Thursday, January 7, 2010

On Nonviolence in the Iranian People's Movement

Thanks to Arash Asaasi, for sending in this translation: original (in Persian) on Gozareshgaran website; initially posted at Sarbaalaayi. The writer Amin Hosoori's writings appear regularly in Khiaban newspaper, as well as on Gozareshgaran website.

On Violence in the Movement and Non-Violence
by Amin Hosoori / Monday, December 4, 2010
(translation: Arash Asaasi)

For the continuation and eventual victory of an anti-dictatorial movement, and in the face of the organized onslaught and oppression by the regime -- whose only means of survival is through the intensification of repression -- acquiring collective alacrity by the people for an 'organized defense' of each other and the movement is an undeniable necessity.

In the current opposition movement in Iran, although the need for an 'organized defense' has become obvious for some time now, unfortunately, not only has this necessity remained unanswered at the level of ideas, but, quite the reverse, in a clichéd and morphed discourse on 'nonviolent struggle' (reproduced against the backdrop of the ruling discourse), its exact opposite approach gets theorized and prescribed. Unfortunately, a superficial and incorrect understanding regarding 'nonviolent struggles' is disseminated by reformist tribunes, platforms, and individuals aligned with them. This superficial understanding prevents the growth of a collective dialogue regarding the differences between 'self-organized defense' [by the people] and 'organized onslaught' [by the regime]. In other words, this difference too, much like the above-mentioned necessity [of self-preservation of the movement], gets lost behind the 'convincing' facade of 'violence is forbidden'. In such an illusion-ridden atmosphere of 'strength of morality', in which the collective dialogue about instances of onslaught, violence and defense gets blocked, it is natural that the collective search for practical methods of preparing for 'nonviolent struggle', and creating the conditions and the preparedness among the people for consciously organizing a 'self-organized defense' is driven to the margins.

Instead, when through 'trial and error' and in a natural fashion, people from within the movement and affected by its objective and horrendous conditions, seek an answer for the above-mentioned necessity [of self-defense and preservation of the movement], a flood of accusations and theoretical falsifications flows freely: Now, the holy principles of the non-violent struggle have been violated! Item: what we witnessed in the reformist media after the bloody Ashura events [of 28 Dec. 2009]. On the other hand, although among this faction -- which has the upper hand in terms of organization and numbers of followers -- the discourse regarding the harms of the spread of violence has thickened (with emphasis on 'dangers' of the growth of radicalism), other groups and media and in opposition to the first group, praise in advance any act of (possible) violence by the people, under the pretext of 'revolutionary force'. So, in effect, the media atmosphere regarding the issue of 'violence' has turned into a slogan-ridden and impotent opposition between two polarized views: on one side stand those who, in an idealist and sentimentalist fashion and with a prescriptive outlook on the movement (with, of course, particular political interests), speechify regarding absolute negation of violence; and on the opposite side stand a few individuals and trends who, under the banner of political radicalism (1) and revolutionary behavior, believe that the violence of the regime must be answered by an equivalent violence, as they consider this a necessity for a revolutionary act. Fortunately, the media atmosphere is not bereft of critical and moderate outlooks; although these judgments have not yet been able to reduce the weight of the black-and-white outlooks in a noticeable way (2).

But, the events of the day of Ashura (bloody Sunday) can also be re-read from another viewpoint:

With the passing of several months from the start of the oppositional and justice-seeking movement of the people, the regime -- instead of recognizing the legitimacy of the protests and accepting the people's just demands -- at the same time that it denies the existence of the movement (3), has resorted to an ever increasingly violent crackdown against the dissidents (4). As a matter of fact, in their self-made quagmire there is no choice or tool left for the Islamic Republic but naked oppression and militarism. The continuation of the current conditions has led to a situation whereby the people, in order to guard and maintain their movement, must resort to standing up ever more powerfully in the streets. In the events of the day of Ashura, despite the immensity of the repression, people displayed unparalleled courage and resistance, and elevated the movement to a higher level of self-confidence and determination. At the same time, some people, in the process of defending themselves and resisting the blind onslaught of the paid thugs and the anti-riot police, or else affected by the limitless cruelties of the oppressive forces, in unexpected confrontations and battles, in a natural and purely emotional reaction (without any prior plans or preparation; meaning, unlike the methods used by regime's repression), committed certain acts of violence [...]. This took place -- as witnessed/recorded by video clips -- while simultaneously accompanied by a bigger number of people who were encouraging the rage-filled people to avoid violence, to calm down, and were attempting to stop the continuation of their extremist acts. But, in the end and after the publication of the news and images of the people's resistance, people like Mas'ood Behnood (5) and others -- who have been responsible for the spread of that superficial understanding of 'nonviolent struggle' -- turned some of these scenes of the youth losing their cool in the heat of the moment into excuses to moan, "We lost!" And others, like Ezatollah Sahaabi, then joined along the songs of lament (6). Without ever seeing the overall totality of the people's movement and their collective, sensible behavior on this day as contrasted to those exceptional moments; without ever mentioning a word about the systematic violence and the unbounded oppression of the regime on this day and the differences between systematic and organized violence and scattered instances of violence in [reaction to] the moment.

Yes indeed, 'they' were defeated. But not the movement! 'They' were defeated because they could not impose their own subjective picture on the reality, and this defeat was of course fully predictable because they are incapable of understanding that a movement that stands up against a dictatorial system that is oppressive to the hilt, whether you like it or not, needs ways and methods to defend itself. Such means and methods should be formulated and written down, and must lead to defensive organizing. Otherwise, the people themselves through trial and error, and of course at a higher cost, will seek and find such methods, and in all this, the occurrence of 'disagreeable' and 'immoral' scenes, regardless of the demands of 'others', will be inevitable. 'They' were defeated because you cannot transform the internal dynamics of a movement by resorting to prescriptions and by injecting it with prudent and expedient exhortations. But, the defeat of these self-assigned analysts and prescription pushers for the movement have not ended there: instead of learning a lesson from reality and revising their incorrect understanding, they view reality as being in the wrong and issue orders for the annulment of the movement (in case it transgresses those drawn borders). (Of course, 'incorrect understanding' can be corrected only in so far as it is not connected to particular political interests.) For the people, however, the survival of this movement and keeping it alive in the face of an all-out repression by the regime takes primacy over any subjective theorizing, since the people feel the justness of this movement and the need for its continuation with their flesh and skin.

With regards to the contradictions of the reformist reading of the nonviolent movement, it must be said that in cases where a part of 'truth' is presented as the whole truth, the appearance of such contradictions is inevitable. Everybody knows that the practical and theoretical founder of 'nonviolent struggle' (satyagraha), in grand socio-political movements, was Mahatma Gandhi. A part of Gandhi's success was also due to the principle of 'negation of suffering' in Hindu and Buddhist doctrines. But, do you know the limits and boundaries of the strategy envisioned by Gandhi, which was a reflection of the experiences of the revolutionary liberation movement in India?! How about the managers of the reformist media? Do they know the boundaries and the instances of 'avoiding violence'?! In a collection of Gandhi's reflections in the book All Men Are Brothers, translated [into Persian] by Mahmood Tafazoli, Gandhi is asked a question regarding this very issue: Where is the true place of 'collective defense' in the nonviolent path (during public protests and gatherings and in confrontations with the enemy's violent offensive)? Gandhi's unwavering answer was based on the necessity of collective defense in the face of an attack; with the explanation that a lack of a consistent defense in the face of attackers will weaken the movement. (On the one hand [this leads to] collective dread and fear, and on the other to unfettered mutual violence.) Gandhi correctly explains that 'violence-less struggle' does not mean acting passively. In other words, anything that can increase the courage and the morale of the resistance, and, in contrast, weaken the morale of the attackers and the rulers, is a necessity (7).

Naturally, at the current juncture, learning lessons from the path opened up by Gandhi on the trail of a universal political struggle (alongside the experiences of struggle in other countries), is necessary for the qualitative growth of the struggle and the consolidation and deepening of the movement. But this does not mean accepting wholesale the one-sided and biased interpretations that are reproduced by [reformist] media chains; on the contrary, we must critique any insistence of such interpretations, particularly in the light of the background history of the commentators and the current realities facing the movement.

To get a little more precise in this regard:

1. What are the objective instances of violence? Does violence only refer to a physical act, or can a legal code or an institutional normality too be an instance of violence? Can a law supporting capital punishment, an eye for an eye, be an instance of violence? In that case, why do those claiming to be against violence have not condemned all the executions in recent months, and in principle have not opposed capital punishment? And, on the subject of Islamic laws that are the backbone of the violence-prone authority of patriarchy in the family, why have they remained silent? Why do they still insist on political dominance of Shiite religion or political Islam, which theorizes and worships violence by theorizing it in legitimized religious clothing?

2. What is the existing proportion/ration between the organized violence of the regime in the course of the crackdowns and the scattered and in-the-moment violence of the protesters? What distinguishes these two from each other? Is any defensive reaction that appears in a physical form an instance of violence? For example, is throwing stones by protesters -- in order to prevent the advance, or an assault, by the repressive forces -- violence? (If so, the reformist circles could have accused the movement of acting violently many months earlier, as well.) Are disarming armed attackers and opening fire on the attackers (with firearms) the same and of the same weight?

3. How far do the boundaries of 'collective nonviolent defense' stretch, and what characteristics distinguish them from 'organized violent assault'? If, in the course of a movement, people come to see and feel the necessity of collective self-defense in order to safeguard themselves and to continue their movement, are the outcomes of this movement and a new society that comes out of it by necessity based on violence? Will the laws and norms of that society by necessity be violence-prone? For example, can we not expect to see in that society the passage of a law abolishing death penalty?

4. What are the real reasons for the regime's reformists resorting to a particular reading of 'nonviolence'? Has there occurred a fundamental change in their beliefs regarding the greatness of human beings and the ways of safeguarding it? (If so, why has this change of heart not included all instances of violence and, along the same lines, why has it not been followed by a critical re-reading of the past?) Or might they be viewing nonviolence as a tactical principle for the advancement and success of the movement? If so, it must be asked, is the goal of insistence on this tactic the growth and spreading of the movement, or is the goal to control the boundaries of the movement?

5. If the emphasis on nonviolence is done with the aim of preserving the movement, naturally in pursuing such an aim, creating and safeguarding self-confidence and self-belief among the movement's activists is also an inevitable necessity; a necessity that of course has its own particular methods and tactics: from a call to organized self-defense in the face of an assault, to symbolic and limited public strikes. The question here is why have the reformists as of yet evaded both these significantly important methods?

6. After the movement took up an approach based on self-preservation and spreading of the movement, if it steps into a new realm of self-confidence, self-belief and independence, can we think that, "Not only will the maintenance of the regime be more difficult now, but the hegemony of the reformists over the demands and the direction of the movement too will be jeopardized"? From this vantage point, which part of the events of the day of Ashura worries the 'nonviolent advocates' more: That the people have been sullied with violence? That the slogans expanded to include anti-system ones? Or, that the direction of the movement is toward self-organization and self-reliance? (Maybe this is the reason why Moussavi and his friends, in their 17th statement, have tried to portray and consolidate the growing stature of the movement within limited forms and demands, before it is too late!)

7. If it is true that in the media chains of the reformists radicalism parallels revolutionary behavior, and being revolutionary is the same as being violent and thinking violently, can we conclude that their aim in pursuing 'nonviolence' is not the essence of this approach, but to portray this approach as being one and the same as reformism? In other words, to gain legitimacy by tactically attaching a political strategy [reformism] to a method which has historical legitimacy! Is it truly the case that 'nonviolence' defines the content of the demands and the level of the movement's goals, and that by necessity it means the dilution/reduction (and falsification) of people's necessary needs? Or is it merely a moral and collective principle utilized for a better and less costly advance toward progressive social demands (8)? Just because a moral approach (nonviolence) has legitimacy, would it be a moral act to utilize this to eliminate other forces involved in the movement and to render the movement into one with only one voice?

8. If the people do not defend themselves in the streets, and the reformists' special interpretation of 'nonviolence' takes hold over the movement, will the regime reduce the intensity of its oppression? Will not every peaceful step taken back by the people be confronted with tens of steps of violent advance taken by the regime? Was not the silent demonstrations of the people on June 20 [2009] subjected to the bullets of the oppressors drawing blood? In principle, with the different kinds and intensities of repressive measures that we know the regime has in its portfolio (along with the lengthening of the life of the movement), by removing/eliminating the collective self-confidence/belief of the people and their hope in victory, will the situation not lead to the deterioration of the movement into increasing wear and tear and frictions [and lowered morale]?

9. By resorting to the correct statement, "We must not stumble into regime's much loved game of violence," can we deny the 'necessity of collective defense' for the preservation and continuation of the movement? To deny this, it is necessary to see 'self-defense' too as having the same value as using violence (9). What, in principle then, is the place of collective self-defense in the outlook of this hegemony-seeking [political] trend?

10. What exactly is the relationship between, on the one hand those individuals who dare speak on behalf of the green movement and on behalf of the people, compose and announce lists of movement's demands (10), and, on the other, the political trend that first equates the use of violence and radicalism, and then its spokespeople, from atop their safe places, issue orders for 'avoiding violence'? Is there not an obvious connection between this purist view of a struggle and that hegemonist view of a movement (and political affairs)?

To conclude then, the discussion regarding violence in the movement must take into account all sides and dimensions of the issue, and should not be a utilitarian and monopolistic tool aimed at achieving hegemonic goals. In my opinion, what we have seen so far regarding 'nonviolence' has more to do with a discourse oriented to power than a discourse oriented to truth and transformation.

NOTES (all references are to Persian language articles and texts):
1. Unfortunately, in our political literature, 'radicalism' too, much like 'anarchism', has been emptied of its true meaning. Especially in the recent literary movement of the reformists, with understandable reasons, radicalism has been turned into a political swear word. This is so, since, if questioning the foundations of tyranny and paying attention to the structures that produce and reproduce social injustices become epidemic, then the flowing current of the movement will be pulled in a direction contrary to the desires and ideas of the reformists. Not to forget that, on the opposite side, there are those who hide their untimely strategies and inexcusable political methods under the makeup of a claim to political radicalism.

2. Some articles that, with a critical and independent outlook on 'violence', have analyzed the issue in relation to the movement:
-- Self-Defense is not 'violence' / by Masood Noqhreh-Kaar
-- Misunderstandings Regarding Nonviolent Struggles / by Mehrdad Mashayekhi
-- Dictatorship and the Street Discourse / by Hamid Yaavari

Some recent articles that resort to 'nonviolence' in order to justify the dominant political discourse:
-- I Have a Dread / by Masood Behnood
-- Violence Is the Red Line of the Green Movement / interview by Maryam Mohammadi with Ali Honari
-- Violence, Green Movement's Trap: Considerations regarding the future of the movement / by Mohammad Ebrahimi

3. After the events of the day of Ashura (bloody Sunday), the ruling regime once again denied the existence of the movement by using terms such as seditionists, miscreants (monafeqh; code for followers of Mojahedin Khalq Organization), communists and rioters, and other such terms, to refer to the masses of the people present on the streets, and in effect continued to consider the millions of dissident citizens as 'twigs and underbrush' [khas-o-khaashaak, as Khamenei famously called the people].

4. In the Ashura protests, at least 38 people were killed, and hundreds injured, and in its aftermath around 2,000 people were arrested. These figures, while testifying to the determination shown by the regime in oppressing the people, at any cost, at the same time indicate the weakness of the regime and their fear of the threat of collapse. It seems that the regime is currently standing on its last and final foundation.

5. I Have a Dread / by Masood Behnood

6. Letter to Fellow Citizens Living Abroad / by Ezatollah Sahaabi

7. Paraphrasing; unfortunately I don't have the book at the moment. [...]

8. Misunderstandings Regarding Nonviolent Struggles / by Mehrdad Mashayekhi

9. Self-Defense is not 'violence' / by Masood Noqhreh-Kaar

10. The ultimate demands of the green movement, as told by five religious intellectuals: Soroosh, Ganji, Kadivar, Mohaajerani, and Baazargaan.

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