Iran’s Green Movement, the Basij and the Question of Violence

A response to Matthew Cassel’s “An American in Tehran.”

Danny Postel

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In his article An American in Tehran” (April 2010, In These Times), Matthew Cassel would have us believe that Iran’s infamous Basij paramilitary force has gotten a bad rap.

Matthew Cassel presents his 'reporting' as a corrective to western media myths about Iran, yet he himself has reproduced a series of shallow clichés.

He interviews a Basij member while in Iran and portrays him in the most sympathetic light:

I tried to picture this timid young man on the back of a motorcycle with a club in his hand, bashing the heads of other young Iranians. After he warmed up a bit and asked me for a cigarette, my friend insisted that he lift his pant leg. When he did so, I saw a freshly healed bullet wound just below his knee. Mousavi supporters did this,” my friend said.

I looked to the young Basij member. Mousavi?” I asked him, and pointed to the wound. Yes. See, you don’t know anything!” my friend shouted. It wasn’t like what you saw outside.” He smiled at the fact that the televised street battles had not been as clear-cut as I believed.

This passage is remarkable in a several ways. First, for the author’s utter credulity. Cassel doesn’t pursue the matter – he dutifully quotes the Basiji and another Iranian whom Cassel describes as his (Cassel’s) friend, and leaves it at that. Though he doesn’t say explicitly whether he believes the claim to be true or not, the thrust and implication are clear enough. Cassel pointedly gives his friend” the final word on the matter: He smiled at the fact that the televised street battles had not been as clear-cut as I believed.”

Why did it not occur to Cassel to check this story out – to run it by a few people who know the contemporary Iranian scene better than he does, or to match it against the vast documentary record of the post-June 12 Iranian landscape? Had he done so, it would have provided a healthy sound-check to counterbalance the agenda of the Basiji and Cassel’s friend” and would have cast this dubious episode in a rather different light. It’s revealing that Cassel saw fit to do none of the above, and instead displayed a striking degree of credulity in the face of a story that simply defies belief.

Whatever else one may think of Iran’s Green movement, among the things that has most distinguished it is the nonviolence at its tactical and philosophical core. Farhang Jahanpour considers the movement’s attitude to violence” – which he characterizes as the very antithesis” of the regime’s – among its principal achievements. The Green movement, he notes, does not use force against force; its strength lies in peaceful resistance, even in the face of brutal atrocities.” This is both a matter of principle and a pragmatic consideration, Jahanpour observes, for Iran’s Greens

realize that they cannot match the regime’s instruments of violence (its armed forces, Revolutionary Guards, police, plainclothes thugs and basij). But the movement’s non-violent opposition is also a potent weapon, for it exposes the lawless core of a regime that believes ultimately only in its own power. This has robbed the regime of its legitimacy in the eyes of a growing number of people, even among the religious classes.

If Iran’s Green movement has a godfather, the Iranian religious thinker Abdulkarim Soroush recently said, it is Gandhi: We are insisting adamantly that democratic, nonviolent change is at the heart of this movement.” Echoing Soroush, the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo has called the post-June 12 period a Gandhian moment in Iran.” Iranian public discourse has changed by drinking deeply from the well of nonviolence,” he observes, pointing to parallels between the civil disobedience movement in today’s Iran and successful nonviolent movements led by Gandhi in South Africa and in India.”

The websites of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran make it abundantly, and painfully, clear which side has engaged in the overwhelming majority of the violence in Iran since June 12 2009. Only one side has the guns, and it’s not the Green movement. Since June 12, the Islamic Republic has unleashed its repressive state apparatus on peaceful demonstrators, killing dozens, injuring hundreds, arresting thousands, and subjecting those behind bars to torture and rape. 

Yet Cassel sympathetically portrays the agents of that repressive state apparatus as victims of a putatively violent resistance movement that, we are to believe, inflicts bullet wounds upon the timid” young souls in the government security forces!

I found this passage so stupefying that I felt the need to run it by some friends on the Iranian Left to get their reactions. One of them was Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University, columnist for Al-Ahram, and author of several books on Iran. Dabashi regards the story of the Basiji bullet wound as propaganda” aimed to discredit a grassroots civil rights movement”:

The piece is a complete sham. What filmmaker? What name? [Cassel] quotes an unnamed individual about an unnamed Basiji having produced a mysterious bullet wound. The defining moment of the Green movement is its nonviolent disposition, in which scores of Basijis have been seen to be embraced with love and as brothers the instant they refuse to beat and harass peaceful protestors. 

I also sent the article to Homayoun Pourzad, an organizer with the Network of Iranian Labor Unions, in Iran. Like Dabashi, Pourzad found the bullet wound passage in Cassel’s article incredible. The regime, he pointed out,

has been working feverishly to label the democratic opposition as criminal, violent and dangerous. They would have loved to show the wounded leg of this Basiji as evidence of their claims. Why has it escaped their attention to highlight the bullet wound of this fellow until now? We in the Green movement challenge Cassel to bring his friend to any impartial international observer anywhere in the world.

Speaking of Iran’s labor movement, there’s a conspicuous absence in Cassel’s piece: for an article in a progressive magazine like In These Times (home to a distinguished and vital labor blog) by a writer who sounds decidedly progressive (his author bio says he worked with various human rights organizations in occupied Palestine before starting a media school for youth in a West Bank refugee camp”), where are the voices of Iranian trade unionists? Wouldn’t a progressive journalist naturally want to talk to trade unionists and consider their perspectives? 

Cassel doesn’t even mention the existence of Iran’s trade unionists, let alone include their voices in his story. But that makes sense, since their voices would have complicated Cassel’s narrative. And that’s because Iranian trade unionists are united in their opposition to Ahmadinejad’s reactionary policies, both economic and political: they oppose his neoliberal privatization schemes and his brutal repression against the labor movement and all forms of independent working-class organization. 

Instead of interviewing a labor organizer, Cassel trots out the tired canard that the Green movement is a creature of the privileged elite while Ahmadinejad is a hero of the downtrodden masses: “”n the city’s working-class areas, I found another Iran. Few felt the need to criticize the government. … This is the sort of place from which Ahmadinejad … draws his support. He appeals largely to religious conservatives and people who, like him, come from less-privileged backgrounds.”

It’s sad how many leftists have fallen for this vile distortion. Cassel presents his reporting” as a corrective to what he and his pro-Ahmadinejad friends regard as western media myths about Iran, yet Cassel himself has reproduced a series of shallow clichés all too typical of a particular kind of western observer. As the Iranian journalist Nasrin Alavi recently put it in the New Internationalist:

A simple glance at the background of Iran’s prominent student leaders tells you that, by and large, they are not the children of affluent citizens of north Tehran, but instead come from provincial working-class families or are the children of rural schoolteachers and clerks. The Western media cliché of an opposition limited to the urban upper class belies the current realities. These future leaders of Iran commonly hail from the very heartland of Ahmadinejad’s purported support base.

The leftist Iranian historian Ervand Abrahamian, author of the classic Iran Between Two Revolutions, describes the now-famous silent rally held on June 15 at Azadi (Freedom) Square in Tehran – quite possibly the largest rally in human history – as follows:

The call was heeded by around a million people – the conservative mayor of the capital put the number at three million. The scene was reminiscent of the rallies held in the same square during the 1979 revolution. … The rally drew all kinds of protesters: old and young, professionals and workers, bazaaris and students, women with sunglasses and headscarves as well those with the full-length chador. Lines of protesters nine kilometres long converged on the square from the northern, better-off districts as well as from the southern, working-class ones.

Ahmadinejad had described those Iranians who questioned the official election tally as specks of dirt.” Poignantly, one elderly man at the rally carried a sign that read I am not a speck of dirt, I am a retired teacher.”

In a final attempt to discredit Iran’s Green movement, Cassel brings up Mousavi’s tenure as the Islamic Republic’s prime minister in the 1980s, when he oversaw the imprisonment and execution of thousands of leftists and other opposition figures.” Mousavi’s political biography is an entirely legitimate issue to raise. Indeed it has been the subject of heated debate by many an Iranian leftist of the revolutionary generation. But Cassel’s deployment of this issue is a spectacular case of pretzel logic. As Pourzad, the Iranian labor organizer, explains, Mousavi as prime minister was not in charge of the domestic repressive apparatus – that was controlled by what has become of today’s leadership of the Revolutionary Guards and the Intelligence Ministry (then called the Revolutionary Committees).”

And today’s leadership of the Revolutionary Guards and the Intelligence Ministry are the stronghold of none other than Ahmadinejad and his hardliner faction of the regime. One of the defining impulses of that ultra-reactionary faction has been its drive to reprise the Islamic Republic’s early years of repression and terror. Ahmadinejad pines for a return to that precise period and has in fact recreated it in his crackdown on dissent, his repression against the labor movement and imprisonment of its leaders, his banning of newspapers and magazines, and his show trials and tortured confessions. Yet Cassel portrays Ahmadinejad in a sympathetic light while attacking Mousavi’s years as prime minister.

Let’s see if we have this right: Cassel holds Mousavi responsible for the Islamic Republic’s reign of terror against leftists in the 1980s, when (1) Ahmadinejad’s faction of the regime, which directly carried out that bloodbath, escapes any culpability for this horrific episode; and (2) Ahmadinejad has, over the last four years, carried out a massive crackdown on trade unionists, independent journalists, dissident intellectuals, and women’s rights activists (among others), but Cassel has no problem with this – at least none he cares to mention. 

It would be maddening to see the Iranian political landscape turned upside-down and presented through this distorting lens in any publication. But to see it in In These Times, I must say, is particularly sad.

In closing, I would urge readers to pursue these issues with the aid of the following articles: Reese Erlich, Iran and Leftist Confusion”; Saeed Rahnema, The Tragedy of the Left’s Discourse on Iran”; Stephen R. Shalom, Thomas Harrison, Joanne Landy and Jesse Lemisch/​Campaign for Peace and Democracy, Question & Answer on the Iran Crisis”; Muhammad Sahimi, America’s Misguided Left”; Hamid Dabashi, Left is Wrong on Iran”; Hussein Ibish, How Arabs and Iranians Misread Each Other’s politics”; Ali Moazzami, The Mirage: What Do People in Poorer Districts Think of Ahmadinejad?


Contrary to Danny Postel’s claims, I did not intend to portray the Basij or Ahmadinejad government in a sympathetic light. Rather, my aim was to lend nuance to a complex reality in Iran that has been oversimplified by nearly all media outlets in the United States, from Fox News to commentators like Postel.

Unlike Postel, I do not attempt to make sweeping generalizations about the ideology of a diverse opposition movement that includes Iranians from all walks of life. Nor would I ever attempt to make such generalizations from the other side of the globe. I traveled to Iran to gain a better understanding of what was happening there. 

Perhaps from my hometown Chicago, where Postel writes from and which I left years ago – knowing that I couldn’t accurately cover the Middle East without actually being here – I might share his naive assessment of the situation. But the fact is, on the ground in Tehran, I found a reality that doesn’t coincide with Postel’s illusions.

The majority of the opposition activists with whom I spoke seemed to not be as concerned with this idea of nonviolence” as Postel and his friend from Columbia University. To impose this label upon them is absurd and offensive to those activists who don’t necessarily agree that the only justifiable form of resistance is one of nonviolence.” Most activists I met were angry and ready to fight. One woman even expressed how she wishes Hezbollah (which she wholeheartedly supports) didn’t have such a close relationship with her government so that she could return to Lebanon with me and be trained in guerrilla warfare to use against the state.

Another activist, who expressed sympathies for the former Shah, told me a story about how her and her friends had to dive on top of a friend from South America during the June 2009 protests to protect him from dozens of raging opposition protesters who attacked him chanting Basiji” just because of – as she explained it – his darker skin and beard. Such events prove the tremendous diversity in political and tactical strategy among the protesters.

To pretend that there is one ideology that unites the opposition couldn’t be further from the truth. This, along with the massive pro-government rallies since the elections that I pointed out and which Postel conveniently omits in his critique, are exactly why I conclude that what’s happening in Iran is not necessarily the makings of a new revolution.

Last year’s controversial elections have, however, sparked a new wave of political activity in Iran, and because of the sensitivity of the situation my sources all asked to remain anonymous. My article in no way apologizes for the Iranian government’s brutal repression of opposition activists. Postel, on the other hand, apologizing for Mousavi’s role as prime minister in the 1980s, shows the utter hypocrisy of many on the left” who are no less guilty than the right for trying to prevent a more realistic portrayal of what’s happening in Iran from reaching people in the United States.

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Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver and co-hosts its series of video interviews with leading scholars. He is the author of Reading Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran and co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future and The Syria Dilemma, which was named one of the best books of 2013 in The Progressive. He is a co-editor of PULSE and blogs for Truthout, Critical Inquiry and the Huffington Post. He was a member of Chicago’s No War on Iran coalition, communications coordinator for Interfaith Worker Justice, and communications specialist for Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of labor unions and grassroots community organizations.
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