If you’re on Twitter (I admit it, I have an account), or on Facebook, or if you’ve watched anything approaching television news in the past few days, you’ll likely have noted that there’s something going down in Iran — especially if you’re on Twitter, where the tag #iranelection has been a trending topic for the past week.
According to the internets, millions of people have been on the streets in Tehran and around Iran recently protesting — at first, they were protesting what they felt was an unfair and rigged election, where the results of an election in which over 40 million people voted were announced two hours after polls closed — and now they are protesting what appears to be, prima facie, extreme violence and repression on the part of a state and a ‘supreme leader‘ who has demanded that all those in the streets return home and accept the results without complaint.
While I will wholeheartedly and emphatically note that I am not an Iran expert, I will comment on the developments as I have observed them, through the media, through online sources, and through discussing the situation with members of the Iranian community at school. There’s something big happening, and I think that we all need to pay some serious attention.
One thing that particularly strikes me is the power of the people in the streets. The protests have been described as “amorphous and leaderless,” with some commentators using this as their indicator of an inevitable doom. Despite these dire predictions, the protests have not waned. Despite the orders of the Supreme Leader to accept the election results and stop protesting, millions are in the streets. Despite the blood on the pavement, they are on the street.
Those in Iran, and many thousands and millions around the world, are watching the developments through updates from Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. While it took some time for the mass media to catch up, they have — and while CNN is continuously waving the fax it received from the Iranian Ministry of Culture prohibiting it from broadcasting from the country — the whole world is watching the protests and the violent repression from the Iranian state.
The people in the streets are chanting as they protest. At first, it was “where is my vote?” Now it is “No more Pinochets.” At night it is “Allah-o-akbar” (god is great), shouted from the rooftops. See a haunting video of this here. As the Iranians chant and protest, there are plainclothes state militia in the street — the basij — literally hunting them down. One particularly terrifying video is apparently that of the death of a girl named “Neda” who died in the streets of Tehran after being shot by riot police. A not-safe-for-work and graphic video is online.
(Parenthetically, in this context, there’s no wonder why anarchists cry “smash the state,” especially the one that’s smashing you.)
a complicated situation
The situation is complicated. I will admit that when I first heard of the Iranian elections — just over a week ago — my first thought was one of surprise that contested elections were actually allowed in Iran. While there was a decidedly contested election going on — many analysts, pre-vote, had thought that the 50% majority would not be reached in the first round, and that a second round of voting (that would have been held yesterday) was likely between current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and main opposition candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi — the election was not particularly free, as the candidates must be approved by one of the religious governing bodies before they are allowed to compete.
As we now know, the election did not head to a run-off vote, because Ahmadinejad apparently won a stunning 2:1 majority, beating the other candidates by millions of votes — in many cases, even in their home towns and provinces, which is unheard of in the ethnically divided Iran. Even more stunning is the speed with which results were announced — as I noted above, the millions and millions of votes were apparently counted within only a couple of hours.
That’s where the protests started. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ‘blessed’ the results after they had been provisionally announced. Many have commented that Khamenei was a supporter of Ahmadinejad going into the election. Moussavi, a ‘reformer,’ isn’t exactly a radical reformer — he has been the Prime Minister of Iran, and was involved in the 1979 Islamic revolution — but his campaign apparently included pledges to increase awareness in ‘what’s going on’ in government and a potentially more diplomatic relationship with other states in the world, in comparison to Ahmadinejad, who’s well-known in the western world for claiming that there are ‘no homosexuals’ in Iran and other grandiose statements.
In my mind, I can’t endorse or even comment on the candidates themselves. It’s politics of another state that I don’t fully understand, and there’s an abundance of caution necessary — I don’t particularly want to support a candidate who may not be any better than the current crew.
I can, however, be opposed to oppression and repression — especially the kind that I’ve seen on the internet and in the media as of late.
the amorphous and leaderless movement
It’s also on the internet and through the media that I’ve seen some of the most promising and interesting examples of the amorphous and leaderless movement.
Much of the non-Iranian western world caught wind of what’s going on in Iran through Twitter, because the media basically ignored developments. On Twitter, thousands of members quickly began following developments and spreading word of what was happening. How this happened was quite interesting
The development of the #iranelection hashtag
On Twitter, users can choose a one-word discussion topic ‘title’, preface it with a #, and it becomes a hashtag — a tag that can be embedded or added at the end of an individual post (called a ‘tweet’) that allows for the threading and grouping of discussions. Most interfaces to Twitter, through the main website or separate applications, allow for navigation by hashtags. The development of a hashtag is an interesting observation in psychology — many potentialities are explored, with one becoming dominant. According to an online trend tracker for Twitter, the now-dominant tag #iranelection first appeared at about 16:30 on 12 June 2009 — just over a week ago. Since then, it’s become the most popular tag on Twitter for some time — generally called a ‘trending topic’.
a leaderless, amorphous — but organised — movement
A large amount of the online discussion around the elections in Iran at first focused on reports of Iranian twitterers providing first-person accounts of what was going on. These first-hand accounts were ‘re-tweeted’ (repeated) by other interested twitterers, to ensure that the messages were heard. During the last few days of the election, the discussion centred around the fact that internet access and Facebook was often cut off — these being important organising avenues for the opposition supporters — service drops that were perceived to support Ahmadinejad.
It is interesting to note the effectiveness of the leaderless and amorphous movement when it comes to spreading information and eliciting support and action on the part of many of the twitterers. It was quickly noted that re-tweeting posts that included Iranian twitterer user names was problematic, as it was rumoured that Iranian state agents were on the website tracking users and finding them in their neighbourhoods and homes. This message was rapidly re-tweeted, and it is exceedingly rare to now find a message from anyone from Iran being re-tweeted with user names or other identifying information — members of Twitter are actively working on supporting each other and keeping each other safe. A movement to shade user icons (avatars) green to show support for the Iranians quickly flourished, and now a preponderance of user icons in the #iranelection discussion are green. A second urgent message quickly spread throughout the discussion: all users were encouraged to change their profile locations to Tehran, and their time zones to the one that matched the Iranian time zone, in an attempt to confuse Iranian government agents.
The discourse observable on Twitter was somewhat like Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action — certain claims of valid information were presented in a public forum, were considered by the participants, and were acted upon. Rational and logical claims tended to succeed — it made sense that user names should not be repeated, that the phrasing of re-tweeted messages should be altered to prevent simple searches from identifying users, and that changing time zones and locations may help confuse state authorities. In a way, the discourse worked best because it was not led by a specific leader — all could participate.
As the protests ramped up in intensity, it was also interesting to note the kind of information being passed through the Twitter website. Many users, not from Iran, began posting links to first-aid guides on the internet, and multi-lingual users aided in translation of such guides into Farsi. Twitter was also used to quickly and rapidly spread information about the location of protests and rallies in Tehran and the rest of Iran — while internet access, cellphone service, and SMS capabilities were variably available, often being shut down by the state, activists shared information as quickly as they could and in as many different fora as possible — Twitter became one of them.
In the days following the ‘results’ of the election, silent and peaceful protests in Iran were the norm. Following Supreme Leader Khamenei’s sermon during Friday prayers, where he told Iranians to cease protesting, and implicitly threatened any who continued to rally, the protests turned ugly. Here, Twitter began spreading useful information: some users began tweeting remedies and solutions for tear gas, while others began advertising foreign embassies where injured protesters could seek refuge. (Sadly, the Canadian embassy was closed and refusing entry — not a major surprise…)
they even attacked the universities…
To add to the horrors, the Iranian militia attacked the universities of Iran. They stormed the dormitories, and attacked the students holed up inside, the students who were communicating for their fellow people with the rest of the world, the students who were organising many of the protests. In Iran, like many other places in the world, it is illegal for military or police to even enter university campuses — hence the horrendous ramifications of police murders in universities.
the leaders will be responsible
While Khamenei threatened Moussavi with holding him responsible for any violence that occurred, as he was a ‘leader’ of the protests, I would argue that the situation has progressed beyond the point where Moussavi is in any true leadership position. The second that the state militia began firing on civilians who were peacefully protesting, a rubicon was crossed — the movement in Iran (and around the world) is no longer one for Moussavi — it is for the Iranians.
leaderless and amorphous: a strong organising model
The amorphous and leaderless movement is actually a strong point of organising instead of the prophesied fatal weakness. Just as the discourse on Twitter has shown the ability for masses of people to collectively share vital information and collectively strategise and organise, so too has other social media and technology — when Iranians are not able to access the internet, they are able to SMS, or they are able to use telephones, or they are able to shout from their rooftops. The lack of a specific leader provides a significant challenge to the state authorities who cannot arrest a single person and assume that they have cut off the head of the snake — the leaderless and amorphous movement has, using the same metaphor, more heads than a hydra.
The leaderless and amorphous movement has also turned what could have been regarded as a simply parochial dispute over likely rigged elections into something that millions of people around the world are actively taking interest in, and taking action on. The lack of a leader has allowed the thousands of activists around the world to actively contribute to the online and real-world discussions around the protests. The amorphous nature has allowed each to contribute. This is basically a validation of the anarchist model of organising: there are no leaders, and everyone contributes. The nature of the discourse allows for various statements and validity claims to be evaluated and acted upon. The nature of the organising model also allows for a quick and efficient ‘weeding’ function: suspected ‘trolls’ or government agents are readily identified (they may have only recently joined Twitter, etc, or they may be maliciously spreading false information — something readily detected) and the movement continues on strong.
Rather than being a movement that is built around a strong leader — which might otherwise quickly decline into a personality cult such as Peronism in Argentina — the movement in Iran (and around the world) is built around a strong idea. The structure of political life in Iran is most certainly not leaderless nor amorphous; indeed, there is a ‘Supreme Leader’ and a structure so strong that it is ‘taboo’ to challenge it. The leaderless and amorphous movement for freedom, peace, and democracy allows the protesters to imagine an alternative that would allow them to participate and take control of their own lives — and that is likely an additional reason why it is alluring. Such an allure is likely also attractive to the rest of us in the world.
Adding state-sanctioned violence into the mix likely doesn’t help: there’s nothing that can lose a regime’s legitimacy more, or quicker, than killing its own citizens, simply because they are in the street voicing their displeasure. Weber argued that a ‘state’ is something that has a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence; the state of Iran is quickly losing the legitimacy, and with it, the monopoly.
challenging the ‘realist’ model, and de-centering the state writ large
The developments in Iran, aside from illustrating the power of a decentralised organising model, also have begun to highlight problems with the classical ‘realist‘ conception of international politics. Realism, for those not entirely familiar with the intricacies of international relations theoretical standpoints, is based on the premise that states are the primary political actors. This theoretical standpoint is so pervasive that it is argued to simply be the ‘reality’ of the way things work, hence the name. However, realism cannot handle nor deal properly with actors on international levels that are not states — when a terrorist network attacks the United States, the United States, in realist mode, needs to attack a state in return, so they attack Afghanistan. Wars on things that are not states do not fit into the realist paradigm.
The Iranians in the street do not fit into the realist paradigm. They are in the Iranian state, but they are not the Iranian state — indeed, they are actively organising and acting against it. A number of United States Twitter users have remarked on this, noting the sharp difference between the individuals and their leadership — and they note that this division should be remembered for the next time that their state wishes to bomb another.
The current developments in Iran do not fit into the realist paradigm, and this is likely a very good thing. Here, the state is acting against the people — and the paradigm dictates that a state is the ultimate political actor. Here, many people around the world feel that it would be unjust to privilege the Iranian state, and those in control of it, over the people in the streets — likely because they could imagine themselves in a similar position. This challenge to the realist paradigm is much needed, because it takes the state out of the centre of the political sphere, and puts people back into the centre.
hope for the future
The protests in Iran open up a window of hope for the future — both of Iran and of the rest of the world. Despite the police and military crackdowns, and the horrific and terrifying murders of innocent civilians, who are in the streets protesting the murder of other innocent civilians, there is hope for the future.
For Iran, it is hope that the people who are struggling for a free, peaceful, and democratic future may actually be able to achieve this entirely laudable goal. The way that the protesters are able to organise themselves and resist the tyrannical and murderous orders of the state in an attempt to see that their votes are counted properly and that they could potentially exercise a bit of control in their lives. Why should we not support this?
For the rest of the world, the hope is the same. While it is not the case that we are all facing police bullets every day, the fact that there are some people out there who are should be enough to convince us that resting easy is not sufficient.
As I said above, the most powerful thing to me is the power of people in the streets. There is an interesting quote from a New York Time columnist that I will reproduce here:
TEHRAN — The Iranian police commander, in green uniform, walked up Komak Hospital Alley with arms raised and his small unit at his side. “I swear to God,” he shouted at the protesters facing him, “I have children, I have a wife, I don’t want to beat people. Please go home.”
A man at my side threw a rock at him. The commander, unflinching, continued to plead. There were chants of “Join us! Join us!” The unit retreated toward Revolution Street, where vast crowds eddied back and forth confronted by baton-wielding Basijmilitia and black-clad riot police officers on motorbikes.
A facebook friend posted the following thought on Facebook:
[Bill] is glad that the Iranian protesters are receiving media coverage and public attention. But it’s also hard not to think about the fact that pro-democracy and labour movements all over the world deal with police brutality on a daily basis. We are very selective about what is seen as urgent, relevant and important. We could tweet pictures every week of protesters being shot by cops, somewhere…
My response? Simple. “…and we should.”
I’ll leave the end of this sudden-random essay with a repost of a translated Iranian blog, written just a day or two ago. It illustrates the hope and resolve of the people protesting.
“I will participate in the demonstrations tomorrow. Maybe they will turn violent. Maybe I will be one of the people who is going to get killed. I’m listening to all my favorite music. I even want to dance to a few songs. I always wanted to have very narrow eyebrows. Yes, maybe I will go to the salon before I go tomorrow! There are a few great movie scenes that I also have to see. I should drop by the library, too. It’s worth to read the poems of Forough and Shamloo again. All family pictures have to be reviewed, too. I have to call my friends as well to say goodbye. All I have are two bookshelves which I told my family who should receive them. I’m two units away from getting my bachelors degree but who cares about that. My mind is very chaotic. I wrote these random sentences for the next generation so they know we were not just emotional and under peer pressure. So they know that we did everything we could to create a better future for them. So they know that our ancestors surrendered to Arabs and Mongols but did not surrender to despotism. This note is dedicated to tomorrow’s children…”