Archive for July, 2010

18 Tir

Posted: July 17, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Student Protesters from our 1999 MovementThis time of year, every year, I remember. On the evening of July 8, 1999, I slept in the dormitories of Tehran University when it was attacked. We woke to the sounds of the Basiji as they screamed at us in the name of a god who was merciless. They beat us to a pulp. The sounds of that night have never faded from my memory. Students were battered, their bones literally broken like branches pulled from a tree. There were shots fired and the sound of breaking glass filled the night air. Students screamed in disbelief and horror as their sense of security was forever shaken.

In the days that followed, the youth of Iran did what was at that time, inconceivable. They didn’t back down. They came out in numbers the Islamic Regime would never have believed possible. Back then, questioning the government wasn’t common. But we did question it. We asked why our fellow students were beaten, why Ezzat Ebrahim Nejad was murdered. We asked how a government promising reform could attack its students with so much force. We questioned the Supreme Leader who later wept on the Islamic television station, promising to forgive us if we would only come forward—a promise we were sure would be broken just as surely as our bones had been on 18 Tir.

Our protests evolved from peaceful rallies to an all out fight for our lives. Our group was secular. We wanted a democratic government that separated religion from our government. There were those then, just as there are still some today, who believed that reform would be enough, that a democratic Islamic government was possible. Our group never subscribed to this idea.

Now, eleven years later the fight continues. Many of the names inside Iran have changed, and many remain the same. Student activist Majid Tavakkoli was arrested last December, and sits behind the prison walls of Evin. His young face reminds me of those of us who took to the streets eleven years ago. Majid is in good company as prisons all over the Islamic Republic of Iran are filled with political prisoners who have dared demand basic human rights for our country.

When I left Iran I believed I had a better chance of fighting for democracy from outside the country. I believed that those who were outside, those who loved Iran as I do, would be able to join forces with us and support a movement for peace and secular democracy in Iran. I have had moments when I questioned this move. There are times when I read about friends like Heshmat Tabarzadi and Shiva Nazar Ahari as they endure time within prison walls, and I wish I was there with them.

July 1999 opened the door and was a new voice for freedom and secular democracy in Iran. It was the first time that the children of the Islamic Revolution rose up. Today, when we talk about the Green Movement, the work that students did eleven years ago started a new generation of Iranian citizens. Because of their courage and their sacrifice, the people of Iran have come out to voice their opposition to the Islamic regime. The new generation is alive, and it is not only the youth of Iran but it is from every social class, gender, and age. Today’s opposition to the Islamic Regime is truly the Live Generation.

In the last year I have seen how, when we raise our collective voices against the Islamic regime, both inside and outside of Iran, we make the theocrats who have robbed us of our country for more than 31 years, bristle. They clamp down harder because they can feel our breath on the backs of their necks. They are watching us to see our every move, and they are afraid. To Ali Khamenei I say, we will not back down. The blood that you drew on 18 Tir eleven years ago did not flow in vain. You may continue to beat us, to break our bones and our backs, but you will never break our spirit.


Live Generation, the book I wrote last year about the student movement of 1999 in Iran, is finally out and available for purchase. The book details the events of 18 Tir, and provides historical background about the political landscape of the last 31 years of rule by the current Islamic regime and the student movement dating back to 1953. In writing about that movement, I have described the relation of our student movement to the current day situation in Iran—particularly the response to last year’s fraudulent elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran and how our protests a decade earlier were foundational to the response by protesters in 2009 and 2010.

The following is an excerpt from Live Generation.

I was only a boy in 1979, but the events that occurred during the overthrow of the Shah would shape how I was educated and would change all our lives almost overnight. When you ask those who lived through the Revolution what it was like, they often will tell you that one day the country was under the Shah’s rule, and the next day we lived under Islamic rule. All bets were off and it was a completely new game. I am often asked by people who are not from the Middle East how the Islamic regime could have taken power, and how they have stayed in power.

The answer isn’t a simple one, but one that has many factors involved. The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had ruled Iran for twenty-five years following the coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeqh. In 1979, the Shah’s rule was considered a dictatorship. Ayatollah Khomeini had lived in exile for many years, and from Iraq and France he had voiced his extreme defiance against the Shah of Iran.

In those early days he never stated that he was going to turn Iran into an Islamic theocracy. He said he was against dictatorship and imperialism, and was very supportive of the poor in Iran. The other part of the equation was that Khomeini extended a hand of cooperation to other opponents of the Shah. Among them, the communists and other leftist groups, the National Front, and the Mujahadeen all had the common desire to overthrow the monarchy. What they didn’t have was a religious infrastructure to ensure that the changes they wanted for the country would stick. What Khomeini could bank on was the institution of the mosque. Then, just as it is today, every village throughout the country had a local mosque. As the mullahs blessed Khomeini’s campaign throughout the country, this would help later on when the model for a theocracy was presented. Once the Revolution happened, the Islamic clergy fought with the nationalists, the Mujahadeen, and the communists, and later completely turned on them. This is the time when Islamic enthusiasm proved not to be enough to sustain the movement. The ideology alone wasn’t reason enough for people to follow the strict rules set by Khomeini, and the Islamic Republic began its march toward violence as a means to control the masses. Thousands of those believed to be in opposition to the government were imprisoned and killed, and what was left was a theocracy that ruled with an iron fist. In November 1979, with the hostage-taking of fifty-three American diplomats, the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, who were at that time new and fairly small in numbers, became visible all over the world. Still, they needed more control of the universities within the country because the secular movement was more powerful and popular among students. The students’ secular movement of that time was also better organized. The Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line would become what is now the Daftar-e Takim-e Vahdat and part of the Reformist movement of students who supported former Islamic regime President Mohammad Khatami.

In 1980, Iran began what the Islamic Republic called The Cultural Revolution—a term borrowed from Mao’s People’s Republic of China. As part of this movement, in April of that year the government closed all universities for what would end up being two years. This was an effort to cleanse the institutions of Western ideology and non-Islamic influences, and part of that cleansing included the expulsion of many students and professors who were believed to be leftist or Western-leaning. Students and lecturers who tried to protest the closures faced imprisonment or worse. The fallout of Iran’s Cultural Revolution was that many intellectuals left the country following the closure of the universities. Upon the reopening of the universities, only students who could prove that they had no affiliation with any “un-Islamic” organization were allowed to return to school. The Dafter-e Takim-e Vahdat grew during this time, establishing offices at universities throughout Iran and growing in numbers.

Later, the Basiji also had a presence within universities for the first time. A secular education was all but forgotten, and the universities were taught by members of the regime since they had been purged of any professors who had Western leanings prior to the Revolution. September 1980 marked the beginning of Iran’s war with Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein. Although the war that lasted eight long years came with heavy casualties for Iran, with some estimates as high as one million Iranian lives, the war secured Ayatollah Khomeini’s position and the new theocracy that he had started. Just as any other country would, when attacked from an outside force, citizens rallied around the ruling government. Those who may not have supported the Islamic Republic prior to the Iran-Iraq War quickly got behind Ayatollah Khomeini after the war began. As the war continued, and as the casualties became higher, Iranians grew weary of the war with Iraq. The promises broken by the Khomeini regime came to light in time, and the youth in particular, who had been impacted by the new government’s rule, started to voice their questions. The exiled Ayatollah who was opposed to dictatorships had come home to create one of the finest.