Islamic scholar on protests in Iran: “A permanent feeling of fear”
Katajun Amirpur is surprised by the revolt of the Iranian women. A conversation about theocratic terror, post-Islamism and her new book.
Wochentaz: Ms. Amirpur, where is the movement today, six months after the protests began?
Katajun Amirpur: In order for the system to collapse, parts of the Revolutionary Guards would have to turn away from the fight against their own population. However, it is still not foreseeable how exactly they will behave in the future.
born in 1971, is a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Cologne and publishes regularly in newspapers and magazines.
What do you think of the current claim that Revolutionary Guards on the EU terror list to put?
This is a very complex matter in which the costs and benefits have to be weighed up in a very differentiated manner. There is a risk that a listing will later be classified as illegal by the courts. That would be an enormous propaganda success for the regime, which must be avoided at all costs.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there have been repeated major protests: in 2009 because of manipulated election results, in 2017/18 and 2019 mainly because of high food and petrol prices. Did you think a massive protest movement like the current one was possible?
Observers have always been waiting for this. Because at least since 2009 it has always been noticeable that there is a large, critical mass that is against the regime and wants change. But it really surprised me that so many courageous people have been taking to the streets for the last six months. This is a different generation. Many Iranians say that when they were young they didn’t have the courage themselves. As soon as the first deterrent measures came, they stopped – and certainly did not fight back. The girls who recently released the dance video knew they were almost certainly going to jail. Nevertheless, they stand up and make it clear: we will not back down.
How do you explain the fact that protesters protest so openly despite all the danger?
At least since 1997 attempts have been made to reform the system from within. The system has very often been given the chance to change in the direction of more human rights, more democracy and participation and less rigorous action against its own people. But even minimal demands have failed. It is therefore clear, especially for young Iranians: The radical bulwark of the Islamists will not make any concessions. In 2009 I still heard statements from my own family such as: “Don’t take to the streets, don’t risk your life” or “You can go from bad to worse like we did back in 1979”. Today, on the other hand, something like that hardly catches on. Young people today are angrier and more frustrated. For them, it just doesn’t go any further – and therefore it’s all about it.
Where does the heterogeneity of the protest movement come from, which is not only young, but also socially, ethnically and religiously very diverse?
Almost everyone in Iran is discriminated against in one way or another. Except for the few who benefit from the system – and that’s only 10 to 15 percent of the population. Women are second class people. The Kurds and the people in the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan are also systematically disadvantaged as Sunnis, so that it should actually be called the “Shiite Republic of Iran”. Homosexuals cannot express their sexual orientation because otherwise they will be hanged. In addition, half of Iranians do not speak Persian as their mother tongue, which they are then not allowed to learn at school.
So many Iranians have had similar experiences of discrimination and oppression.
The violent death of Jina Mahsa Amini in the custody of the vice squad touched on another point as a trigger. Every family, and even those associated with the Revolutionary Guards, realized that this could have happened to me and my relatives too. Because Jina Mahsa Amini had not protested openly, like the women who climbed onto electricity boxes in 2019 and took off their headscarves and hung them on a pole. No, Jina Mahsa Amini took to the streets because she thought her headscarf was okay. But even if you try to behave according to the rules, it can hit you.
The people of Iran live in a constant sense of threat and fear. This atmosphere is systematically fueled. At the same time, an unbelievable number of things just happen in Iran. I am thinking of the directness with which those in power can sometimes be scolded in public. Or perhaps the Persian translations of Hannah Arendt’s books, although it is clear how instructive her books are for the fight against a dictatorship. But ultimately, this is all part of the erratic: You don’t know exactly when it will hit you.
An iconic part of the protests is not only the removal and burning of headscarves, but also the cutting of hair. What’s it all about?
This gesture comes from the pre-Islamic period. It is first found in the Shahnameh, the national epic of the Persian-speaking world. With its language-forming power, the so-called King’s Book has contributed to the fact that the Iranians speak Persian to this day and not Arabic like other Islamized peoples. In the story, it is Farangis who cuts her hair out of frustration after the innocent death of her husband, the Persian prince Siyavash.
Incidentally, the taking up of this protest and mourning ritual has been observed for some time. In any case, many Iranians are reflecting more strongly on the pre-Islamic period in protest against the system. For example, on Zoroastrianism as the “actual religion” of Iran before the Arab-Islamic conquest of Persia (in the 7th century now Z., editor’s note). Even the spring festival of Nowruz, which has an important place in the life of every Iranian, is originally Zoroastrian. Shortly after the 1979 revolution, attempts were even made to stop the festival. But that failed.
Is this all an expression of Iran as a “post-Islamist society” as you describe it in your book?
The Islamization of society in all spheres has created a population that is not only very secular in attitude, but also makes it clear: If that is supposedly pure faith that is supposed to be the solution for everything, then we don’t want it. The Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Sorush said that Islam is so deeply rooted in the Iranian people that only this revolution and what happened afterwards could uproot these roots. There’s something to it. Nevertheless, Islam remains part of Iran’s cultural heritage. So every Iranian can recite his Hafiz, and all of Iranian classical literature would not be possible without Islam. According to surveys, more than 83 percent of Iranians do not want the theocratic state.