Middle East

Jahanbegloo on the Green Movement in Iran

An Iranian opposition supporter covers his face during clashes with security forces in Tehran on Dec. 27, 2009, where at least five protesters were killed. (Photo: Amir Sadeghi/ AFP-Getty Images)

During the past year, Iran has shown a different face. What became known as the "Green Movement" has been undoubtedly the biggest domestic challenge that the country's ruling system has experienced in three decades. The protests began with denouncing the result of the 2009 presidential election, which many Iranians saw as fraudulent. After being clamped down, harshly and repeatedly, the people created the most massive civil movement the country has ever experienced.

The movement says it is in pursuit of a fundamental change in the Islamic Republic's international diplomacy, economic system, human rights practice and other civil issues, and that it does not recognize Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government as legitimate.

Although the street protests lost their primary drive after being relentlessly suppressed, the movement is still seeking its goals through a self-proclaimed policy of educating lower cultural classes of the society about their rights and challenging the system by a method of civil disobedience. The movement is now readying for the anniversary of the election, preparing to hold rallies as the opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi have called for.

But some analysts believe that for the modern Iran, the Green Movement is beyond all that.

In an interview for the Persian-speaking Radio Farda, Professor Ramin Jahanbegloo described the Green Movement as a transitional tool for the Iranian society that has led to the country's civic maturity—which in his view guaranties consistency of the protest in different shapes.

Jahanbegloo, an Iranian Canadian professor of political science who specializes in non-violent movements, who has previously been detained in Iran for his studies, is currently working on a research project regarding the Green Movement.

Mr. Jahanbegloo, during the past year, Iran's name has been associated with a new term: the "Green Movement." I know that you have been working on the Iranian movement for the past couple of months. Are there any particular characteristics that you find significant in this movement?

Well, I think what happened in Iran during the past months has introduced two principal characteristic in terms of the movement's image, both for the Iranians and worldwide. One is the aspect of "truth seeking" or, in other words, the notion of reevaluating the truth, which is very important. The other aspect is avoiding violence. The reason that I brought up the notion of truth seeking is that, in my opinion, the main players of Iran's civil society—which would be students' movement, women's movement, labor activists, rights activists and so on—have set their objectives in combating the immoral policies of falsehood. And this is being done in an approach which deploys a nonviolent method. The aspect of combating falsehood and lie is very interesting, and in my opinion it marks the birth of a new civil maturity in Iran. This is what I call "moral capital." Up to this moment we have been talking about the social and political capitals. But now what I see in Iran is a moral value which eventually, with the current nonviolent approach, would be able to build the future democracy of the country.

So do you think that the Green Movement has the elements of a stable and long-lasting movement?

I do believe this is a long-lasting movement. Why? Because the demands it is seeking are long-lasting demands. During the past 100 years, since [Iran's] constitutional revolution at the beginning of the century, political figures and parties have always looked at violence as a vertical phenomenon, meaning that it is applied from the upper layers of power hierarchy to the base of the society—which is people. Therefore they have always tried to challenge the violence, through toppling the regime or the core of power through what we might call "retribution in kind." Whereas the current civil movement in Iran, which of course is still being developed, casts doubt over violent methods of power transition and sticks to the civil rights movement. This approach has called into question the legitimacy of the very essence of violence. From this perspective I think that the recent movement of Iran has created a sort of moral and civil code which is unprecedented for the country.

Mr. Jahanbegloo, you said you believe that the Iranian people have achieved a "civil maturity." This was actually one of the issues that I wanted to discuss as well. Can we consider the recent movement as a new stage of social evolution, or is it just a short-term reaction to the actions of the government?

See, reactions have always been there. Through Iran's history of both pre-revolution [1979] and post-revolution eras, we have observed a wide range of reactions to the repressive policies of governments. But this time there is another story; it is not just the matter of reacting. This time, you can see a sense of sympathy for moralities, a sense of general solidarity, and new demands which are aroused not only about the current policies, but the very ethics of the politics as well. The range of protests includes denouncing the issue of falsehood and the whole "technology of power." You can trace them in the nature of the slogans which are being chanted. Apart from the moral capital that I mentioned previously, the other serious matter which is being pursued is a sense of responsibility about the future of Iran. And the important point is that the civil society is not expressing these demands in an ideological fashion; they are pursuing the goals in the shape of a civil movement, and through civil protest methods. I believe that it is a very serious movement, and a promising one, too.

Now let's focus a little more on the mechanism of this movement. Many people, including yourself, have considered the Green Movement as a nonviolent movement. According to your studies and researches, what similarities are there between Iran's events and what happened in Eastern Europe, or India for instance?

In my opinion there are a lot of similarities. The thing is that all the nonviolent protests across the world benefit from an old tradition which is rooted similarly in different cultures and religions throughout history. We can even see a lot of similarities between the civil rights movement in the U.S. during the 60s or the Gandhist movement of India with the current movement of the Iranian people. There are similarities in the mechanism of protesting, the involvement of national cultural aspects, and the restraint they show in the face of violence. You can even find a lot of similarities between Iran's movement and the movement of Philippines, which apparently are from very diverse cultural backgrounds. The point is that it's a global essence. When in a society the political power utilizes pressure and force in order to curb people's rights, the citizens who do not possess an equal power, choose to react in a totally different manner, which is protesting in masses and denouncing the violence.

That leads me to the next question; there have been different governmental reactions to different nonviolent movements around the world. The response of the Islamic Republic to Iran's protests might be among the harshest that we have seen so far. Now, why has this violence not led to radicalization of the Green Movement?

Because in my opinion Iran is going through a "post ideological" period, a period in which many of the past ideological leaders and parties have now been denounced by the people for the violence that they have applied. Now it's the parties and groups which are following people. They cannot tell people to accept or follow their ideologies like before. The heroes of today's Iran are civilians and victims like Neda Agha Soltan, not the political elite. This is a new social and political development. The moral legitimacy that these heroes have established in the country is a kind of moral capital that Iran's civil movement had not experienced before.

I also wanted to ask your opinion about the issue of leadership in this movement. So far it seems that Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have been acting more like opposition candidates than leaders of a movement. For instance, most of the gatherings and demonstrations have been organized by people communicating through social media and not by any invitation from the opposition. Now, do you think this kind of people's collective leadership is a positive point, or would it be better if the movement had a classic leadership?

I think the aspect of being self-esteemed should be considered as an advantage for the movement at this point. Of course maybe if the movement had the capacity of ascending a leader such as Mandela or Gandhi, it could be an important inspiration for its followers. But the point is that this movement is a post-charismatic movement, which is something quite new for Iran. Almost all of the movements during the history of the country have been dependant on a charismatic character, but this time what you see as the symbols of the movement are the members if it—ordinary members who are young, innocent and nonviolent. kids like Mohsen Roohol Amini or Neda Agha Soltan, who have been victims of brutality, while all they wanted was truthfulness and respecting the ethics of democracy. For instance, it was very interesting to hear the remarks of that young boy who said he was raped in the prison [by security guards, after he was arrested during the protests]. He said, although, after divulging what happened, he would be ashamed of going back to his family, he still wants everyone to know what he went through in Kahrizak [detention center in Tehran]. This notion of seeking the truth among young protesters is very much interesting for me. Their passion for fighting the falsehood is so intense that they are willing to break any taboo over it. You see, the issue for them is not just a shift of power anymore; it is condemnation of the violence which has gotten solidified in the society. They want to break out of the vicious circle of violence. I think if we closely study such details, we would reach the assumption that we are walking towards a new phase of the civil society.

And do you believe this new path would lead to any result in future?

Yes, I think that it would succeed if it turns into a sort of social and political behavior, if the civil values take stronger roots in the society, and if the movement keeps human rights as its priority. Such capabilities can sustain the existence of the movement and step-by-step broaden the demands. Of course the most vital condition is that it would not turn into an ideological path, and stay nonviolent.

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