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'Even Yazid Did Not Do This!'


04 Jun 2011 00:05Comments

[ dispatch ] On a recent hot evening, a 68-year-old man stepped out of a supermarket on north Tehran's Mirdamad Street. He stood still to watch as government workers adorned the sidewall of a nearby residential building with a six-meter billboard honoring Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and its first Supreme Leader. Blood rose to the man's face. Shaking with anger, he carried his grocery bags another ten meters, out of the crowd's earshot, and began deriding the regime in violent, half-audible curses. "What have they done to religion?" he cried with his head skyward. "Even Yazid did not do this! They have killed religion and made the people hate it. And because they present themselves as representatives of God, they feel like they have the right to do anything they like to people."

As the 14 Khordad observance of Khomeini's death approached, at least one social class of Tehranis was collectively shaken by two more recent funerals -- those of political activist Ezatollah Sahabi and his daughter Haleh, who died at her father's June 1 funeral, allegedly following a physical confrontation with government guards. News of this display of brutality at the mourning ceremony of a man who helped shape the 1979 Revolution have struck many a raw nerve. They have rattled Tehranis' perception of political Islam, and are exacerbating the urban middle class' "us and them" attitude towards the regime.

While violence against opposition figures is far from uncommon, the Sahabi deaths' concurrence with ongoing infighting at the highest echelons of Iran's political power has sent a negative message to the opposition. As President Ahmadinejad faces criticism from Parliament and the Supreme Leader, activists were eying the rift as an opportunity to voice their grievances in front of an enfeebled government. "[The Sahabi deaths] happened at a time when people were hopeless because demonstrations were not happening anymore, but hopeful that this political infighting would weaken the ruling structure from the top," says "Hooman," 26, a Green Movement supporter. "Now, it seems that the government is not what we are struggling with. What we're really up against is an ideology that has no regard for morals or humanity."

On the night after Haleh Sahabi's death, cries of "Allah-o Akbar" once again undulated from the rooftops of central and north Tehran neighborhoods, at the behest of the Green Movement's leadership abroad. Compared with previous nights, the chants seemed weaker and more sporadic, illustrating the opposition's disillusionment with the past day's events. Facebook, normally a platform where disgruntled opposition supporters vent their anger, was filled with posts about bitterness and surprise. "My first reaction was not anger or sadness -- just shock and not understanding," says Hooman. "A regime that's built on religious morals and tradition goes and violates those same principles. It's so paradoxical that it makes it hard to understand what's going on."

These sentiments are not unique to Hooman's generation. The disputed circumstances of Sahabi's death were interpreted as gross violations of moral principles that Iranians traditionally hold dear. Causing a female mourner's death at a funerary procession is a transgression against the holiness of Islamic funerals, as well as against the protection of women. Even older, more conservative locals have thus interpreted Haleh Sahabi's death as an action unparalleled even by Yazid I, the vilified 7th-century murderer of Imam Hossein. "Even Yazid spared Imam Hossein's sister Zeynab," says Heydar, 72. "The worst thing in the world is hitting a woman. The other is attacking people at a funeral and not respecting a dead body."

Whether these sentiments resonate across regions and social strata is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article. State media has given limited attention to the events, and the government remains insistent that Haleh Sahabi's death was caused by a heart attack, and not by guard-inflicted wounds as eye witnesses and opposition websites have alleged. "We know [Haleh Sahabi] was killed, but on TV they're reporting that her death was natural," one Facebook user commented. "It is our duty to spread the message."

As shock gives way to anger and the opposition's rhetoric takes a more missionary tone, it seems plausible that the Green Movement will be able to wield the Sahabi deaths as a rallying call for its supporters. Yet although these events have exacerbated public anger, they have not necessarily electrified the opposition in a constructive way. "It is possible that more people will come to the street, but I am afraid that things will get violent," says Hooman, who plans on participating in the recently convoked demonstration on June 12. "People now have a huge appetite for anger and force. It's difficult to tell them to stay nonviolent."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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