It is impossible not to be amazed and humbled by the bravery of the Iranian people. From bus drivers to university professors, once again a cross section of Iranian society has taken to the streets of Tehran and other cities in a new round of protests against the brutal Islamist regime that has ruled them since 1979. .
The immediate trigger for these latest protests was the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Amini was arrested in Tehran by the regime’s so-called “morality police” – uniformed thugs whose work would correctly be understood to engage in sexual harassment in a Western context – for the crime of wearing his hijab or headscarf inappropriately.
Since the big wave of anti-regime protests in 2009, many Iranian women have consciously pushed the boundaries of the Islamic Republic’s austere and misogynistic dress code, adjusting their hijab to show wisps of hair or applying light makeup to their faces. Since Amini allegedly did something like this with her headgear, she was brutally beaten while in police custody, losing consciousness and dying of her injuries on September 16, after spending three days in a coma.
The regime’s official explanation is that Amini – obviously a healthy young woman with no pre-existing respiratory or heart problems – died of a heart attack after “suddenly” developing a problem. Not many people buy that, of course, let alone Amini’s family. In a heartbreaking interview with the BBC’s Persian-language service, Amini’s grieving father, Amjad, accused the regime of “telling lies”, adding: “No matter how much I begged, they don’t didn’t let my daughter see”.
When Amjad Amini was finally allowed to see Mahsa’s lifeless body, he was completely covered from neck to toe, although he noticed the bruises on his feet. “I have no idea what they did to her,” he cried, with the unique agony of a bereaved parent.
So far, hundreds of protesters have been injured and several killed in protests that have erupted over Amini’s death, but as in the past, the regime’s methodical violence against its own citizens has not further eased their minds. As the regime’s president, Ebrahim Raisi – nicknamed the “butcher of Tehran” for his services to the regime’s terrifying post-revolution “death committees” – attended the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, during which he denied the Holocaust in an interview with ’60 Minutes’ and angrily canceled an interview with CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour over his refusal to wear a headscarf, protesters at home chanted ‘Death to Raisi’ and wished the same fate on other leading figures of the regime, such as Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of ailing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his potential successor.
The will of the Iranian people to confront the regime has been demonstrated time and time again over the past 13 years. Unfortunately, Western audiences, who should really be inspired by such scenes, have tended to look the other way, while our governments have tried to verbally express their solidarity without doing anything meaningful to help unseat the mullahs in power. .
There are several reasons for this. On the left, there is a strong sense of colonial guilt, emanating from the 1953 CIA-backed coup against nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, which makes Western liberals nervous about criticizing domestic repression, even when the victim is a young woman. On both left and right, in recent years there has been greater acceptance of cultural relativism, with “woke” and conservative rationalizations readily available, alongside broader disillusionment that liberal democracy should be a universal system.
The hijab, in particular, proved perplexing. In America and Europe, where Muslim communities often face racism and discrimination, the hijab has practically become a symbol of civil rights, as many Muslim women wear it freely and proudly despite countless instances of physical assault. against those who do. But in the hands of the Iranian regime, the hijab is a symbol of repression, imposed on all women, whether Muslim or from Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish, Baha’i or other minorities.
If one accepts the principle that it is up to Muslim women themselves, and not state authorities, to decide whether or not to cover their heads, then one cannot but be moved by the protests in Iran – and including the sight of women of all ages tearing off their hijabs and waving them defiantly at armed security forces.
The US government has voiced support for the protests, though President Joe Biden’s speech to the UN General Assembly was disappointingly thin on Iran, hailing the ‘brave women’ who took to the streets , but say no more. Last week, the United States announced sanctions against the morality police, citing Amini’s murder, as well as sanctions targeting specific officials who “oversee organizations that routinely use violence to suppress peaceful protesters. and members of Iranian civil society, political dissidents, women’s rights activists, and members of the Iranian Baha’i community,” according to a statement from the Treasury Department.
These are welcome steps, but they will not in themselves eject the regime from power. As the example of Venezuela, Iran’s main ally in the Western Hemisphere, shows, opposition parties can even gain recognition as the legitimate government by foreign nations without forcing their leaders out of their palaces.
Arguably the most vulnerable area for Iran’s leaders is their attempt to control the supply and flow of information, denying internet coverage to entire neighborhoods in Tehran and blocking Instagram, one of the most most popular used by young Iranians. One of the factors behind the move stems from the regime’s unease with global citizens watching never-before-seen footage of the protests and their corresponding crackdown on computer screens and mobile phones.
Elon Musk, often eccentric, had a sensible suggestion in this regard: exempt Starlink, which provides satellite internet access, from the harsh sanctions already imposed on Iran. This would allow the continued uploading of videos and photos taken by protesters, making the regime’s propaganda all the weaker and laughable. We need to encourage more initiatives like this, so that the control of the narrative rests with the protesters, not with those trying to crush them.
For Jews, there is a natural sympathy for a protest movement seeking to overthrow a regime that denies the Holocaust and advocates the violent destruction of Israel. As we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, munching on honey-sweetened apples in hopes of a happy new year ahead, perhaps we can also offer a prayer to relieve the salty tears of Iranian mothers and fathers who lost their children in these protests. To them, as to all of you reading this, I wish a heartfelt Shana Tova.
Ben Cohen, editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics from New York.