Iran has been rocked by a revolutionary wave of the biggest anti-government protests in years following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Amini was arrested by the country’s so-called “morality police” on 13 September for allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory hijab law while visiting Tehran from her hometown of Saqqez. Reports say she was severely beaten by guidance patrol officers for wearing her hijab “improperly” and died 3 days later while in police custody.  The government and police have denied the accusations, claiming her death was due to an “underlying disease”. 

   Amini’s tragic death quickly became the focal point for the seething anger of Iranian women at the existing gender apartheid and the continued rule of an incompetent, corrupt and tyrannical regime. Waves of women-led protests quickly spread from Saqqez to other cities in the province of Kurdistan, sending shockwaves throughout the country. Viral videos emerged of women and schoolgirls defiantly setting their hijabs on fire and cutting their hair in public to chants of “Woman, life, freedom” and “Death to the dictator”—a reference to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Strikes have been reported in schools, universities, and in the country’s vital oil sector while shops have repeatedly shut their doors; men and boys have also participated in large numbers. Moreover, in an unprecedented show of support, Iran’s football team refused to sing their national anthem at the World Cup in Qatar on 21 November and fans chanted slogans against the regime outside of stadiums. Demonstrations have also spread to Europe, where women from Stockholm to Athens have lopped off their locks in solidarity. 

   The Iranian government has responded with widespread internet blackouts, nationwide restrictions on social media usage, tear gas, and gunfire. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, as of December, at least 469 people including 63 minors have been killed as a result of the government’s intervention in the protests, and an estimated 18,450 people have been arrested throughout at least 134 cities and towns.  

   Nevertheless, citizens remain steadfast in their opposition, representing a long-standing freedom struggle in Iran that began with the 1979 coup d’etat that overthrew the shah and established the Islamic republic. Amid that revolution, thousands of women took to the streets of Tehran to protest against compulsory hijab laws, which were brutally crushed by the Islamic regime. However now—nearly 4 decades later—the era of reform is over, and Iran is faced with the unprecedented reality of widespread civil disobedience and resistance against an extremely violent and oppressive regime that obliterates human rights in the name of religion. 

   The Islamic fascism of Iran, based on a confluence of Islamic fundamentalism and police state methods, is rooted in religious dogma and autocracy. However this is not about Islam itself, but rather about belligerents hijacking the religion for their own political purposes. While it differs from traditional European-style fascism, it is not any less—if not more—barbaric, yet merits far less outrage by the left. Tehran’s tyrannical religious state embodies many characteristics of classical fascism: a substantially corporatist political and economic system maintained by a highly centralised repressive state apparatus. This repression includes bans on non-Islamist political parties and free trade unions, and a regime of unfair trials, detention without charge, torture, executions, media censorship, gender apartheid, the violent suppression of peaceful protests and strikes, and the persecution of left-wingers, students, feminists, journalists, gay people, and religious and ethnic minorities. Even lawyers and human rights defenders are imprisoned and tortured. 

   The courage of the young Iranians who face the guns and truncheons of security forces has won them admiration around the world. But the world’s attention is fickle, and the regime has huge resources. The question is whether today’s opponents of the Islamic Republic will have the numbers, staying power and tactical nous that their predecessors lacked; in other words, whether this time will be different.

   The case for regime change in Iran is overwhelming, but it must come from within—by and for the Iranian people themselves—not as a result of US neo-imperial diktat. As of late, US and EU foreign ministers have imposed sanctions on Iranian officials over the crackdown on protests to increase political pressures. Iran is already one of the most sanctioned countries in the world; exports of many goods such as medicines and airplane parts are blocked and the country is also frozen out of the world banking system. Such sanctioning of essential goods can actually prove to be counterproductive, as it increases the power of the aristocratic elite by making people completely dependent on the state, allowing them to weaponise food and medicine. 

   When it comes to the Middle East, it is imperative that we understand the true nature of the threat. We are fighting a political idea that currently manifests itself in the violent actions of oppressive regimes and hides behind pseudo-anti-imperialism. 

   This movement we see today, without a name, and without a leader, is diverse and adaptable. Demonstrators have united for months with an aim to overthrow the revolutionary momentum of the Islamic state and to achieve what decades of on-off “reformist” policies and recurring outbreaks of protests could not. If anything, the way the 1979 revolution against the Shah unfolded to become an Islamic one, is a cautionary tale. Other examples from the past decade of attempts to topple a ruthless dictator, from Belarus to Syria to Venezuela, aren’t particularly encouraging either. Still, that is not to say that people and governments across the world shouldn’t show their solidarity and do what they can to support Iran’s transition toward a free, democratic, and prosperous society. It just takes a lot more than continued street protests and calls for sanctions for positive change to set in. All we know for now is that we have crossed the threshold of revolution. Whatever happens in Iran over the next few months, something has changed, something fundamental.

Credits: Iman Aamir Ghani

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