More stubbornly than blood, religious meaning lines the streets of Tehran in ways unforeseen. Dissidents are living up to Shia Islam's most cherished tradition: challenging the government's monopoly on power.
Make no mistake: Iranians are Iranian first and Shiites later. Nor do all Iranians practise Islam. Still, the Islamic Republic of Iran is the largest Shia-majority country in the world, and its creed has become a rising influence in the broader Middle East.
Indeed, one of President Barack Obama's advisers hints that, if this Shia behemoth develops the bomb, it could amplify the ancient and animus-drenched rivalry between Islam's two major sects, putting in motion a nuclear showdown with the region's Sunni heavyweight, Saudi Arabia. In such a scenario, Washington would be a spectator - at best.
All of which helps explain the deep significance of this month's protests and the regime's iron-fisted response. For 30 years, Iranian politics has harboured a dirty little heresy. By concentrating state affairs in the clutches of clerics, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomaini's revolution twisted Shia Islam into a form of its historically hated rival, Sunnism.
Ever since the Prophet Mohammed's death in 632, Muslims have been fighting and dying over the right to succeed Islam's messenger. After several struggles culminating in assassinations, the Sunni-Shia split emerged. Sunnis backed a leader who got so serious about stability that he killed the Prophet's own grandson, Hussein, to preserve power.
Horrified at this flagrant abuse of authority, partisans of the Prophet's family broke away and formed a minority sect, Shiism. Symbolized by Hussein's heroic martyrdom - he entered battle knowing he would likely die - Shiism's passion play is the eternal fight for justice against oppression. Especially despised is oppression by those who crave, then horde, earthly influence to the point of dictatorship.
According to Shia mythology, despotism at all costs is the stuff of the Sunni value system. Hence the enmity that so many Shia Iranians feel toward Sunni Arabs, viewing them as colonizers who have demeaned a rich and nuanced Persian civilization through vulgar religious dogma.
Sunni leaders have returned the acrimony, discriminating against Shiites throughout the Middle East to this day. Against the backdrop of Shiism's foundational story, mere slights assume epic size. Mistreatment, minor or otherwise, reminds Iranians that 1,329 years after the slaughter of the Prophet's grandchild, not much has changed in the Sunni thirst for complete control.
For Iran's ayatollahs to mimic that creed by suppressing their own nation thus smacks of treason. As one of my young Tehran informants told me by phone, "Glorious Imam Hussein would have revolted at our repression. Why shouldn't we, too? We are the traditionalists. They are the traitors." The next day, Basij paramilitaries struck my informant in the head, putting him in hospital. He is still convalescing.
By attacking today's rebels like the Sunni overlords of yore, Iran's mullahs are betraying the revolution that made Shia Islam such a potent challenge to the sectarian status quo. How potent? Khomaini's Iran exported the mystique of martyrdom to Sunni lands. And from their adversaries, Khomaini's henchmen imported the practice of empire-building as a religious calling.
In geopolitics, that is reciprocity. But for many Iranian youth, that is hypocrisy.
One has to wonder whether Iran's guardians appreciate that their success in politicizing religion could now be the very tool wielded in their downfall. Over three decades, they have brilliantly propagandized Iranian youth with Shia Islam's central narrative. They underestimated the possibility that young believers would use it against them.
With a new generation rising up, Hussein-like, to take on the thugs within, the danger is not they will sacrifice life and limb as the Prophet's grandchildren did. Martyrdom will be necessary, even celebrated, for the sake of furthering mass defiance. (Just watch the ritual memorials for Neda, a 26-year-old student whose murder by the Basij has rocketed around the world via video-enabled cellphones.)
Rather, the danger is that dissidents will content themselves with dying for a moral victory, as some interpret the Prophet's family to have done. In that case, the power-mongers can continue to inflict suffering at will.
Any narrative that fetishizes oppression cannot end that oppression. No doubt, Iranian protesters are upholding Shia tradition by fighting back. It remains to be seen whether they can invoke tradition to replace, once and for all, martyrdom with freedom.
Irshad Manji is author of The Trouble with Islam Today.
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