by Rasmus Christian Elling.
This morning, armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran buried war victims inside the campus of Amir Kabir University in Tehran. The so-called unknown martyrs were buried amidst tumult and despite protests from student activists. Another symbolic and violent battle between regime-loyal and pro-democratic forces is being fought right now.
The idea of burying martyrs inside Tehran’s universities has a history. Ever since the idea was floated some six years ago, when Ahmadinejad was Tehran’s mayor, it has been a hotly contested topic. Pro-democratic students have protested against the plans because they see it as an instrument for the regime’s oppressive policy: a) it is a way to impose on the university milieu and student life a militant ideology that praises shahâdat (the martyr death), war and military values associated with the Revolutionary Guards and the eulogizing of the eight-year war with Iraq; b) it is a practical way for authorities to clamp down on student gatherings and demonstrations since it is stipulated that the area surrounding martyr graves be treated with utmost respect – indeed, it is prohibited to gather in large numbers in such areas for any other purpose than mourning (which certainly rules out political or cultural meetings); and thus, c) it is a part of a strategy to suppress dissident voices within Iran’s lively university environment. It is one of many tactics in the conservatives’ battle to ‘re-Islamize’ and regain control with Iran’s universities – universities that have struggled to persevere as the vigorous centers of political debate, dissident activities and alternative youth they became during the early days of Khatami’s reformist presidency in the late 1990s.
Thus, the issue of martyr burials has become a battleground between the regime and the pro-democratic forces. Anticipating student protests, the authorities planned today’s burial in advance. A couple of weeks ago, authorities started rounding up key members of the dissident Islamic Students Association (Anjoman-e eslâmi-ye dâneshjuyân) in Amir Kabir Polytechnic University, Tehran – an university known for its vibrant and diverse pro-democratic activist milieu. And yesterday, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i prepared the ground by issuing a public message hailing the martyrs and stating that the youth of today is indebted to these anonymous war heroes to be buried in their campus yard. Thus, the highest political authority blessed today’s aggressive action.
Amir Kabir University’s Student Newsletter website, autnews.us, has reported on the events (here and here). They explain that the atmosphere had been tense through the last couple of days when a parade of chest-beating mourners delivered the martyr coffins this morning. Before the parade, security forces, Basiji campus police, Revolutionary Guards, plain clothed intelligence officers, armed vigilantes known as Ansâr-e hezbollâh (a violent Islamist organization under the unofficial sway of the Supreme Leader) and even the fire brigade gathered inside and around the university compounds. Authorities denied those key activists who had not already been arrested entry to campus but other students – allegedly as many as 1,500 – created a barrier, preventing for some time the parade from executing the burial ceremonies.
The regime forces violently attacked protestors. Students reported that the security forces and vigilantes used clubs, tear gas sprays, iron knuckles, knives and other weapons in order to wound the protesting students. At least 25 have been arrested and 9 hospitalized with knife wounds and other injuries so far, and the fighting continues while this is being written. One student commented on the Amir Kabir website that he/she had never before seen so many security and intelligence forces in action. In a reference to a leader of thugs that was paid by the Shah to disrupt mass gatherings in opposition to the Shah’s regime in the 1950s – Sha‘ban ‘Bi-mokh’ Ja‘fari (‘The Brainless’) – the student wrote
“Really, the Brainless Sha‘bans of the Islamic Republic cannot even be compared to the Brainless Sha‘bans of the Shah!”.
Or, as formulated in another student slogan repeated on the website: “Ansâr commits the crime, the Leader supports it”.
According the Amir Kabir Newsletter, students carried placards and yelled slogans such as “University is not a graveyard”, “Death to Dictatorship”, “Run off, Ansâr”, “Incompetent Basijis, Carrying the Koran on a Spear” and so on. These harsh slogans reveal the profound animosity amongst students against the militant ideology of the regime. Amir Kabir Newsletter reported earlier today:
“… the situation in university is horrible. While protesting students of the university are being beaten up and wounded, the coffins of the so-called nameless martyrs have been placed in a corner, left in a disgusting fashion along the graves while clerics are signing mourning hymns …”
The latest news – posted on Amir Kabir’s website around 8 PM Tehran time – is that the security forces have surrounded university and is now arresting all student protestors trying to exit campus.
Indeed, the Iranian state and its forces have once again brought death into universities with the intent of stifling discontent and strangling freedom of speech and thought. However, the Iranian student movement might come alive again from such brainless actions as that carried out this morning by the state. One student, identifying him/herself as ‘Patriot’ wrote:
“Right in front of me, they kicked and carried off a couple of the kids in a red van. I swear by [Imam] Ali, from now on, I count the minutes until the fall of this regime and I will do anything. Long Live Freedom, Death to Dictatorship”.
State-run and state-affiliated news agencies such as ISNA, Fârs and Mehr have all reported that yesterday’s martyr burial ceremonies were a success. Fârs wrote:
“The immaculate bodies of five unknown martyrs of the eight years of Holy Defense were [moved from] Tehran University and buried in Amir Kabir University with the attendance of a mass of students and people who are in love with the school of self-sacrifice and martyrdom”
In his speech at the burial, Hojjatoleslam Ali-Reza Panahian said that ever since the Islamic Revolution, the enemies had been wishing for the revolution to go astray but that
“after 30 years [since the Islamic Revolution], we are witnesses to the fact that the Holy Order of the Islamic Republic, by the blessing of martyr blood, has the first word to say in the world [i.e., is a major power].”
Panahian clearly referred to the protesters in this quote:
“One should not call the martyrs’ tomb a graveyard since the martyr is not dead and should not be seen as one of the dead”.
He also referred to the fact that many scholars had asked in their wills to be buried in universities. The Fârs report continued:
“In this spiritual ceremony, a number of students – who can be counted with fingers, and who are connected to the illegal group of ‘Allâmeh [Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat] – tried to create unrest and obstruct the martyr burial ceremonies by provoking their leaders; however a large group of value-driven students directed them out of the central space of Amir Kabir University and into a corner of campus, and thus prevented their rioting.”
Fârs also stated that these “troublemakers” had thrown bottles at “the students” (i.e., those who attended the burial ceremony) and tried to abuse the events for political aims. Fars also reported that the “value-driven” students numbered “thousands” and that they had responded to protesters with slogans such as “The Martyrs are Alive, Allâho Akbar”, “The Blood in Our Veins is a Gift for the Supreme Leader” and “Martyrs, Martyrs; We are Indebted to Your Blood for Our Freedom Today”. Fârs claimed that the “radicals” wounded a number of “students”, but that those attending the ceremony kept their calm and thus prevented the “conspiracy” from unfolding.
The Ahmadinejad-affiliated Rajânews brought the same report but with another intro and headline: “Daftar-e tahkim’s militia’s attack on the martyr burial ceremony”. Here, it was stated that the protesters were the ones who attacked, not the other way around; and that the protesters only numbered “50 persons”.
Needless to say, these reports are in conflict with the reports by Amir Kabir University Student Newsletter, AKUNews. This site reported today that “more than 70 students” have been arrested – but that allegedly more than 40 of them have already been released. The students have also uploaded two videos here and here and series of pictures here and here and here. From these videos and pictures it seems pretty clear that we are talking about a lot more than 50 protesters. However, from the other side of the showdown, IRNA has brought these pictures. AKUNews has also reported that security forces have stormed the homes of key present and former members of The Islamic Student Association at Amir Kabir University today, arresting four.
A scholar wrote me this interesting comment:
“All nations honor their martyrs especially the unknown soldiers and Iran is not an exception. Maybe the regime is wrong in burying martyrs inside universities, but this is such a sensitive issue in Iran that the so-called “pro-democracy” movement should leave it alone. A tomb of unknowns in a university has never stopped any nations from achieving democracy. This shows how distant some reformists are from the reality in Iran.”
This is also an issue that has been discussed in the comments by another reader.
The issue of whether “the reformists” are distant from the reality of many ordinary Iranians is very interesting. As I have elaborated on in my earlier writings on the topic, I think this is correct: the intellectual discourse of how to build a civil society and rule of law was simply too complex for many Iranians to bother about. What most ordinary Iranians do think about are skyrocketing prices on everything, unemployment, inflation, crime etc. This is also why the reformists lost the presidential elections in 2005. It will be interesting to see if the “reformists” are able to re-invent themselves before the coming elections – otherwise, Ahmadinejad’s victory is certain.
However, I am not sure whether it is correct to call those who protested against the martyr burials yesterday reformists. We simply do not have enough information to make such a claim. Indeed, many pro-democratic student activists (and I recognize that this is a dubious term) have distanced themselves from the reformist discourse and politics over the last decade – and many new students have entered universities who might not be that fond of Khatami and his entourage.
What we do know is that these students were protesting against the burials not as a sign of disrespect against the martyrs, but as a sign of protest against the state: a state that dictates controversial measures despite the protests of students (remember that this is not just one tomb in one university; it is similar orchestrated maneuvers in several universities over the last year or so); a state that has clamped down on pro-democratic student activities in a harsh and systematic way for over a decade; and a state that will not allow free speech in universities.
Nonetheless, the scholar mentioned above has an interesting point: that these protests might not benefit the students’ cause in a broader perspective. The Iran-Iraq War was, by all accounts, the most traumatic event in recent Iranian history. The mental scars left behind by the war cut across classes, geography and political affiliations, and Iranians are very sensitive to the issue of war victims and martyrs. There is a deep feeling of frustration over injustice and Western hypocrisy amongst many Iranians, most of whom have lost a family member or friend during the war. It might be, as the scholar mentioned above, implies, that the students have now created a negative image of themselves – and of the “reformists”, with whom many will inevitably (but not always correctly) identify them with.
However, let us not forget that we have not heard any of the reformists groups and major leaders express their support for the students. Until now, Khatami, Mir-Hossein Musavi, etc. have all been silent. As usual, the students are left to fight their battles themselves.