Iran’s revolution has now run through a full cycle.
A gruesomely captivating video of a young woman laid out on a Tehran street after apparently being shot, blood pouring from her mouth and then across her face swept Twitter, Facebook and other websites this weekend. The woman rapidly became a symbol of Iran’s escalating crisis, from a political confrontation to far more ominous physical clashes. Some sites refer to her as “Neda,” Farsi for the voice or the call. Tributes that incorporate startlingly upclose footage of her dying have started to spring up on YouTube.
Although it is not yet clear who shot “Neda” , her death may have changed everything. For the cycles of mourning in Shiite Islam actually provide a schedule for political combat a way to generate or revive momentum. Shiite Muslims mourn their dead on the third, seventh and 40th days after a death, and these commemorations are a pivotal part of Iran’s rich history. During the revolution, the pattern of confrontations between the shah’s security forces and the revolutionaries often played out in 40-day cycles.
The first clashes in January 1978 produced two deaths that were then commemorated on the 40th day in mass gatherings, which in turn produced new confrontations with security forces and new deaths. Those deaths then generated another 40-day period of mourning, new clashes, and further deaths. The cycle continued throughout most of the year until the shah’s ouster in January 1979.
The same cycle has already become an undercurrent in Iran’s current crisis. The largest demonstration, on Thursday of last week, was called by opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to commemorate the deaths of protesters three days after they were killed.
Shiite mourning is not simply a time to react with sadness. Particularly in times of conflict, it is also an opportunity for renewal. The commemorations for “Neda” and the others killed this weekend are still to come. And the 40th day events are usually the largest and most important.
“Neda” is already being hailed as a martyr, a second important concept in Shiism. With the reported deaths of 19 people Saturday, martyrdom also provides a potent force that could further deepen public anger at Iran’s regime.
The belief in martyrdom is central to modern politics as well as Shiite tradition dating back centuries in Iran. It too helped propel the 1979 revolution. It sustained Iran during the eight-year war with Iraq, when over 120,000 Iranians died in the bloodiest modern Middle East conflict. Most major Iranian cities have a Martyrs’ Museum or a Martyrs’ cemetery.
The first Shiite martyr was Hussein, the prophet Mohammed’s grandson. He believed it was better to die fighting injustice than to live with injustice under what he believed was illegitimate rule.
In the seventh century, Hussein and a band of fewer than 100 people, including women and children, took on the mighty Umayyad dynasty in Karbala, an ancient city in Mesopotamia now in modern-day Iraq. They knew they would be massacred.
Fourteen centuries later, Hussein’s tomb in Karbala is one of the two holiest Shiite shrines and millions of Iranians still make pilgrimages there every year. Just as Christians reenact Jesus’ procession bearing the cross past the fourteen stops to Calvary before his crucifixion, so too do Shiites every year reenact Hussein’s martyrdom in an Islamic passion play during the holy period of Ashura.
Because of Hussein, revolt against tyranny became part of Shiite tradition. Indeed, protest and martyrdom are widely considered duties to God. And nowhere is the practice more honored than in Iran, the world’s largest Shiite country.
The revolutionaries exploited the deep passion about martyrdom as well as the timetable of Shiite mourning in whipping up greater opposition to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. With the deaths of “Neda” and others, they may now find the same phenomena used against them.