In “Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings,” MIT Professor Pouya Alimagham casts light on the events that marked the emergence and development of the Green Movement, which disputed the legitimacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidential re-election in 2009.
Even more remarkable, and as the title of Alimagham’s work clearly reflects, the author aims at understanding how the legacy of the 1978-1979 Iranian Revolution affected the popular protests that emerged three decades later. He convincingly defends the thesis that rather than directly contesting the Islamic Republic, the Green Movement sought to appropriate and reprogram the revolutionary symbols and history. In other words, the protesters challenged the Islamic government on its own terms.
Alimagham’s book is solidly grounded on different theoretical approaches to social protest movements and revolutions that share a “bottom-up approach” in which the role of the people in the making of history is emphasized. Some of the most prominent scholars to adopt such an approach are Eric Hobsbawm, Charles Tilly, and Antonio Gramsci. In the field of Iranian historiography, Ervand Abrahamian is introduced by Alimagham as the main heir of this “history from below” tradition.
“Contesting the Iranian Revolution” is highly influenced by this conception of the crowd as the key agent of social change. Exploring the motivations and behavior of millions of Iranians who poured into the streets in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections is obviously far more complicated than focusing the analysis on the reformist presidential candidates, Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Kaaroubi, the two most visible faces of the Green Movement.
Nevertheless, taking into account the tenuous influence both Mousavi and Kaaroubi had on the events taking place in the streets — particularly with the passing of time after the election — placing the crowd at the center of the narrative appears to be an intelligent choice.
Alimagham questions Gramsci’s conception of citizens becoming revolutionaries when they reject the self-affirming ideas or ideology of the hegemonic state.
Alimagham is at ease when moving from theory to the specifics of the Green Movement protests. A case-in-point is when the author questions Gramsci’s conception of citizens becoming revolutionaries when they reject the self-affirming ideas or ideology of the hegemonic state, freeing their minds of the state’s “universal truths.”
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The night-time rooftop chants of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) as a way to express support for the 1978-1979 Iranian Revolution re-emerged with the purpose of protesting the fraud in the 2009 presidential elections and the ensuing state repression. Protesters were not contesting the hegemonic “universal truths” as Gramsci would have expected, instead they co-opted and redirected them. In Alimagham’s words, “God no longer belonged strictly to the state.”[i]
“Contesting the Iranian Revolution” is structured around significant dates in the Iranian political and religious calendar that the Green Movement tried to appropriate for the expression of its grievances. The anniversary of the US Embassy takeover, the National Student Day, and Quds (Jerusalem) Day are historically contextualized by Alimagham before he sets out to explain how the Green Movement raised its demands in connection to these different public holidays.
Especially relevant is the case of Quds Day on September 18, 2009, around three months after the election. The chapter dedicated to the history of Quds Day and its celebration in 2009 is actually titled “Contesting Palestine: Generating Revolutionary Meaning” and can be read as a microcosm of the whole book. On the 2009 Quds Day, some groups of demonstrators chanted against the Islamic Republic’s support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.
A significant segment of the Iranian population felt that the government was devoting excessive economic and political capital to the Palestinian cause. In this case, the protesters were “denying the state the ability to legitimate itself through its solidarity with the Palestinians.”[ii] A second strand within the protest movement, however, took a different approach on Quds Day, one that was more in line with the behavior of Green Movement demonstrators until then. They adopted Palestine as a global revolutionary symbol against oppression and denounced the hypocrisy of the Islamic Republic, which claimed to be the closest friend of oppressed Palestinians while it did not hesitate to suppress internal dissent.
Protesters adopted Palestine as a global revolutionary symbol against oppression and denounced the hypocrisy of the Islamic Republic.
Ashura is the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, when the Islamic Republic and Shias all over the world commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at the Battle of Karbala. At the end of 2009, state repression had dramatically reduced the number of protesters that continued to defy the government in the streets. Those who ventured to do so on Ashura, a particularly important occasion for the Islamic Republic as the self-proclaimed official representative of revolutionary Shiism, met exceptionally harsh state violence. Demonstrators who ended up in police hands faced charges that carried with it the possibility of a death penalty.
The Green Movement protesters did not manage to overturn the election results or bring down the Iranian state but “found success in failure.”[iii] Whereas Iranians did not directly inspire the Arab Spring, the Green Movement had a certain influence in the uprisings that spread over several Arab countries in late 2010 and 2011. Alimagham argues that both the Green Movement and the Arab Spring were similar in that they failed to present a comprehensive alternative to the status quo.
Alimagham argues that both the Green Movement and the Arab Spring were similar in that they failed to present a comprehensive alternative to the status quo.
According to him, this failure results from the domination of neoliberal normative frameworks since the 1980s that complicate the formulation of radical alternatives. Even though the link between the weaknesses of recent protest movements and neoliberalism is certainly interesting, it would need to be further developed in order to prove more convincing.
On a more general note, the reader would probably also welcome additional references to the activities of Green Movement protesters in cities other than Tehran, although it is obvious that the most important events took place in the Iranian capital.
Professor Pouya Alimagham has written a book that challenges many received wisdoms about the Islamic Republic of Iran and will prove to be of great value to scholars of modern Iran. At the same time, and because of its grounding on more general social protest and revolution theory, “Contesting the Iranian Revolution” has the potential to contribute to broader debates in social sciences.
[i] Alimagham, Pouya. Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020: 91
[ii] Ibid: 182
[iii] Ibid: 197