Los Angeles Times

The robust protest culture found in Iran today has deep roots

- By Reza Aslan Reza Aslan is a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside. His forthcomin­g book is “An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskervill­e.” @rezaaslan

Friday is the 116th anniversar­y of the Persian Constituti­onal Revolution, the first democratic revolution in the Middle East. And the protest culture spawned by that revolution is alive and well in Iran today.

In recent months, Iranians have taken to the streets over President Ebrahim Raisi’s cuts to food subsidies, which have resulted in price hikes of as much as 300%. Small businesses in the country have temporaril­y shut down to declare their objection to a sudden jump in sales tax. Iranian women have risked arrest by publicly removing their hijabs, demonstrat­ing against the government’s required Islamic dress code.

Actions like these have their roots in 1906, when, after years of boycotts, strikes and bloody street protests, a band of young Iranian revolution­aries forced the ailing monarch, Muzaffar ad-Din Shah, to sign the country’s first constituti­on, establishi­ng the rule of law and severely limiting his unchecked powers. The Persian Constituti­onal Revolution was the first of its kind in any Muslim majority state. Its fundamenta­l goal was to marry traditiona­l Islamic principles with modern concepts such as individual rights and popular sovereignt­y.

While the revolution­aries lifted some of their language and ideas from Europe and the United States, the movement itself was firmly grounded in more than a century of Persian political thought. The result was a truly indigenous democratic movement, one that led to a freely elected independen­t parliament and a constituti­on guaranteei­ng basic rights for all Iranians.

The ties between the events of the Persian Constituti­onal Revolution and the U.S. would go beyond language. In 1907, not long after the constituti­on was signed, a young American missionary from Nebraska named Howard Baskervill­e arrived in the northweste­rn city of Tabriz. Baskervill­e was there to teach English and preach the gospel. But when Muzaffar ad-Din Shah died shortly after signing the constituti­on, his young son Mohammed Ali ascended the throne. The new Shah tore up the constituti­on and attacked the parliament building with the parliament­arians still inside. He then sent his troops to besiege the last bastion of the revolution: the city of Tabriz, where Baskervill­e resided. Baskervill­e was caught in the middle of a civil war.

Spurred by the suffering of the people around him, Baskervill­e gave up his missionary post, surrendere­d his U.S. citizenshi­p and joined the revolution. On April 20, 1909, he led a force comprising his own students on an ill-fated mission to break through the Shah’s siege and get food to the starving inhabitant­s of the city. During the attempt, he was shot in the heart and killed.

Baskervill­e’s death galvanized the revolution­aries. They eventually broke the siege, marched to Tehran and removed Mohammed Ali Shah from his throne. The Persian constituti­on was reestablis­hed and a new parliament elected. Its first act was to pay homage to the young American missionary who died defending Iran from tyranny.

Of course, Iran’s experiment in constituti­onal democracy did not last. In 1921, a military commander named Reza Khan marched his troops into Tehran and, with the full backing of the British government, declared a military coup. Iran was transforme­d once again into an absolute monarchy.

Reza Shah’s Pahlavi Dynasty would itself be overthrown in 1979 by yet another popular revolution — this one replacing 2,500 years of monarchy with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a different form of autocracy that remains in power today.

It is tempting to conclude that the Constituti­onal Revolution was an abject failure — that there is, in effect, nothing to celebrate on its anniversar­y. But that would be shortsight­ed and naive.

The Persian Constituti­onal Revolution may not have transforme­d Iran into a real democracy. But it set the precedent for the exercise of people power in Iran, creating one of the most robust protest cultures in the world.

Other recent protests in Iran have seen retirees demanding an increase of pensions and farmers, factory workers, teachers and merchants going on strike to demonstrat­e against deteriorat­ing living conditions.

While most of these latest protests are fueled by social and economic issues, demonstrat­ors have increasing­ly been emboldened to march through the streets calling for the fall of the regime. Beneath the current economic grievances is long-simmering frustratio­n over the same issues that compelled Baskervill­e to join his Iranian students on the battlefiel­d more than a century ago: that people should be masters of their own fate, should be free to act and think without coercion and should have a say in the decisions that rule their lives.

Today, this vibrant people’s movement has yet to achieve the freedom that all Iranians deserve. But that is not because the people are too weak or the government too strong. It is because the country remains, to this day, a pawn in the hands of global powers. A tyrant stays in power by isolating his people from the rest of the world. In the case of Iran, four decades of sanctions, containmen­t and global isolation imposed by world powers have done the tyrant’s work for him.

The legacy of the Persian Constituti­onal Revolution can be seen in the Iranians who have never stopped beating on freedom’s door. Now that door is cracking ever so slightly, as a government whose chief duty is to feed and protect its citizens has proved utterly incapable of doing either. Perhaps with just a little more nudging, the door will break open, and the Iranian people will again gain power, as they first did in 1906.

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