Young heroes in an ancient land

Iranian student protesters differ from American ones in two ways: They're risking their lives, and their nation trusts them.

Published July 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Last week students in Tehran held a peaceful demonstration to protest the government's closure of a leftist newspaper. The next night, religious hard-line vigilantes and policemen stormed a dormitory at 4:30 a.m. to attack sleeping students. Officials admit that the vigilantes and police killed one man -- an off-duty soldier visiting a friend -- and injured at least 20 others. Students claim that at least five people were killed by being shoved out the windows. They also charge that the government won't return the victims' bodies to the families or allow anyone to visit the injured students in the hospital.

The backlash against what had begun as a minor outbreak of dissent was severe, but there are signs that the Iranian student movement has some grit. Officials claim that at one point some students held three officers hostage -- before another police attack managed to rescue them.

In the Western media, student movements in other countries simply are and occasionally just happen to have the power to overthrow governments. Recent student revolutions of the Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia have been shrouded in similarly misty portrayals. Since student movements are often unstructured and therefore demand a complex understanding of the culture, it's easy for the media to treat the movements as idealistic, vague happenings that need no special explanation.

Such is the case in Iran. When the movement needs to be explained, the media usually points to the election of moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami, who surprised the nation two years ago by seizing the presidency with an astounding 20 million votes, gaining the support of fully 70 percent of the voting population. The soft-spoken Khatami is no radical, though his reformist views got him ousted from the government in 1988. But even in his rehabilitated state of grandeur, his influence is severely curtailed by the national Islamic church. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his clergy wield ultimate power over both the elected government and the military. Some speculate that the clergy allowed, or even orchestrated, Khatami's candidacy as a symbol of modern Iran's political diversity. But no one expected him to win by a landslide.

It's true that the Iran that voted Khatami into power was a young one. The baby boom following the 1979 Islamic revolution produced a nation in which two-thirds of the population are under 25. Hooshang Amirahmadi, professor of public policy at Rutgers University and President of the American-Iranian Council estimates that the population represented by younger voters and student protesters -- ranging from 17 to 30 -- constitutes about 45 percent of the population. For these young people Khatami may be the closest thing to legal political diversity they've ever encountered.

Yet some say the impression that Khatami is the engine of the student movement is a mistake on the part of the Western media. "Khatami did not make the movement," says L.A. radio host Manook Khodabakhshian, whose "Zero Hour" show on Voice of Iran serves the Iranian global Diaspora. "The movement made him. When he was first elected everyone started calling him the Iranian Gorbachev, but I am not so optimistic. After Khatami, then we can have our Gorbachev."

Professor Amirahmadi agrees: "After the Khatami election, the focus went to him. The West was oblivious to emergent secular forces in the people. The student movement is not listening to Khatami. They want Iran to be an industrially developed, secular state where the young people can live in peace and be prosperous. This is the irony of the situation: Khatami is not the opposition. The students are protesting the government and he is the head of the government."

Such ironies are easy to miss. Masses of marchers are enthusiastically chanting "Khatami, Khatami" and the press refers to him as the students' hero. Many of these young people do see themselves as part of a new generation -- often referred to as Khordad after the month that Khatami was elected. But beneath the surface alliance the students have a more radical agenda. Their demands include: the dismissal of the brigadier general considered responsible for the dormitory attack, that the clerics give control of the military to the elected government and -- as one student group put it -- to restore the "prestige to the university and the students." Essentially, the students want the separation of church and state and the reintegration of Iran into the world community.

But if Khamati himself wasn't the impetus for the movement, where did it come from? The students -- and there are many, several hundred thousand in Tehran alone -- are a diverse group: poor, rich, urban, rural, Westernized, traditional. Many of them are female. According to Amirahmadi, women make up the majority of all university students.

Even before the Khatami election, there were precipitating events: The government executed three of the country's most famous writers, newspapers were closed for publishing controversial views and a philosophy professor at Tehran University galvanized students with lectures that criticized the role of the clergy. There was also an influx of Western influences with the Internet and the proliferation of illegal satellite dishes.

The students -- raised in a hermetically sealed Islamic bubble -- were also primed for revolt by years of dissatisfaction. "These young people suffered from day one of their life. They grew up in poverty, with very few freedoms and being vilified by the international community as terrorists," says Amirahmadi. They also have tradition on their side. The Iranian revolution that ousted the Shah was led by students as well, and some see the current uprising as simply a continuation -- not a reversal -- of the reforms that began in 1979.

In Iran, as in many third world countries, students hold a special place in society. And in a culture where there is no right to assembly, the university becomes one of the only places where people can gather easily to organize themselves politically. "They are younger and braver," says Maryam, an Iranian-born American, who like many of the Iranian Americans I spoke to preferred that I not use her last name. "People look up to them. They represent the most progressive, forward-looking aspect of the society. They are sort of the cream of the new generation."

"In the third world, the university is a kind of stage in which the country can imagine what it really wants to be," agrees radio host Khodabakhshian, "Those kids are so brave."

Few middle-aged Americans would bestow this sort of praise on their own student rebels. After the turmoil and triumphs of the student movements of the 1960s and '70s, student activism in the United States has shrunk. Students are no longer seen as the path by which we will travel to a more just society; they are foolish, Fro-Yo slurping temporary intellectuals who soon will have to wake up and find a job. Activism has become yet another stage of late-late adolescence -- endearing, sometimes -- but more often rather embarrassing.

While student protesters in countries from Romania to the Philippines to Korea have centered on ousting corrupt leaders, American students have increasingly rallied against the ivory tower. There are certainly problems in academia, but the liberal administrations of most universities are less than life-threatening targets. Graduate student unions, affirmative-action activism and tenure debates all focus almost exclusively on university politics. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the raucous, furniture-burning protests against anti-binge drinking laws created the most campus unrest since the antiwar demonstrations. The only recent movement that has looked at all outward is the national (and increasingly effective) movement to stop universities from buying sweatshirts and athletic uniforms made in foreign sweatshops.

The Iranian student activists, by contrast, are more than the vanguard conscience of the nation. "They have earned even more respect by raising demands that reflect the needs of the general population," says Amirahmadi. They continue to focus on issues of unemployment and poverty as well as civil and legal rights.

Yet even the students' admiring elders worry that those who fight the clergy, the army and fanatical Islamic vigilantes may end up victims of a Tiananmen Square-type disaster. Manook Khodabakhshian points to the Supreme National Security Council's recent promise to try protesters for moharaeb (crimes against God) and mofsed (spreading corruption). Both crimes are punishable by death and may indeed result in a wave of executions. (The Iranian community mobilized demonstrations for Thursday, July 15, across the globe to bring international attention to this.) "They will not be really successful at bringing changes unless they are met by forces outside the university," says Amirahmadi. Who knows, perhaps our student activists will learn something from this page in Iranian history.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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