Iran: The Civil Resistance Breaks Through the Censorship, Again
By Al Giordano
While this CNN report – one that depends (again) on citizen journalist videos taken this weekend in Iran under a government-ordered ban on foreign and domestic media coverage of a resurgent opposition – largely succeeds at breaking the information blockade, I would quibble with correspondent Reza Sayah’s characterization of the struggle as “a face-off between the new military establishment dominated by the Revolutionary Guard, by the Basij, against the old establishment, the religious clerics who founded the revolution.”
As usual, big media has its gaze fixed up above and portrays most conflicts as being between already powerful institutions.
A news organization that knew better to look at and report what goes on down below would make a vital and necessary distinction: While there is indeed an increasing rift between the new guard of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the old clerical guard, it is one that is created and strategically exploited by a civil resistance movement largely led by young Iranians who are not in either camp, but smartly playing one off against the other in order to gain greater freedom, justice and authentic democracy.
Back in June – after Ahmadinejad won “elections” that were widely considered fraudulent throughout Iranian society – the same big media portrayed the civil resistance as a clash between the forces of the two leading presidential candidates, Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
We saw the same media dynamic at work all summer and fall regarding the coup and civil resistance to it in Honduras: The struggle was portrayed as between the coup regime and ousted President Manuel Zelaya. The media’s upward camera angle, as in Iran, would also portray the conflict as one that was somehow about foreign governments (take your pick: the right foamed at the mouth against Venezuela and some parts of the academic left saw, and continue to view, the Honduras crisis as US-centric). Lost in either spin are the aspirations and innovations of the authentic protagonists: the common people in the struggles.
2009 was a year in which two major civil resistances emerged from different hemispheres and neither has yet succeeded in toppling the regimes they resist. When after more than a month of intense clashes in Iran last June and July the media coverage waned, there were many observers worldwide who presumed or portrayed that the Iranian civil resistance had “failed” and was over, and went looking to blame whichever party they obsess upon already for the so-called "defeat."
What this weekend’s events in Iran demonstrate is that its civil resistance did not go anywhere or weaken at all. Its organizers, more accurately, regrouped, thought strategically, planned and waited for the next set of opportunities. In this case, those opportunities were presented by last week’s death of 87-year old Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, an open critic of the authoritarian and violent nature of the current regime, and the holy day of mourning known as Ashura, held in Iran this year on December 26 and 27.
So the next time the media inevitably moves on to other subjects, don’t tell me that the resistance was somehow defeated, not in Iran, and not in Honduras. State repression, no matter how intense, does not succeed in quelling public opinion or passion for change. It simply sends it underground for short periods of time where it regroups and emerges out in the open anew, stronger, more learned, and more strategically savvy.
The seemingly innate pessimism or cynicism that, over and over again, pronounces social struggles dead during the periods of regrouping is particularly evident in the United States and the developed world, where civil resistances have not been as common in recent times, and where there is correspondingly a lower level of knowledge and understanding of their strategic dynamics. One can offer many reasons why, including what happens in a culture of relative comfort and immediate gratification, a topic I’ll develop more over time. But those on the local level who are in these fights and shouldering their risks and burdens don’t share the imposed pessimism from up above.
In fact, they “get” that pessimism and cynicism are exactly what those in power are promoting when they buy time through heavy-handed repression against social movements. The organizers of civil resistances, however, are on a different clock, one that sometimes requires them to almost pretend to be sleeping, while they strategize, plan and wait for the next opportunities to strike.
That’s what has reappeared in Iran this weekend, and in 2010 will resurface in other lands, including on this side of the oceans.
In all cases, what increasingly makes the key difference in whether civil resistances are noticed and reported, is the heroic work of citizens armed with cell phone cameras and other low tech video and communications tools taking advantage of an Internet that is increasingly difficult for regimes to shut down (in large part because they and the business interests behind them also depend on those technologies to remain viable). It’s an interesting crack in the system during interesting times, one that all of us must hammer upon, widen and exploit - and continually "upgrade" our own skills to stay one step ahead of that system - if we wish to overcome top-down tyranny in any and all of its forms.
Update: More and more, we see headlines like this: Iran Website Says Mousavi Nephew Killed in Clashes (Reuters, via the New York Times)... or the Los Angeles Times' Iran: Even More Footage, Pictures from the Ashura Protests, which leads with, "News of chaos and fierce clashes continue to pour from Tehran, with some on the Web describing the city as a war zone," accompanied by multiple YouTube videos, photos and quotes from Twitter tweets to tell the news story.
Not too long ago, it was unthinkable that major newspapers and wire services would cite Internet sources to report stories. But with their own correspondents officially prohibited from doing so, the online reports now give these media institutions plausible deniability that their local correspondents aren't breaking any law. The fact is, they have nowhere else to turn to be able to report news that their readers demand.
It used to be said that journalism was the proverbial "first draft of history." Citizen journalists have supplanted the traditional media, though, during hours of tumult and crisis, and have become the authentic "first draft" narrators which the mainstream media then has to cite to be able to stay relevant at all.
Update II: Andrew Sullivan is doing some of his trademark, standard-setting, blow-by-blow live blogging of events in Iran.
Update III: Meir Javedanfar observes:
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's... decision to allow the Basij to attack mourners at Ayatollah Montazeri's funeral is one factor which has lead to the spread of opposition in rural areas, faster and more efficient than any campaign the reformist camp could arrange. Yes, there were members of the opposition who were trying to take advantage from the mayhem. However, there were also many genuine mourners, who had come to pay homage to a Grand Ayatollah. To Ayatollah Khamenei's forces, they were all the same. To allow attacks against the residents of the city where the seeds of the 1979 revolution were planted was as religiously wrong as its was politically counter productive.
And to make matters worst, the very next day, the Supreme Leader's forces attacked mourners who were attending a ceremony for Montazeri, at Isfahan's Seyyed mosque. Unarmed members of the public were beaten inside the mosque. The Basijis also tried to attack Ayatollah Seyyed Jalaleddin Taheri, Isfahan's former Friday prayer leader who had arranged the ceremony. However his supporters protected him.
If the Shah had done this, one could say that he is a secular dictator. But for the Supreme Leader of an Islamic Republic to order violence against Islamic institutions means turning against the very establishment which formed the foundation DNA of the current regime.