Op-Ed: Protests in Iran have ties to Nebraska youth
Friday is the 116th anniversary of the Persian Constitutional Revolution, the first democratic revolution in the Middle East. And the culture of protest engendered by that revolution is alive and well in Iran today.
In recent months, Iranians have taken to the streets President Ebrahim Raisi’s cuts in food subsidies, which led to price increases of up to 300%. Small businesses across the country have temporarily shut down to declare their opposition to a sudden increase in sales tax. iranian women risked arrest by publicly removing their hijabdemonstrating against the Islamic dress code demanded by the government.
Actions like these have their origins in 1906, when, after years of boycotts, strikes and bloody street demonstrations, a group of young Iranian revolutionaries forced the ailing monarch, Muzaffar ad-Din Shah, to sign the the country’s first constitution, establishing the rule of law and severely limiting its unchecked powers. The Persian Constitutional Revolution was the first of its kind in a Muslim-majority state. Its basic aim was to marry traditional Islamic principles with modern concepts such as individual rights and popular sovereignty.
While the revolutionaries took some of their language and ideas from Europe and the United States, the movement itself was firmly rooted in more than a century of Persian political thought. The result was a truly indigenous democratic movement, which led to a freely elected independent parliament and a constitution guaranteeing the basic rights of all Iranians.
The connections between the events of the Persian Constitutional Revolution and the United States would go beyond language. In 1907, shortly after the constitution was signed, a young American missionary from Nebraska named Howard Baskerville arrived in the northwest 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 sends his troops to besiege the last bastion of the revolution: the city of Tabriz, where Baskerville resides. Baskerville was caught in the middle of a civil war.
Driven by the suffering of the people around him, Baskerville renounced his missionary position, renounced his American citizenship, and joined the revolution. On April 20, 1909, he led a force of his own students on an ill-fated mission to break the Shah’s siege and bring food to the city’s starving inhabitants. During the attempt he was shot in the heart and killed.
Baskerville’s death galvanized the revolutionaries. They finally broke the siege, marched to Tehran and removed Mohammad Ali Shah from his throne. The Persian constitution was restored and a new parliament elected. His first act was to honor 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 support of the British government, declared a military coup. Iran has once again turned into an absolute monarchy.
Reza Shah’s Pahlavi dynasty would itself be overthrown in 1979 by 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 a dismal failure – that there is, indeed, nothing to celebrate on its anniversary. But that would be myopic and naive.
The Persian Constitutional Revolution may not have turned Iran into a true democracy. But it set a precedent for the exercise of people power in Iran, creating one of the most robust protest cultures in the world.
While most of these latest protests are fueled by social and economic issues, protesters have become increasingly emboldened to march through the streets calling for the regime’s downfall. Beneath today’s economic grievances lurks a 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 destiny. , should be free to act and think without coercion and should have a say in the decisions that govern their lives.
Today, this vibrant grassroots movement has yet to achieve the freedom that all Iranians deserve. But it is not because the people are too weak or the government is too strong. This is because the country remains, to this day, a pawn in the hands of world powers. A tyrant stays in power by isolating his people from the rest of the world. In Iran’s case, four decades of sanctions, lockdowns and global isolation imposed by world powers have done the tyrant’s job for him.
The legacy of the Persian Constitutional Revolution can be seen in the Iranians who never stopped beating at the door of freedom. Now that door is cracking ever so slightly, as a government whose primary duty is to feed and protect its citizens has proven utterly incapable of doing either. Perhaps with a few more nudges, the door will open and the people of Iran will regain power, as they first did in 1906.
Reza Aslan is a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside. His next book is “An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville”. @rezaaslan