Iran’s Cultural Expression And Democratic Aspirations Go Hand In Hand

In Iran, this Tuesday marked the festival of Chahrshanbeh Suri. With its roots in pre-Islamic ritual, this festival of fire precedes the Iranian New Year, called Nowruz, or “new day” in English. Chahrshanbeh Suri celebrations have long been a target of repression by Iran’s clerical regime, partly because of the fact that they can facilitate spontaneous public gatherings and partly because of their symbolic significance. For the mullahs, any acknowledgement of a broader Iranian cultural identity is a threat to the regime’s effort to create a society based exclusively on the strictures of fundamentalist Shiite Islam.

Neither Chahrshanbeh Suri nor Nowruz is inherently political. But for opponents of the clerical regime, the celebrations hold symbolic significance related to the hope of a new day in the political future of the country. Typical Chahrshanbeh Suri celebrations include the act of jumping over small fires as a means of demonstrating purification in preparation for the New Year. Today, it is reasonable to consider this as not just a personal metaphor but also a representation of the entire nation’s purification by fire in the midst of a popular push toward regime change.

This broader meaning may be far more prominent this year than in years past, as Nowruz will be celebrated just weeks after the end of a mass uprising that began in late December before spreading to every major city in Iran. The protests took on a virtually unprecedented political tone, defying the regime’s censorship laws with chants of “death to the dictator” and clear calls for a change of the theocratic government.

The likelihood surely exists for Chahrshanbeh Suri gatherings to follow a similar same pattern, with apolitical roots giving rise to a resurgent uprising as more and more people come into the streets to express the social support they feel and, to openly demonstrate their deep disapproval about their Islamist theocratic government.

There are a number of reasons to expect this outcome. Many experts on the Middle East have speculated that the December and January uprising never truly ended but was simply put on pause by the regime’s repressive response. Those experts generally predicted that the political violence would only redouble the people’s outrage and make another such uprising all the more likely in the near future.

The democratic opposition coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), has indicated that at least 50 people were killed in clashes with security forces during the recent demonstrations and at least 14 people were subsequently tortured to death while in police custody. The NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), has issued calls to action specifically in the run-up to Chahrshanbeh Suri, for the people to demand justice for political killings both old and new.

It seems clear that Tehran recognizes the danger of people heeding such calls. While the January protests were still ongoing, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei begrudgingly acknowledged the leading role that the PMOI had played in planning and carrying out those demonstrations. Now, with that threat to the regime’s hold on power still fresh in their minds, the mullahs have begun making plans to prevent public gatherings in the week before the Iranian New Year celebration, Nowruz.

The PMOI’s intelligence social network in Iran has uncovered the regime’s plan to redeploy the old 1979-type Basij militia to every major municipality. Such expansive coverage is deemed necessary in light of an uprising that reportedly touched 142 different localities, including rural towns that were widely considered to be conservative strongholds with little danger of popular revolt. Furthermore, as we saw from demonstrations that continued to reoccur for weeks after the uprising passed its peak, the geographic breadth of the movement spreads the regime’s repressive infrastructure very thin, making it more difficult for Tehran to contain it.

In short, the recent uprising demonstrated the comprehensive culture clash that characterises the Iranian regime’s relationship with its people. This is something that has been put on display at various times throughout the nearly 40 year history of the Islamic Republic, albeit usually on a smaller scale.

Chahrshanbeh Suri is one example of this phenomenon, as are various other cultural celebrations, threatening the regime’s efforts to pigeon-hole Iranian society as a bastion of Islamic fundamentalism.

It will be very appropriate, then, if such a celebration becomes the backdrop for another push for the ouster of the theocratic dictatorship and the establishment of democratic governance in line with the NCRI President-elect, Maryam Rajavi’s ten-point plan, calling for safeguards on religious freedom, the rights of ethnic minorities, gender equality, rule of law and all the basic principles of free expression that define a civilized, modern and open society.

In this way, Chahrshanbeh Suri can be seen as a simultaneous embrace of Iran’s cultural past and its political future. Countless Iranians already see its celebration as an opportunity to reclaim that true Iranian identity, which has been suppressed throughout Iran’s modern history. The fire festival gives them a chance to throw off the restraints of fundamentalist Islam, if only for a moment. And the international community can rest assured that as soon as they are able, those same people will throw off the theocratic religious dictatorship permanently.

The international community — not least the press — should take every means possible to prevent Tehran’s suppression of forthcoming gatherings, and to facilitate free communication among Iran’s activist communities.

We need not think of such measures in terms of our imposing a new form of government on the Iranian nation. Instead, we should embrace the goal of helping the Iranian nation to embrace its own true identity.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass is an independent Ulster Unionist member of the UK House of Lords and prominent member of the British Committee for Iran Freedom (BCFIF), www.iran-freedom.org

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.