Iran’s protesters are secularizing the 1979 revolution

SalamPix/ABACA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Iranian demonstrators set fire to the building of Hozeh Elmieh whilst protesting high prices and the poor state of the economy under President Hassan Rouhani. Qazvin, Takistan, Iran, January 01, 2018. SalamPix/ABACA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.
Through the slogans chanted by protestors
one can clearly see that large sections of the Iranian public no longer have
hope in reform and, unlike in the Green movement, are directly targeting the
political system of the regime. 

They are not only determined to overthrow
the dictatorial religious state, but are saying that they want “independence and freedom” in a new-model Iranian Republic without
‘Islamism’.  They are loyal to the
guiding principles of the 1979 revolution, but are now demanding a secular
version of it. 

Furthermore, the new constitution being
introduced by secular and
Islamic opposition
separates state from religion and does not include any
official religion. As Abolhassan Banisadr has repeatedly argued, the religion that
was usurped by the state should return to its real place, the hearts of

Iran will soon see the birth of a home grown and secular democracy.

All the indicators are telling us that even
if these protests recede in the short term, Iran will soon see the birth of a home
grown and secular democracy.

One of the main slogans during the 1979 Revolution
was “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic!” In numerous interviews made
while he was in Paris at the time, and distributed all over Iran, Ayatollah
Khomeini stated that Iran would become a democratic country under the Islamic
Republic and that the legitimacy of the system would come from popular votes and observation of human rights. 

Khomeini repeatedly stated that in an
Islamic Republic, freedom of expression would be guaranteed within a culture of
free and pluralistic debate, and that Iran would be a republic like

Khomeini emphasised democracy and freedom
to such an extent that a leftist magazine, Nouvel Observateur, published
his picture on the front page with the title ’Ayatollah Liberté’. Not ‘Ayatollah liberal’, but ‘liberté’. [1]

The Iranian public were therefore led to
believe that they would achieve independence, freedom and democracy through the
Islamic Republic. Yet as soon as Khomeini returned to Iran, the clergy
around him began to do away with the unprecedented freedoms that had emerged
after the dictatorial monarchy was overthrown. 

The ensuing struggle between dictatorial and
democratic fronts within the country’s leadership lasted for more than two
years. The last nail in the coffin was when the newly elected
president was overthrown in a coup in June 1981 after refusing to stay silent about
the destruction of freedoms.

The same people who had put faith in the Islamic Republic soon learned that the state was using religion to justify widespread and ongoing repression.

The same people who had put faith in the
Islamic Republic soon learned through everyday experience that the state, as an
institution and an instrument of power, was using religion to justify widespread and
ongoing repression.

They saw that this exploitation transformed religion from a
form of human spiritual expression into a brutal dogma under which violent
policies were carried out.

When Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997,
many people decided to give the Islamic Republic another chance to embrace
freedom and liberty while maintaining its status as a ‘religious state’. 

However, not only did the president fail to
fulfil his campaign promises; he also acquiesced to the addition of extra-constitutional powers of ‘executive order’ to the Supreme Leader’s

While Khatami even described himself as an “errand
, the taste of power was too strong for him to resign. The result was a curbing of already limited
freedoms and, with Khatami’s consent, a brutal crushing of student
protests in 1999.

This not only finished off the ‘reformist
project’, but enabled the Supreme Leader to engineer the presidency of a more
populist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Again, Khatami submissively gave his
consent to the fraudulent election.

By this time, Iranian society had learned
through the reformists’ extensive ‘education’ about the 1979 Revolution to
equate revolution with violence and repression, and had developed a deep
aversion towards the possibility of another revolution. 

Consequently, when the Ahmadinejad’s second
presidential term was engineered, many people confined their protest to the
question ‘Where is my
In the second term, this was also brutally crushed.

The reformist movement was dead, but stayed
alive in a zombie form by dominating opposition discourse and support for ‘moderate’ Hassan Rouhani’s presidency. Large sections of Iranian society
again decided to give the regime another chance.

Rouhani then failed to fulfil his own
promises. The Iran-US nuclear deal failed to deliver a golden goose. Worse yet,
against his promises, his budget prioritized the clergy, religious institutions
and Revolutionary Guards at the expense of ordinary people who were suffering
from chronic unemployment and poverty as well as insecure jobs. This coincided
with an increasingly acrimonious war within the regime and the ineptitude of the supreme leader to put an
end to it. 

most downtrodden people in society then reached the conclusion that the problem
was not with any of the regime’s particular factions, but with the regime
itself. The opportunity for protest
against the regime as a whole arose when a well-known monarchist leader outside
of Iran, Javad Khadem, tried to organize a protest around economic grievences in the city of Mashhad. 

The Revolutionary Guard tried to extradite this
for their own purpose. Before the
demonstration, they arrested the
four monarchist organizers
and prepared to
infiltrate the protest with pro-monarchist chants in order to suggest that
Rouhani’s harsh economic policies were pushing people towards the monarchists. Yet as soon
as the demonstration started, many thousands of people spontaneously joined in and
began to chant against the regime.  

As the regime was taken by surprise and
could not seize control of social media in time, news about the demonstration
spread across the country, particularly into the small towns that are suffering
most under harsh economic conditions.

The slogans these demonstrators chanted
gives us some insight into the nature and goals of these protests. As a whole, there are two kinds: chants about
hardship and the regime’s corruption; and strategic political chants which
reflect political views in more than seventy towns and cities where
demonstrations have taken place. 

In the city of Qom, the main centre of
Islamic schooling and one of the most traditional and religious cities in the
country, people were chanting “We don’t want the Islamic
.” In other cities, they chanted: “They have turned Islam into
a stairway (to rise to power) and made people miserable
” and demanded that the clergy leave the country

The shift in aim from discontent with parts
of the regime to a rejection of the regime itself is best exemplified in
certain slogans that have been heard all over the country, including: “Independence, Freedom, Iranian
”, “death to the
” and “death
to Khamenei

Finally, there is one thing we did not hear
in the demonstrations: the chant of ‘Allah Akbar’. This slogan was chanted
incessantly during the 1979 Revolution and reflected its spiritual and
non-violent nature. Since then, these words have been expropriated by both the Iranian
regime and terrorist organisations, which commit heinous acts in their name.

Today’s protestors thus removed the slogan from the political scene. The
secularisation of revolution demands the liberation of these words from violence
and the reclamation of them as an expression of spirituality and connection
with intelligent life and absolute being. It is a return to “political spirituality”, which the French
intellectual Michael Foucault once described during the Iranian Revolution:

“for the people who
inhabit this land, what is the point of searching, even at the cost of their
own lives, for this thing whose possibility we have forgotten since the
Renaissance and the great crisis of Christianity, a political spirituality.
I can already hear the French laughing, but I know that they are wrong.”[2]

marriage of religion and state has failed miserably. It failed because the power of the state expropriated
religion to justify horrendous acts and in the process alienated religion from spiritual
expression and paths offering alternatives to futures of violence, hate and

we see happening in Iran, in its prisons, in thousands of debating groups in houses
and student camps in the mountains, deserts and forests, is the emergence of a new discourse that combines old traditions and new ideas to
strengthen a home-grown democracy. Its regional and global ramifications cannot
be overestimated.