Exploiting Martyrs for Propaganda
by ALI CHENAR in Tehran
02 Apr 2010 19:01
April 10, 1999, dawned bright in north Tehran. Like thousands of others that spring morning, Brigadier General Ali Sayyad Shirazi left his residence to go to work. He had no bodyguard, no escort, no special command car, not even a sidearm. Nothing in his modest appearance betrayed the fact that he had been in command of Iran's army during the eight-year war with Iraq. A man who wore the orange overalls of a municipal street sweeper approached his car. General Shirazi reached down for his wallet to tip him for tending the street. When he looked up, the man shot him at point-blank range. General Shirazi was dead. Now Iran could mourn and remember him.
Immediately, it was announced that he had actually been promoted two weeks earlier to the rank of major general. In accordance with the Iranian tradition that elevates military martyrs by a rank, he thus became Lieutenant General Ali Sayyad Shirazi in dispatches.
His funeral was well attended by military and government officials, as would be expected. However, the event stood out from similar occasions. Thousands of ordinary people, retired army officers, war veterans, and even housewives came to pay homage to their fallen hero. This unorchestrated, spontaneous outpouring surprised the officials in charge. The forgotten ones had not forgotten Sayyad Shirazi. It was the only opportunity they had been given in the years following the war to show their respect and express their gratitude toward a man who had fought gallantly in defense of their homeland.
Today Sayyad Shirazi's name is heard often. There are many buildings and roads dedicated to his memory. A recently constructed highway in the capital was named after him. A high school, an industrial group, a number of official buildings, an army training camp in northern Iran, and other small military complexes also bear his name. Several books commemorating his life have been published. The propaganda apparatus portrays him as a pious Muslim and a great warrior who believed earnestly in the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader. The stories about him emphasize his religious conduct and his devotion to the Islamic system. He is presented as the perfect soldier and commander.
Interestingly, most of the stories about Sayyad Shiraz lack details of the location, date, other individuals involved, and historical background. The narrators often neglect to mention that he was recalled from semi-retirement in the last year of war to fight the Mojahedin (MKO), whose armed columns were invading Iran from the west. It is told often how he masterfully destroyed that force, a victory that led to his assassination by the MKO ten years later. But there is a convenient silence about the disagreements between Revolutionary Guard commanders and army leaders such as Sayyad Shirazi that persisted throughout the war. There is also no discussion of the fact that he had not been promoted to major general when the war ended, in contrast to his counterpart in the Guards.
After the war, Sayyad Shirazi was not given any active command and spent his time in various staff assignments. There was almost no mention of him in the news. From time to time, he was seen attending military maneuvers or giving an interview on the anniversary of a major war offensive. That was all. For the most part, he was quietly forgotten.
Why did his death change that? It is one of the greatest ironies of the Islamic Republic of Iran that heroes tend to be recognized only when they are dead.
Iran's cities, towns, and villages are filled with the portraits of martyrs, those who were killed in the war with Iraq, in the fight against drugs, in terrorist attacks, or even in car or plane accidents. At the entrance to most communities there is a mural with the names or faces of its martyrs. Any available façade in Tehran or other metropolitan areas is likely to be adorned with a quote from a martyr, or a portrait of one. IRIB, the national television and radio broadcaster, continuously airs programs about the war and about its martyrs and their families. The martyrs are routinely quoted expressing their loyalty to the Revolution, affirming their devotion to Islamic ideals and the Imams, asking their comrades in arms to sacrifice themselves for the good of Islam and the Revolution, and reminding their families to be patient and calm.
There are many reasons to question the sincerity of the official apparatus in its treatment of Iran's martyrs. On New Year's Eve, for example, IRIB broadcast a program about Hemmat, the Bakeri brothers, and Kharrazi, legendary Guard commanders during the Iran-Iraq war. Their memories are universally revered in Iran. The program concerned, as usual, their devotion to the Revolution, to Islam, and to the Islamic Republic's leaders. However, this show of respect is belied by the harassment, evidently sanctioned by the regime, of the martyrs' widows and other family members. In the aftermath of last year's presidential election, they were assaulted by President Ahmadinejad's supporters for backing Mir Hossein Mousavi. The harassment sunk to repellent depths, with outrageously immoral remarks made about the widows.
Yesterday, I spent a few hours with a middle-aged veteran who served at the front for most of the war's eight years. He was bitter about the lack of true respect for Iran's martyrs. As he sipped his tea, he told me, "They paint Bakeri's portrait on all the highways and then fill their media with filthy gossip about his wife. They have no respect for martyrs; they just treat them as propaganda instruments. Look at us, I served at the front and they never really pay attention to our problems or even our opinions."
A friend of his joined us in the middle of the conversation. The friend shook his head in agreement and said, "Look, they talk about martyrs and yet they never come to talk to us about those martyrs, who they really were. We shared foxholes and trenches. We went over the top together. We were their friends and brothers in arms and saw them as men and human beings. But you cannot talk about them as men, of their love for their children, wives, and parents, or their plans for the future. You only can talk about them publicly if you talk according to their guidelines."
He gazed at me and continued, "Look at how they are treating Haj Mohsen. Mohsen was our commander for the whole war and now they are at him whenever he talks or criticizes the government."
Major General Mohsen Rezaei, known by his troops as Haj Mohsen, was the commander in chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for most of the war and some years after that. After the war he continued his studies and received a doctoral degree in economics from the University of Tehran. Today he prefers to be called Dr. Rezaei. He ran for office in the last presidential election and performed well in face-to-face debate with Ahmadinejad. Government supporters accused him of disloyalty, of conspiring with former president Rafsanjani and disobeying the Supreme Leader by challenging Ahmadinejad. After my conversation with the veterans, I checked his website. One comment posted there by a reader was striking: "Haj Mohsen, I wish you dead, so they finally appreciate what you did for Iran."
Yes, for Iran's heroes it is not easy to be alive.
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