Religion and the Opposition Movement in Iran

Yesterday, protests by the opposition movement against the authorities took place all over Iran.  The government responded by ordering the police to shoot at protesters, according to eyewitness accounts; members of the pro-government bajij militia also reportedly attacked protesters.  Opposition leaders were intimidated or arrested, including Ibrahami Yazdi, who heads a banned political party, and Ali Moussavi, the nephew of Ali Moussavi, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s main opponent in the presidential election earlier this year, was reportedly assassinated.  The protests and the government crackdown took place on Ashura, one of the holiest days for Shiite Muslims, during which killing is normally forbidden even during wartime.  Sunday was also the seventh day since the death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a founding father of the Islamic Republic who subsequently lashed out against the theocratic regime for violating human rights and Islamic religious principles; a fact that had symbolic significance for those of the Shiite faith.  Other opposition figures, including Mehdia Karroubi, have also used religion as a weapon against the powers that be, accusing them of acting in a way that is contrary to the teachings of the Koran.

The events yesterday could have two important implications for the conflict between government and anti-government forces.  One is that the violent stifling of dissent by Ayatollah Khamenei against unarmed protesters, especially during religious holidays, could anger traditional religious conservatives enough to actively join the opposition movement, which would add to its size and diversify its demographic makeup.  A second important development is that some police officers refused to suppress the protesters, and one even wore a purple armband to indicate his support for their cause.; if more members of the security forces refuse to fight, or if they side with those who oppose the government, it could seriously hinder the ability of the regime to maintain its hold on power.

The fact that many Iranians have recently been shouting “Death to Khamenei” rather than “Death to America” could spell trouble for Iran’s ruling elite.  It, along with the courage of those who continue to protest despite the crackdown, demonstrates that anti-government sentiment runs deep among some elements of Iranian society.  But whether they will be able to affect political change in their country and compel liberalization is highly uncertain.

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