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The Iranian Uprising and the Cycles of Protest

Nassim Noroozi breaks down how authentic protest movements like the one in Iran can be hijacked by a funded opposition that builds momentum for war and military intervention.

Linda Martín Alcoff Dec 23, 2022

Iran’s theocratic regime has been rocked over the past three months by the strongest protest movement the country has experienced since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The death of Mahsa Amini, 22, while in the custody of the “morality police” sparked the uprising. And it has been women-led. Unlike previous protest movements in Iran, it rejects the idea of reforming the Iranian government and instead calls for its overthrow. 

How should anti-imperialists in the West respond to what is happening in Iran? How can they be in solidarity with the protesters’ demand for greater freedoms while understanding that protest movements like this one can be hijacked by those who would increase the chances of war and Western intervention in Iran?

The Indypendent’s Linda Martín Alcoff spoke with Nassim Noroozi, a guest lecturer at McGill University and Concordia University in Montreal. Noroozi’s work focuses on ethics of resistance in today’s neo-colonial context and the modes of mainstream perceptions of the Iranian opposition. 

What do you think inspired the recent protest movement in Iran? 

Nassim Naroozi

Iranians are not alien to protesting in the past decades, and dissent against the Islamic Republic and its violent episodes is probably as old as the government itself. Sanctions, inflation, the withdrawal from the nuclear deal by Trump and the downing of the Ukranian airplane in 2020 led to protests and some were brutally suppressed, further deepening the deep-seated anger and resentment against the government. 

But a timeline might help to situate the recent uprising which was originally against the morality police. The death of Mahsa Amini was the third incident that happened with the police in a rather short period of time. The morality police are in charge of ensuring that “Islamic” attire, conventions and dress codes are followed and they use  police vans to capture those who do not have the proper attire. This is not a new system of policing and did not start with the Islamic revolution, although it did become more systemic after it. We have poems about it at least from seven centuries ago. Hafez, the great 14th century Iranian thinker and poet, presented sarcastic interpretations of their role and taunted  the obsequious and contradictory character of these morality officers. But focusing on the more recent time span will help us situate the movement in the current global context.

“The third cycle of the protests is the tragic phase when not only the demands of the people are ignored, but there are global policies to further isolate the Iranian people.”

The first incident occurred between two women on a bus: one with Islamic attire and one without. The video of their spat circulated over media when the woman who was not wearing a headscarf started filming, saying “I will send this to the whole world so they can see” and the other woman shouted “I will have IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) arrest you.” The back and forth showed the divisive force of imposed headscarves, as well as the external factors that  play a role in it. To everyone’s surprise, the girl without the headscarf was arrested and later appeared on TV making a ‘confession,’ with her face looking gloomy and possibly beaten up. It was a shocking authoritarian use of power over a frivolous spat. The girl was released but the incident was not forgotten. 

The next incident also involved the morality police. There, people witnessed a mother in front of the police van trying to prevent it from moving forward, begging the driver to not take her daughter to the morality center saying her daughter is sick. And then Mahsa Amini’s incident happened, where she collapsed in front of the cameras and we saw her photo in the hospital the next day. 

Most Iranian women have had an experience of some sort with the morality police and it is pretty dehumanizing. But to see someone actually die in front of the cameras, an innocent life taken away, was too much.  Her pleading to a female officer could be seen on camera and it resonated with everyone. The uprising and anger were authentic. 

This protest movement has garnered significant attention in the West. How does this attention affect the movement? 

To answer this we need to go back to the first incident I mentioned, the girl who shouted “I will send this video so everyone in the world would see.”  This shows us a very specific mechanism for resistance: to send your video to the activists in the West. Often such videos are sent to Masih Alinejad — a pro-sanctions feminist — who uses them to promote and encourage sanctions and hawkish policies towards the Iranian government. She presents herself as an unpaid activist, but she works for Voice of America, a broadcast channel owned by the United States government, and her talking points justify Western intervention in Iranian affairs. 

So fighting injustice is tainted by the heavily-funded support from outside Iran that preys on, co-opts and, most importantly, engenders moments of resistance in order to promote hawkish policies against the Iranian government. So funded opposition has a hand in forming the temperaments of resistance, ushering protests into very particular trajectories. The authenticity that is present in early stages is often eroded in later stages.  

When we support the protests, from inside or outside Iran, we need to ask, “Which stage of  the protests are we supporting?” 

It is often the case that a protest is sparked out of genuine dissatisfaction at injustice. This is similar to any other country. (George Floyd can be a recent example). Now for Iranians inside and outside of Iran, this brings signs of hope for a regime change. 

But then literally in the course of a few days, the protest enters a different life cycle, distinguished by different agents.

We have ordinary Iranian citizens who live abroad and are genuinely angry at the injustice; they march and protest and do interviews with the press. 

There are very specific organizations (I call them funded opposition) that represent the adversaries of the Iranian government who then enter the commotion for their own agenda, be it a justification of further sanctions or a call to topple the regime.  When ordinary Iranians want to topple the regime, they are aiming for something other than what the MeK wants (MeK was a formerly designated terrorist organization and is a cult-like Iranian opposition group).  What an ordinary Iranian wants is different from what a lobbyist who has close ties to  Saudi Arabia wants: The latter wants to assume power, while an Iranian wants a real change.  

So then you can imagine how messy this second life cycle of protests is. Iranians are angry, so they don’t want to hear about the co-optation of the protests. To sustain the hegemonic narrative of change — and its support for sanctions and intervention — Iranians who are opposed to this co-optation get smeared, silenced and threatened. 

And then we have a third cycle. This is the tragic phase when not only the demands of the people are ignored, but there are global policies to further isolate the Iranian people. This phase is literally the death of the first cycle of protests, because we allowed ourselves to be duped by the second cycle. 

So the question I raised earlier about which stage of the protest we are supporting can help the first life cycle of the protests to live and thrive. And, if we don’t pay attention to what exactly is being supported, it can make the authenticity of the protests wither away.

This timeline approach allows us to distinguish ethical and healthy stances on the protests from unethical ones. Often, it is so pleasing to see that a part of the world (especially the East) is fighting for democracy or women’s rights that we forgo analysis. Mainstream coverage too often interviews think tank experts and activists who do not disclose their affiliations with funded opposition. Some are smart in hiding their affiliations, but their affiliations are accessible online, and checking these out will go a long way in determining whether you are supporting an authentic phase of the protests or not. (This does not mean you should rely on misinformation and smear points; I mean the actual professional affiliations). Such awareness can help critique the Western mainstream coverage of the second and third stages of protest. 

Our fascination with mainstream coverage can end up paving the way for aggression and war and more suffering of the very people we want to see free. Without even being aware of it, we can partake in “pink-washing:” the justification for more sanctions and suffering in the name of aiding the victims of the regime. 

So, what can anti-imperialist supporters of the protest who are against sanctions and intervention do? 

There is a hypocritical element to the reaction we should call out. On the one hand the symbolism is really attractive to the eye. The hair cutting in the European parliaments and on social media was powerful, and for me it was scary because I felt that some aggressive military action was about to get a free pass under this symbolism. Also, why wasn’t there this much attention given to the Hazara [an ethnic minority in Afghanistan] girls that were mass murdered a few times in the past year? Ironically enough, on November 12th, Germany proposed more sanctions on Iran, although these are by definition an infliction of pain on people, and then the funded opposition demanded cutting of diplomatic ties. The problem is that the original hair cutting and “solidarity shows” can dupe us into thinking that these  are legitimate responses. 

The haircutting was a symbol of solidarity with progressive causes, such as women’s right to choose what they wear and a people’s fight against oppression. But sanctions will lead to further isolation of the country from the sphere of global trade, travel, economy, access to medicine, etc. in the name of rectifying and fighting the oppressive forces. 

So the coverage of the movement not only hides the mechanism of this double oppression, it bolsters it by offering hawkish policies as the liberatory next step. There is a long colonial legacy, too often ignored, of isolating countries that have gained sovereignty over their resources. 

“Anti-imperialist activists can help expose the sponsors of funded opposition in their countries, and criticize hawkish policies that use progressive terminologies like ‘freedom’,’ ‘democracy’ or ‘women’s rights’.” 

Western anti-imperialists are faced with a dilemma: on the one hand, imperialist countries support and amplify protests in places with (authoritarian) governments they don’t like. This can be beside the point for the protestors on the ground who are suffering from authoritarian injustice. The fact that the governments of countries in which protests are happening also co-opt anti-imperialist rhetoric is one major reason that the anti-imperialist rhetoric gets ignored, but it is also true that protestors can be intensely Eurocentric, creating further problems. 

Some of this dynamic is already well-known by anti-imperialists in the Global North, obviously not because they are inherently better thinkers, nor because anti-imperialism is an all-inclusive way to think about injustice, but because they are living in comparatively stable countries where some open exchange of ideas can develop. The stability is itself the result of having illegally occupied indigenous land, but stability is a crucial factor that allows Western anti-imperialists to see and make sense of the critiques of the unjust world order. This should not result in Western anti-imperialists castigating protestors in countries like Iran, or reprimanding them because of their Eurocentrism, as this will intensify the dilemma I mentioned earlier of increasing the power of Western attention. 

Anti-imperialist activists can help expose the sponsors of funded opposition in their countries, and criticize hawkish policies that use progressive terminologies like “freedom,” “democracy” or “women’s rights.” 

This way, they can provide us with the much needed time for the first life cycle to thrive and for the ideals in the first cycle to bear fruition and turn into lasting policies. Calling on their governments in the West to stop from meddling in the internal affairs of a nation who is already suffering  from extreme authoritarianism on the ground is the ultimate anti-imperialist mission as it can allow us to deepen our questions about the modes of activism we have. (Questions like “Where we are in the world and in this geopolitical space? Whose interests are being advanced by our activism?” “Can I harm my people — the very sector I am supporting — with my idea of what is good for them?”) Anti-imperialists can help us achieve the space to explore these questions by asking their governments to stay away from the internal affairs of other countries and by showing how money affects and corrupts progressive activism. 

By the way, this is not easy for Western anti-imperialist activists. I have often seen how they don’t want to stay at this level and want to do a more glamorous task, like rebuking the protestors on the grounds of being ignorant of CIA-backed operations, or make snarky comments about the protestors being naive about imperialism. This is not good: they might even whitewash the atrocities of some purportedly anti-imperialist groups that hold power in countries in the Global South, and allying with unjust forces, on the grounds that we must focus on the bigger evil — imperialism. Again, this further alienates protestors from exploring anti-imperialist interpretations of the world order and inhibits discussion about it. 

I should note that it is very difficult for anti-imperialists to see their mission as being the provision of time for reflection on the nature of protests rather than castigating imperialist tendencies of protestors. I am reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre’s own contradictory remarks, chiefly his reiteration that philosophy needs time, but then he later prescribes the need to speed up the process of thinking in order for the Marxist moment of realization to happen faster.

Iranians outside of Iran who are anti-imperial, anti-war and anti-sanctions are heavily marginalized, smeared, silenced and cornered by the funded opposition. One great help would be to provide platforms for them and offer moral and professional support during these smears and help their nuanced narratives be heard. 

Lastly, in my view, anti-imperialists should commit to uncovering the fallacious way notions of freedom are used,  they should face the risk of being smeared, and they should keep asking questions about the relation between foreign intervention and local protests in geographies and countries afar. 

Finally, what do you think the outcome of these protests will be? And if they are suppressed, what might be the long-term impact of this women-led movement on Iran?

I am not good with predictions, but any suppression – be it in the form of capital punishment or otherwise- is detrimental to developing a more nuanced anger and a smarter, more reflective  response. We already see this on the ground, namely the way rightwing organizations and Western governments are given a free pass when they propose further hostile policies under the name of causes like “woman,life and freedom.” Sanctions create collective existential and intergenerational fatigue. 

More women are resisting wearing the headscarf in public and this is in and of itself a huge milestone. There are some conflicting reports about how the “morality patrol” will be terminated which would be another great milestone. I think the funded opposition will say this is not enough and we need to do away with the whole system, which itself is a troubling stance that needs a whole interview.

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