tehranbureau An independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora

Sharpen the Peaceful Weapon


15 Mar 2010 05:405 Comments


Smarter slogans can boost the opposition's strength on and off the street.

[ opinion ] The next major occasion slated for street protests in Iran is unclear. Will it be March's Chahrshanbeh Souri or April's Sizdeh Bedar, celebrations held before and after Noruz, the Persian New Year; the anniversary of Khomeini's death in June; or perhaps, the one-year mark of the 2009 election? Unlike protest dates last fall and winter set in advance and actively promoted -- Qods Day, 13 Aban, 16 Azar, and Ashura -- there is no clear consensus on the calendar ahead. It appears that since the regime's tour de force security lockdown on 22 Bahman, the opposition movement has fallen into a state of uncertainty deeper than any yet.

Discontentment has not been quelled, but merely stifled. The public mood is akin to red-hot embers -- what Iranians call "fire beneath the ashes" -- that can flare up again when the time is right; that is, when incentive for street-turnout is rekindled. This latency suggests disregarding speculations on if future protests will erupt and instead focusing on ways the movement may optimize the time at hand and bolster its agenda. One way the movement could do this is by strategizing its use of slogans.

With the principle of nonviolence at its core, the movement's most powerful weapon in countering the regime's batons and bullets is not stones and Molotov cocktails, but its arsenal of slogans chanted on the streets and stamped onto walls and banknotes. Slogans are the vox populi incarnate: they voice the opposition's political wish list and may be regarded as the best opinion poll measured among protesters.

The formulation of slogans therefore merits closer analysis: can the opposition increase the range and impact of this critical instrument? The impact of "smarter" slogans includes purging language of violence and ambiguity, articulating targeted demands, drawing on humor and symbolism, and outreach to security forces.

Mechanisms for promoting and standardizing slogans via the internet are already well in place; the Green Movement's grassroots networks can streamline their voicing of slogans, as chanted on the street and written in public spaces.

non-violent language

"Death to No One" was a proposed slogan that circulated social media sites ahead of the Nov. 4th protest, but the motto never spread to the streets. The idea was born of a desire to distance the peaceful, civil nature of the Green movement from violent, revolutionary language.

Death wishes -- the Marg bar, or "death to," as in "Marg bar Shah" or "Marg bar Amrika" -- is rhetoric inherited from the 1979 Revolution. This legacy has been resurrected and updated to slogans such as, "Death to the Dictator" and "Death to Russia."

Green supporters advocating the use of peaceful language had proposed "Death to No One" to negate this type of violent rhetoric. Others suggested changing the phrase Marg bar to Nang bar -- close in sound but devoid of violence, meaning "shame upon" instead of "death to." These calls have gone unheeded as protesters have continued their staple Marg bar dictator, perhaps because the alternative lacks the emotional charge of the original. Yet Greens should bear in mind that such rhetoric mars the movement's peaceful image in the eyes of both domestic and international audiences.

unambiguous meaning

A second problem with "Death to the Dictator" is its ambiguity -- who is the dictator wished dead, Ahmadinejad or Khamenei? Admittedly, "Death to Khamenei" has also surfaced in protester chants, but the opaque Marg bar diktator remains far more frequent.

Ambiguity and the veiling of language is endemic to Persian linguistic culture. Iranians, from the ordinary citizen to public officials, often avoid direct speech by cloaking their words in allusions, metaphors, and implied references. Criticism in particular is tempered by using vague pronouns: Mousavi's statements and Khamenei's speeches are rife with unspecified "those who's" and "certain individuals." Since the post-election crisis, Khamenei has riled against his Reformist nemeses with a variety of epithets, including, "the heads of sedition," but never pointed the finger specifically by name. Even the outspoken Ayatollah Montazeri refrained from explicitly naming Khamenei in his fatwa denouncing the vali faqih's legitimacy of rule.

Protesters are not exempt from this tendency to imprecise speech and veiled language, even in their baldest slogans. "Khamenei is a killer/ his rule is voided" is a good example -- does this statement demand that the Supreme Leader be replaced by a more qualified candidate? While the words appear targeted at his person specifically, many who hear it take it to mean opposing the entire institution of velayat faqih [Guardianship of the Jurisprudent]. Protesters on 22 Bahman sang the revolution-era "Marg bar Shah" song, replacing the word "Shah" with "Rahbar" [Supreme Leader]; this type of context is what makes the larger meaning of their call unclear: are protesters happy to stop at Khamenei or are expressing dissent toward the rule of his office in general?

Elsewhere we have "Referendum is the people's call," without specifying what exactly should be put to vote: the election results, as Mohammad Khatami had proposed, or the limits of the Guardian Council's authority, as Mehdi Karroubi suggests?

Naming demands in clear-cut, unequivocal language helps clarify intent, and more importantly, urges a shift from coded to candid expression as the standard in Iranian public discourse.

humor to shatter taboo

The high-octane election season last June saw late-night slogan-chanting street battles between pro-Mousavi and pro-Ahmadinejad voters. Chants often employed humor to strike home a point, as in "Mehdi's ma knows [there's] inflation, but this midget doesn't!" which takes a jab at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's diminutive height while citing Mehdi Karroubi's quip in a presidential debate that "even [his] elderly mother" grasps the reality of hyperinflation categorically denied by Ahmadinejad.

In the somber aftermath of the election, slogans casting sarcasm persisted. "Liar, liar, where's your 63 percent?" scorned the official election statistics, while banknotes waved at Basij forces taunted the Basiji as mercenaries.

Joke-telling is a national pastime for Iranians, a customary part of socializing and nowadays a widespread trend in text messaging. Slogans can capitalize on this deep fondness for humor, especially for tackling politically and cultural subjects that shatter taboos or oppose ideology.

targeted rejection of governmental policy

A popular pre-election cry was "We don't want a potato government" [dolat-e sibzamini, nemikhaim, nemikhaim]. On the surface, the slogan slammed Ahmadinejad's populist tactics for buying votes with, yes, free sacks of potatoes. More broadly, it asserted dissatisfaction with his administration's misguided economic policies, particularly the inflation-stoking injection of cash handouts among rural populations. A similarly disgruntled pre-election chant, "We don't want a morality police government" [dolat-e gasht-e ershad, nemikhaim nemikhaim] blasted dress-code patrols.

The "we don't want" tag provides a simple formula for the rejection of detrimental policies. Variations on the "don't want" theme can pinpoint the results of governmental policies with higher precision, incorporating a host of issues -- economic mismanagement, corruption and fraud, lack of transparency, lack of meritocracy, etc. -- into the protesters' body of criticism.

"A green and free Iran/ does not want the atom bomb" emerged briefly during the Nov. 4th counter-rallies, words that may be read as a message intended for the international community. If Green supporters reject a weapons program, this important pledge should not be dropped from the roster of de rigueur slogans. It is an eloquent way to broadcast the Green Movement's peace-seeking vision for Iran's relations with the world, a goal emphasized by Mousavi during and after his election campaign.

calls for inalienable civil rights

By the same token, defining what protesters do want can be expanded in scope and specificity. The revolution's signature slogan called for "Freedom, Independence, Islamic Republic." If the Green movement is indeed a democratic civil rights movement as many contend, what sets of demands are protesters raising?

The terminology of civil rights has yet to be articulated in any slogans. Similarly, core demands for "free press" and "free elections" as stressed by Mousavi in his declarations are absent from street chants.

Demands such as, "Political prisoners must be freed," are a good start for voicing the civil rights concerns of various groups -- but are they the only group whose rights require defense?

What of the mission of the women's movement to repeal discriminatory laws that relegate women to the rank of second-class citizens, end to religious persecution, the right of workers to establish trade unions, and equal rights for ethnic minorities, including the millions of Afghan immigrants deprived of their most basic rights? The list is long if protesters wish to use the opportunity afforded to them for calling for their "inalienable" bill of rights.

demanding referendum on constitutional law

In addition to rejecting policy and demanding rights, the Greens can devise calls for referendum on controversial issues related to their country's constitution. Mousavi has repeatedly hinted at the unexploited "potentials" of the Iranian constitution, and Karroubi had endorsed "constitutional revision" during his campaign. Protesters should hold the Green leaders to these claims and promises with slogans that spell out the matters of contention.

One such matter is the extensive authority of "approbatory oversight" [nezarat estesvabi] accorded to the Guardian Council, a constitutional body of unelected clerics and jurists. Karroubi recently proposed that the powers of the Guardian Council be put to referendum. In accordance with the protesters' denouncement of the supreme leader, Khamenei's legitamacy as the current jurisprudent may also be challenged to referendum.

The aforesaid call, "Referendum is the people's slogan," may thus be restyled to stipulate issues looming under the question of constitutional reform: Referendum on approbatory oversight of the Guardian Council and referendum on the Supreme Leader's legitimacy as jurisprudent. For validity within the context of the Islamic regime, these demands for referendum can reference the endorsements made by Ayatollahs Karroubi and Montazeri.

inviting security forces to disarm

A primary aim of Green protesters is to induce disobedience and defection among the security forces enforcing the regime's crackdown, from police officers and conscripts to the rank and file of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and its citizen militia, the Basij.

In face of the brutality exercised by security forces, protesters have lashed back against them with aggressive chants of "Mercenary, get lost!" "Brother's gone savage" and "I will kill whoever kills my brother" and stray shouts of "animals," "filth," etc. In adrenaline-filled street clashes, this approach by protesters is liable to recycle violence rather than discourage it.

Invitation to defection is not just an immediate need for disarming the regime security apparatus. The millions of Basij members and other pro-regime forces cannot be barred from absorption into the Green movement; as one analyst notes, they must be 'won over' to the cause, or else might later resurface as an insurgent or guerrilla group.

Protesters can thus view their face-time with security forces as an opportunity for inviting them to join their side. Slogans for this end can draw on the strengths of the crowd in the atmosphere of the street, such as the ability of a collective roar to elicit emotional responses. Appeals for nonviolence and solidarity, praise for "green" forces ("guard/ /basiji/police brothers") as "heroes" and other types of coaxing slogans can be factored into the protesters' approach to street encounters.

a time to brainstorm

The Green Movement has already built up an impressive repertoire of slogans. Most were born spontaneously -- the landmark "Where is my Vote" on June 13th, 2009, set the pace for innovation and established a rubric for civil protest in contrast to the ideological revolution of 31 years ago. Protesters are perhaps so adept at sloganeering in part due to their rich poetic heritage and the fluidity of Farsi that lends well to verse.

Many slogans devised and used by the Greens are already "smart." Examples include resurrecting the dissident cry of "Allahu Akbar," adopting Shia's most potent icon in "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein," and customizing occasion-specific slogans such as Jerusalem Day's "Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life is for Iran" and Ashura's "This is the month of blood, Yazid will fall."

The Greens must continue to be dynamic and inventive. Old slogans lose relevancy, freshness, and the power to affect. Violent slogans undermine the credibility of the movement, while ambivalent slogans fail to articulate the protesters' demands and thereby to delineate the movement's vision.

The indefinite stretch until future protests is not a setback, but a chance for collective reflection on the road ahead. Developing slogans from a strategic perspective is a valuable effort Green leaders and advocates can spearhead, while the movement's army of "netizens" can promote the standardization of slogans that have won broad consensus. Popular, far-reaching platforms such as Jaras and Balatarin, for instance, can provide forums for "open calls" [farakhaan] on suggested slogans for various topics, as Mohammad Sadeghi, Mousavi's Facebook page administrator, has often done in the past.

Slogans can endure in the public's awareness so long as Greens continue to spread them between protests using graffiti, social networking sites, and whatever means available.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

SHAREtwitterfacebookSTUMBLEUPONbalatarin reddit digg del.icio.us


In my opinion brainstorming should spontaneous and avoid self-consciousness like the plague. Who cares
if our slogans aren't adopted as long as someone might take a crude idea and rework it into a something that really catches on.
A new twitter abbreviation : - ODWWCIFI (One day we will celebrate in Free Iran).
Pinnochio has lost face.

ppr1986 / March 15, 2010 12:30 PM

do people write on walls less or not take photos of it ... liek other things they stop to do when they go back to ordinary life.

saf / March 15, 2010 9:43 PM

Mousavi and Karroubi have not encouraged protests for Tuesday. Many Iranians take vacation for two weeks of Nowrooz holiday.

M Mohammadi / March 16, 2010 2:37 AM

Thank you for this great article. Peaceful (non-violent) movement is a multi-proned strategy one of which is the appropriate use of language.

Language has far more reaching effect since it reaches the subconscious without much resistance.

jaml / March 20, 2010 11:05 PM

Yeah hurry up and destablize the country, gas prices are way to high for me here in Kansas, we need both Iraqi Oil and Irani Oil, Keep up the protest Iranis! Americans will bring you freedom!

Anonymous / March 21, 2010 4:31 AM