken, the weak and wobbly Bazargan was pushed aside and forced to resign. The militant Islamists assumed a warring posture. They were now fighting the Great Satan, and the left and the liberals, the fainthearted and the soft-spoken, better stay clear of the fight. Exactly in this atmosphere, on December 2, Khomeini ordered the newly minted constitution of the Islamic Republic put to vote and then reported that it was massively approved, and he became the Supreme Leader. Soon after that, on January 25, 1980, the first presidential election of the Islamic Republic was conducted and Bani Sadr was declared its winner. Soon after that, on March 15, the first parliamentary election was held, with Hezbollah vigilantes attacking the headquarters of all surviving opposition parties, especially the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization, dismantling and discrediting them so they wouldn't be part of the parliament. That was not enough. On March 21, the eve of the Persian New Year, Khomeini ordered the "cultural revolution," and thus commenced the militant Islamization of the universities by the intellectual echelon among his devotee (some of them now the leading oppositional intellectuals). All of these crucial steps towards the radical Islamization of the Iranian revolution (and with it political culture) were done under the force major of a repetition of 1953 -- 28-Mordadism at its height.
As if Khomeini needed even more of an excuse to prove that a U.S. plot against the revolution was in the offing, on April 25 Operation Eagle Claw to rescue the American hostages met with a catastrophic and (for President Jimmy carter) embarrassing and costly end in the Iranian deserts, providing further fuel and momentum to Khomeini's revolutionary zeal, so much so that during the following May, June, and July, further Islamization of the state bureaucracy took place, purging anyone suspected of not being committed to the revolution. This in effect amounted to the mass expulsion of Iranians suspected of ideological impurity from the state apparatus. The same story was repeated after the July 11 Nojeh coup attempt, which fueled Khomeini's fury even more, resulting in the persecution of alternative voices and movements and the radical Islamization of the revolution, with the shadow of 1953 kept consciously, deliberately, successfully on the horizon.
Finally on July 27, the Shah died in Egypt and the American hostages began to lose their usefulness to Khomeini; and when on September 22, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and the grueling eight-year Iran-Iraq War started, the hostage crisis had completely performed its strategic function as a smoke screen for Khomeini's radical Islamization of the revolution and the brutal elimination of all alternative forces and voices. By October 26, Iraqi forces had entered Iran and occupied Khorram-Shahr and Iran was fully engaged in a deadly war with Iraq. On January 20, 1981, Khomeini allowed the American hostages to be released, and shifted his attention to the Iran-Iraq War, under which more domestic suppression, and more radical Islamization of Iranian political culture, society, and above all historiography, took place.
With the commencement of the Reform movement in the late 1990s, 28-Mordadism began losing its grip on Iranian political culture, after decades of abusing it to sustain an otherwise illegitimate state apparatus. At the moment, custodians of the Islamic Republic continue to abuse it -- but for all intents and purposes the paradigm has now completely exhausted itself, hit a plateau, and well passed the point of its diminishing return. The end of 28-Mordadism of course does not mean the end of imperial interventions in the historical destiny of nations. It just means we have a renewed and even playing field to think and act in postcolonial terms.
A shorter version of this essay will also be published in the next issue of The Oxford Forum.