Driving down the streets of any Iranian city or town, you will likely see at least one poster featuring several young male faces. These boys, as I have found out, are called shahids, or martyrs, and are posthumously honored by these public displays.
The concept of martyrdom in the Shi’a religion is a particularly resonant one. Because of what political scientists have termed the “Karbala Complex,” there is a feeling within Shi’a communities that they will be unfairly persecuted and will have to lay down their lives as did Imam Hossein at Karbala. When my father was young, he participated in the public mourning for such martyrs, in which Iranians still beat their chests, cry, and even self-flagellate or mutilate. On a less zealous note, a very commonplace phrase among Iranians (both Fars and Turkish, I’ve found) is quorbanat beram or simply quorbanat, which roughly translated means “may I sacrifice myself for you.” This phrase is used to show affection, endearment, or often just a thank-you or filler phrase as part of the custom of tarof, or excessive politeness.
That is why I wasn’t necessarily surprised to hear last night that Moussavi had broadcast his voice on VOA (Voice of America, a fairly reliable source of nonetheless propagandized news)* saying that he had performed the ritual preparations for martyrdom and would not back down despite the incredible violence on the part of the government militia. He also encouraged his supporters to take to the streets in the case that he is arrested or killed.
What I did question, however, is what Moussavi’s endgame is. In my mind, I had run over the information I knew about each player in the election struggle, brainstormed how outside mediation or negotiation between groups could solve the problem peacefully. But I had jumped the gun, so to speak, because I was too quick to define the problem as electoral fraud. I had been asking myself what good it would do for Moussavi to be martyred if the point was for him to become president; a few days ago Alireza Ronaghi, Al Jazeera International’s correspondent in Tehran, had stated that protesters were not seeking an overthrow of the regime, just their rightful vote. But after talking to my cousin, I’m beginning to think that the vote is just a temporary vent for the pressure constantly being placed on the Iranian population.
As he said, the protesters are following Moussavi’s appeal to make their point peacefully and within the bounds of the constitution, for although the Supreme Leader declared the protest illegal the actual constitution allows for peaceful gatherings as long as the people are not trying to change the government or rules. In this case, therefore, they are only demanding that the rules be properly carried out. Whether or not the protesters are successful, however, the Islamic regime has proven to be as violent a repressor as the Shahs before it, and pressures on the citizens of Iran will certainly continue. A Middle East analyst on TV mentioned that Moussavi is a child of the revolution, that he was Prime Minister under Khomeini and therefore wouldn’t want to bring the whole system down. But just maybe Moussavi, who had before this election retired from political life to pursue his artistic endeavors, is disappointed with the regime and willing to be the catalyst for something new by laying down his life.
*The story was also later reported by Al Jazeera International.