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'Iran's youth waiting for an Iranian Martin Luther King'

Last updated on: July 8, 2009 

Image: Iranian protesters show victory signs as they march near Ghoba mosque in northern Teheran June 28, 2009
Photographs: Reuters Arthur Pais in New York

When I hear about doctors and nurses getting out of the hospitals in Teheran for about 15 or 20 minutes to talk to the protestors about the wounded and dead that peaceful demonstrators brought to them, I feel I know what is going on in Iran," says Columbia University Professor Hamid Dabashi, an anti-war activist and author of Iran: A People Interrupted.

"These doctors and nurses then go back to their work. What they are doing is nothing but participating in a civil disobedience, the kind of peaceful protests Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau advocated."

Dabashi is convinced the protestors are not aiming to topple the regime. "I don't think they want a revolution or to overthrow the government," he says firmly. "They are demanding their civil rights and that is why I see this as a civil rights movement," says the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, in a conversation with rediff India Abroad's Arthur J Pais, even as he fields calls from dozens of news outlets..

"Besides, the protestors lack any military wherewithal to change the government," he adds. "And they are far from any militant ideology that may push them in that direction."

"The young people are tired of revolutionary rhetoric, they are tired of intervention, and they are not divided into groups like it happened with my generation. All this to me is a sign of extraordinary political maturity," he continues.

He sees the protestors more of a Martin Luther King kind of movement than a Gandhian action. "Mahatma Gandhi fought against the British colonial power in India," he explains.

"The Iranians are not fighting against a colonial power. There are no foreign rulers in Iran. The protestors are like Dr King. He fought against racism and other problems facing the society. Similarly, the protestors, a vast number of them young people, are fighting against injustice created by the regime. That is why in an article in The New York Times, I wrote that the Iranian youth are waiting for an Iranian Martin Luther King."

'It's a rainbow of women's movement'

Image: Faezeh Rafsanjani, daughter of former Iranian president Akbar Rafsanjani at a rally.
Photographs: Reuters

Who could be this leader? The presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi who was expecting to take over from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been criticised by some protestors for not leading them with a vigorous and clear effort.

"I don't know if he will emerge as the Iranian Dr King," Dabashi says, "We could see a new person leading the peaceful protests, perhaps. Mousavi himself has said the colour of green, which his supporters are using, originated with the will of his followers and like-minded protestors."

"Women have been taking a strong role in the protests," he muses, "but it would be a mistake to look at one or two women and assume they are leading other women. In Iran, there is a vast network of grassroots women activists, many of them are very progressive, working for social changes for over three decades. It is a rainbow of women's movement."

He is not surprised that Neda Agha Soltan, who was killed as she watched the protests, has become an icon of the movement.

'And the picture of her at the moment of her death that is now all over -- I mean, if you look at the websites and Facebook and Twitter of the young Iranians that are watching, it's absolute heart-wrenching how this is galvanising the movement,' he had said the other day in a radio interview. 'It has captured the imagination of youth. And she represents -- she is pretty, she is a young woman, she's a student, she was a student of philosophy. The older man that was accompanying her is not her father; it was actually her professor. All of the indices of what this generation is about is captured in the figure in Neda.'

'The protestors have reclaimed the public space'

Image: A woman stands next to photos of those said to be victims of violence.
Photographs: Reuters

You wrote recently that if Rosa Parks was the American 'mother of the civil rights movement,' Neda Agha-Soltan, might very well emerge as its Iranian granddaughter," we ask Dabashi.

"What Rosa Park did for the civil rights movement resonated across the world," he says. Some overseers look at the protests as a frenzied movement but by suggesting that Agha Soltan was calmly observing the protests, Dabashi wants to celebrate the quiet resolution of the protestors.

He says he is amazed at the youth power and even trembles in shame at their resolution in fighting peacefully. "The youth power was evident in the presidential election in 1997 when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected," he continues. "When Khatami failed to deliver on his promises, students and young activists rebelled against him, too."

He also rejects the notion that there is some kind of class warfare going on. Supporters of Ahmadinejad, who is reportedly popular with the workers in major cities have been dismissive of the protestors.

'There are, of course, underlying economic factors, statistically,' Dabashi told Democracy 'The unemployment in the age cohort of 15 to 29 is 70 per cent. So this is not a class warfare. In other words, people that we see in the streets, 70 per cent of them, a majority of them are young -- 70 percent of them do not even have a job. They can't even rent a room, let alone marry, let alone have a family. So the assumption that this is a upper middle-class or middle-class, bourgeois, Gucci revolutionaries on the side of Mousavi and poor on the side of Ahmadinejad is completely false.'

Whether the Ahmadinejad regime continues or not, one thing may not change, he asserts.

"The protestors have reclaimed the public space," he adds. "They have asserted their public presence in the face of horrible beating, utter humiliating treatment (by the police) and the efforts to limit the public space by the government."

If Mahatma Gandhi were alive today, he would have been glad at the civil disobedience movement in Iran, we suggest.

"Not only Mahatma Gandhi but also Rabindranath Tagore," he says. "Tagore was an admirer of Persian poetry. Thoreau, who inspired Gandhi in his civil disobedience movement, would have also felt happy. Thoreau was also inspired by Persian poets."