by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
24 Dec 2009 23:42
The death of Imam Hossein, his friends, followers and members of his family by a Sunni Caliph is perhaps the main reason that Shiism is considered a rebellious sect in Islam. Because the Shiites have been a minority throughout the history of Islam, they have transformed the historical battle of Karbala to symbolize ideological confrontation with the ruling elite, and have used a powerful combination of actual events and legend to stir up great emotion; it has been an occasion to complain bitterly about their marginalization in much of the Islamic world and to demand their rights. They invoke Imam Hossein's famous quote that, "Every day is Ashura, and every land is Karbala."
In a sense, the battle still rages on. Currently there exists an internal strife in Yemen between the majority Shiite and the ruling Sunni minority. The uprising in Bahrain (1994-2000), another country in which the Sunni minority rules over the Shiite majority, began in November 1994 when security forces launched an attack on the Shiite community there. There has also always been friction between Saudi Arabia's majority Sunni and its Shiites, who make up 10 percent of the population. In Lebanon, the Shiites have used their grievances against other sects as a powerful motivating force to gain political power.
There is the other side of the coin. The well-known Hama massacre occurred on February 2, 1982, when the Syrian army attacked the town of Hama in Syria, and sealed it in order to put down a Sunni revolt led by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Syria was, and still is, ruled by the Alawite (Alawie) minority, an off-shoot of Shiism. Up to 40,000 people were killed, and most of the city was destroyed. [Note that about 30% of Turkey's population also belongs to the Alawite sect.] After the U.S. invasion of Iraq led to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, the non-Kurdish Sunnis (making up about about 20% of the population) fiercely fought the central government until they were defeated.
By 1845, Moharram commemorations spread as far as the Caribbean basin, when Muslim laborers from India went there. In fact, next to its annual carnival, Moharram is the most important event in Trinidad. In India, the Sunni and even the Hindus actively participate in many Moharram rituals.
In Iran, where the Shiites are in the majority, the battle of Karbala and the death of Imam Hossein have taken on political significance for at least a century. This began during the Constitutional Revolution (1905-11), when gatherings to mourn the death of Imam Hossein became political as well. The clerics began preaching that the oppressors -- the king and his cronies -- were similar to Imam Hossein's enemies. The commemoration of Ashura became so political during the reign of Reza Shah that he actually outlawed it during the 1930s.
This year promises to be no different. The Green Movement has vowed to use the day of Ashura -- Sunday, December 28 -- to stage peaceful demonstrations and showcase its strength. Given that the color green has a special meaning in Islam, and that Imam Hossein, an underdog in the Karbala battle, is considered a symbol of resistance against oppressors and absolute power, the demonstrations, if they materialize, will be hugely significant. As fate would have, the Islamic mourning ceremonies marking the 7th day of the passing of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri will also fall on Ashura, which will likely fuel the intensity, as it will be rich in symbolism and can resonate politically throughout the country.
This would not be the first time that the powerful mix of imagery, symbolism, events and legend is used to advance a political agenda. It has happened twice over the past half century, each time with great consequence.
The first time that Ashura was used to great effect was in 1963. Under pressure from the Kennedy administration to carry out reforms, on January 26, 1963, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi declared the so-called White Revolution. It was a program of reform consisting of (1) land reform, whereby large agricultural land was to be distributed among peasants working on them [the landowners were to be compensated]; (2) nationalization of the forests; (3) privatization of state-owned industries; (4) granting women the right to vote; (5) workers sharing profits in industry; and (6) a nationwide campaign against illiteracy. (On the face of it, the program was progressive. Whether it was a success is not the subject of this article.)
Land reform actually got under way under Dr. Ali Amini (1905-1992), who was Prime Minister from May 1961 to July 1962. He was pro-United States and a friend of President John F. Kennedy. The Shah had appointed him Prime Minister after being pressured by the United States. But he claimed the reforms as his own after Amini was forced to resign.
Land reform and women's suffrage were objected to by the traditional clerics. But it was the land reform [not granting voting rights to women, as some claim] that was most objectionable to them. The clergy thought that land would be taken away from the landowners without consent, which is forbidden by Islam. In addition, some clerics saw land reform as an attempt by the Shah to reduce their influence among the feudal landlords.
After consulting with other ayatollahs in Qom, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a harsh declaration denouncing the Shah and his plans. The Shah retaliated by moving tanks to Qom, and delivering a speech in which he said the ayatollahs were like a caste. It did not silence Ayatollah Khomeini.
In 1963, Ashura fell on June 3. [Because the Islamic calendar is lunar-based, Ashura falls on a different day each year on the solar calendar.] On that afternoon, Khomeini delivered a fiery sermon at the Feiziyeh seminary (where he was teaching), in which he drew parallels between Yazid and the Shah, and called him a "wretched, miserable man." Two days later, on June 5 (15 Khordad on the Iranian calendar), Khomeini was arrested.
The arrest sparked three days of large demonstrations throughout the country and hundreds were killed. That gave birth to the 15 Khordad Movement. As I explained in an earlier article, when I was a child, I personally witnessed some of the demonstrations in Bazaar, Tehran's commercial center. Ayatollah Khomeini was kept under house arrest for several months, and was eventually released in April 1964. The 15 Khordad Movement laid the groundwork for the 1979 Revolution.
In 1964 the Shah and his Prime Minister, Hassan-Ali Mansur (1923-1965), signed an agreement that granted U.S. military advisers and their families immunity from prosecution in Iran. The Majles [parliament] then ratified the agreement. The law became known as the Capitulation Law. In a fiery speech, Ayatollah Khomeini said,
They [the parliament] passed it [the agreement] without any shame, and the government shamelessly defended this scandalous measure. They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog. If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted. Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted. But if an American cook runs over the Shah, or the marja' [source of emulation] of Iran, or the highest officials, no one will have the right to object.
The speech prompted the Shah to send Ayatollah Khomeini into exile, first to Turkey, on November 4, 1964, and later to Iraq. Mansur was assassinated on January 27, 1965, by Mohammad Bokharaei, a 17-year-old member of the Fadayan-e Islam [Devotees of Islam] group. It is believed that Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani provided the gun to Bokharaei. He and his three accomplices -- Haj Sadegh Amani, Reza Saffar Harandi, and Morteza Niknejad -- were executed.
It should be pointed out that after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran in 1979, the conservative clerics wanted to take away the right to vote from women, but he kept them from doing so. Ayatollah Khomeini also formed the so-called Hayat haaye Haft Nafareh [seven-member groups] to carry out land reform [which they did to some extent], but that too was later blocked by the same bloc of conservative clerics.
The second time Ashura was used to advance a political cause was in December 1978, when the Revolution had gained momentum. That year Ashura fell on December 11. The government of Prime Minister Jafar Sharif Emami (1910-1998), which had come to power on August 27, 1978, had failed to stem the growing wave of protests. The bloody crackdown on demonstrators on Friday, September 8, 1978 [known as Black Friday in Iran, during which up to 80 people had been killed by security forces], had created a fissure between the Shah and the opposition that was expanding by the day.
On Saturday, November 4, 1978, during demonstrations at the University of Tehran, several high school and university students had been killed. There were strikes all over the country, which left the nation paralyzed.
Two days later, Sharif Emami resigned. At noon that day, the Shah went on national television and radio and announced the appointment of a military government led by General Gholam-Reza Azhari who had a reputation for being a moderate military leader. The Shah promised the nation that he would address their grievances and hold free elections. He said that he "had heard your [the people's] revolutionary voice," and that
In the open political atmosphere, gradually developed these two recent years, you, the Iranian nation, have risen against cruelty and corruption. This revolution cannot but be supported by me, the Padeshah [King] of Iran.
However, insecurity has reached a stage where the independence of the country is at stake. Daily life is endangered and what is most critical, the lifeline of the country, the flow of oil, has been interrupted [a reference to the fact that the industry had gone on strike].
I tried to form a coalition government, but this has not been possible. Therefore, a temporary government has been formed to restore order and pave the way for a national [unity] government to carry out free elections very soon.
I am aware of the relation that has existed between political and economic corruption. I renew my oath to be protector of the Constitution and to make sure that past mistakes not be repeated and [be] made up for. I hereby give assurance that the government will do away with repression and corruption, and that social justice will be restored after the sacrifices you have made.
At the present juncture, the Imperial Army will fill its duties in accordance with its oaths. Calm must be restored with your coöperation. I invite the religious leaders to help restore calm to the only Shiite country in the world. I want political leaders to help save our Fatherland. The same goes for workers and peasants.
Let us think of Iran on the road against imperialism, cruelty, and corruption, along which I shall accompany you.
In effect, the Shah recognized the legitimacy of the Revolution. By pledging early free elections, he hoped to calm the nation and neutralize the opposition.
Many leading officials, including former Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda (1920-1979) and General Nematollah Nassiri (1911-1979), the former head of the dreaded SAVAK, the Shah's security and intelligence organization, were arrested [both were executed immediately after the Revolution in February 1979]. The Azhari government took on some taboo issues, such as an investigation into charges of corruption in the Shah's family. He also tried to restart the oil industry.
But Ayatollah Khomeini, who was in staying in the Paris suburb of Neauphle-le-Château at the time, denounced the Azhari government and called on the people to "broaden their opposition to the Shah and force him to abdicate." In a series of statements, he called for a campaign of large demonstrations during Moharram that was to begin on December 2.
On November 23, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a declaration called: "Moharram: the triumph of blood over the sword." The declaration was recorded and distributed in Iran through the network of mosques.
With the approach of Moharram, we are about to begin the epic month of heroism and self-sacrifice, the month in which blood triumphed over the sword, the month in which truth condemned falsehood for all eternity and branded the mark of disgrace upon the forehead of all oppressors and satanic governments, the month that has taught successive generations throughout history the path of victory over the dagger [or knife].
In particular, Ayatollah Khomeini targeted the days of Tasua and Ashura for large demonstrations. Tasua [meaning the 9th in Arabic language] is also commemorated because it was the day before the Karbala battle.
On November 28, the Azhari government banned "processions of any kind" during Moharram. Nevertheless, demonstrations took place in Tehran. Although the military government had imposed a curfew, it was violated. Oil production had dropped from its peak of 5.8 million to below 2 million barrels a day.
On December 2, the first day of Moharram, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets around Tehran's Shahyad Square (now called Azadi [freedom] square), to demand the removal of the Shah and return of Ayatollah Khomeini.
On December 6, Dr. Karim Sanjabi, the leader of the opposition National Front, was released from custody. He had been arrested after traveling to France to meet with Ayatollah Khomeini.
On December 8, Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari (1905-1986), a moderate and important marja' urged his followers at a press conference in Qom to avoid violence. There had been, at the last moment, a compromise. Working through former Prime Minister Ali Amini, the Shah and the military government had reached an agreement with Ayatollah Shariatmadari (considered the most important cleric living in Iran at that time), to avoid a violent showdown between the military and the people.
That deal seemed to signal that the moment had finally come to move toward re-establishing a true constitutional monarchy that would widely limit the role of the Shah. This would have been in keeping with the original intents of the 1906 Constitution, which the Shah had repeatedly violated. But the moment came too late. First, by then, Ayatollah Khomeini was not willing to settle for anything less than toppling the monarchy. Second, even Ayatollah Shariatmadari had hardened his position. He had indicated that he would turn up the pressure if major concessions were not made by the Shah. When asked when that would happen, he had replied, "It will be soon." Third, the Shah was not ready to relinquish most of his power. When he was forced to, it was too late.
That same day, December 8, the Azhari government announced that it had lifted the ban and would permit Moharram commemorations to take place. The next day, the government promised that except for a token presence along the path of the demonstrators, it would keep the army mostly in the northern parts of Teheran [where the Shah and his family lived].
Tasua fell on Sunday, December 10. It had snowed a few days leading up to that day, but all melted away. There was an ocean of demonstrators with no beginning or end in sight. People walked side-by-side with their fists punching the air. Most men were unshaven and many women wore the hejab, even if they did not believe in the Islamic dress code. Many carried carnations and walked up to onlooking soldiers and placed the flowers in the muzzle of their rifles. Many demonstrators kissed and hugged the soldiers. Most were chanting,
Death to the Shah!
Allah-o Akbar [God is great]! Khomeini our leader!
And, a banner read,
Martyrs are the heart of history, which is the famous quote by Dr. Ali Shariati (1933-1977), the distinguished sociologist and Islamic scholar.
The population of Tehran in 1978 was less than 5 million. At least two million people, and possibly many more, took part in the demonstrations, which means at least 40% of the entire population was out in a show of force. Similarly large demonstrations took place all over Iran. The demonstrators held hands, sang revolutionary songs, and held up banners with revolutionary slogans. There were pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini everywhere, even though it was still illegal for his posters to be held in public.
Above the crowd, an American-made helicopter hovered. It reportedly carried the Shah who was watching the demonstrations. He reportedly said, "Why have they [the people] turned against me?" In the afternoon of that day, he ordered the release of 120 political prisoners. But it was too little, too late.
The next day, Ashura, there were more large demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere, but not as large as the day before. The organizers held the largest demonstrations on Tasua to surprise government forces. It was estimated that 6-9 million people demonstrated in Iran during Tasua and Ashura in 1978. Given that Iran's population was about 32 million at that time, the numbers were truly staggering.
At the end of each demonstration, a resolution with four demands was read aloud: The Shah's abdication; return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran; political freedom, and economic justice for all.
Were the demands ever met?
The Shah left Iran on January 16, 1979, but never actually abdicated. He passed away in exile on July 27, 1980, in Cairo, Egypt [he had been born in 1919]. His father Reza Shah (1878-1944) had also passed away in exile in Johannesburg, South Africa.
After Tasua and Ashura demonstrations, the military essentially lost its will to confront the people. It had become a foregone conclusion that the Shah had to leave the country. Every day more soldiers defected from the army and joined the revolutionaries.
On February 1, 1979, at 9:15 am, a chartered Air France jetliner landed at Tehran's Mehrabad airport. A victorious Ayatollah Khomeini stepped off the plane, holding the arm of a flight attendant for support. He dropped to his knees on the tarmac to kiss the soil of the land that he had left more than 14 years ago.
On February 9, 1979, at about 10:00 pm, a fight broke out between Guard-e Javidan [Immortal Guards], loyal to the Shah, and junior officers of Iran's Air Force who had declared their loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini. He declared jihad on the loyal soldiers who were not willing to surrender. Other revolutionaries and defecting soldiers began to take over police stations and military installations, and distributed arms to the public.
On February 11, 1979, at 2:00 pm, the Supreme Military Council, led by Chief of Staff General Abbas Gharabaghi, declared itself "neutral in the current political disputes... in order to prevent further disorder and bloodshed." The Revolution had toppled the monarchy.
Ayatollah Khomeini passed away on June 3, 1989, in Tehran, leaving behind a theocracy, instead of a republic, which has now devolved into a repressive military junta headed by a cleric.
The other two demands of the demonstrators of Tasua and Ashura in 1978 -- political freedom and economic justice for all -- never materialized.
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