Tiananmen and Tehran: A second look

Ahmadinejad's bane? China has no "culture of martyrdom" to match Iran's

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 22, 2009 6:13PM (EDT)

When Iran's opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, proclaimed on Saturday night that he was "ready for martyrdom," he tapped boldly and directly into one of the deepest founding truths of Shia Islam -- the fatal decision by Imam Hussein, the prophet Mohammed's grandson, to stand against the tyranny and misrule of Yazid the usurper.

It may be grandiose to identify yourself with the wellspring of your faith, but as the New Republic's Jason Zengerle noted in a response to my Friday post, "Tianamen's Bloody Lessons for Tehran," there is a "culture of martyrdom" in Shia Islam that makes what is happening in Tehran fundamentally different from what happened in China 20 years ago.

Certainly, the events of the weekend have forced me to reconsider the parallels that I drew. After the tanks rolled in to Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, that was it. Game over. There were no running battles in the street in the days afterward. That state exerted its will, and a chapter ended.

The state is attempting to exert its will in Iran, but the battle, for now, continues. Perhaps the latest ominous warning from the Revolutionary Guard portends some kind of dire resolution, but whatever happens, it sure doesn't seem analogous to the quick resolution that Deng Xiaoping engineered. The opposition has framed Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad squarely in the role of those ancient villains who betrayed Islam's founding ideals.

The equivalent feat in China would be to argue that the Communist Party had lost the "mandate of heaven." There are examples, in Chinese history, of righteous officials who were unafraid to call the emperor to account, but successful dynastic or revolutionary change generally only occurred when the state was no longer able to exert real power. There is no culture of martyrdom in China, which may explain why once the decision to crush the protesters was made and acted upon, the democracy movement expired instantly.

Which is not to say that the Chinese have no will to confront entrenched power. Even as I was writing this post, a reader sent me a link to an account of a mass riot involving possibly tens of thousands of Chinese in the town of Shishou in Hubei Province. Given the cycles of Chinese history, it is definitely not beyond imagination that corruption and growing economic inequality could chip away at the Chinese Communist Party's hold on heaven's mandate. But the riots and protests that occur in China tend to be motivated by specifically local concerns. The basic legitimacy of the state is not being questioned in any organized revolutionary fashion. The same cannot be said about Iran. And after watching one YouTube video after another this weekend of citizens lining up against the forces of the state, it seems pretty clear that Iranian democracy activists are not going to go down without a fight. Whether it's their faith that inspires them, or the memory that just three decades ago they successfully overthrew one corrupt dictatorship, or just the sheer outrageousness of a brazenly stolen election, I don't know. But the events of the 7th century A.D. seem to have a pretty direct relevance to what's going on right now, and that is amazing, all by itself.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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