By Zhina Moghadam
On the eve of the anniversary of the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini in the custody of the Guidance Patrol, government security agencies have employed all suppression tactics and coercive means. Every day, dozens of women, civil and trade activists, labor activists, detainees, and victims of the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, as well as activists and members of the plaintiff’s families, are arrested, summoned to prisons and security centers, abducted, or made to disappear.
Protesting students and professors are being expelled from universities, and dozens of protesters are on the verge of execution. In just three months, more than 350 citizens have been executed, some of whom were political prisoners.
Simultaneously, extensive internet disruptions and the presence of Iranian armed forces in regions such as Kurdistan and Sistan and Baluchestan have been reported, with military and security authorities threatening protesters.
However, Mozhgan Eftekhari and Amjad Amini, the parents of Mahsa Zhina Amini, in a message for the commemoration of their daughter’s death, have invited “everyone to avoid any violent action and reaction against it”. The importance of the content of this invitation is all that is meant to be expressed here.
To understand the importance of the content of this message, one must first know where the power of governments comes from. With what tools and tactics do they have, and for what purpose do they use their power in suppressing dissent?
According to Gene Sharp in his book From Dictatorship to Democracy, political power derives from six elements: “legitimacy, sanctions, material resources, human resources, knowledge and skills, and hidden resources”.
It should be noted that the right of governments to access these resources is not exclusive, but is instead conditional on the obedience, submission, participation, cooperation, and support of a significant portion of citizens. Even the most authoritarian dictatorships rely on the people to access and wield sources of power.
According to “A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle” by the Canvas Institute of Serbia (Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies), governments pursue three main goals in suppressing civil resistance movements: 1) Preventing mass protest activities by removing or neutralizing prominent activists and organizers of movements, 2) Preventing new people from joining the movement by creating an atmosphere of pervasive fear and apprehension, and 3) Calculated incitement of certain parts of the movement to carry out retaliatory measures, with violent reactions in order to justify more violent actions and more importantly to erode the trust of movement supporters in the activists.
So, in the face of a government that uses all of its resources to suppress the people, what power should one rely on? The main source of political power in a society is the people themselves. Therefore, attracting broad and diverse support and participation from various segments of the population is the most critical component in balancing the power dynamics between the political authorities and the civil resistance movement. This is the primary and most fundamental source of power of civil resistance movements, which is also referred to as the principle of inclusiveness. Two other principles for gaining power in civil resistance movements are creating a power divide and imposing costs on the power structure.
Based on historical experiences and various researches in the field of nonviolent movements, a movement achieves the principle of inclusiveness only if it is nonviolent. Nonviolence, not as a moral value, but as the only optimal practical solution and appropriate to the capacities of the people’s power against the government’s power. A nonviolent movement reduces costs, opens up space for more individuals to participate, and consequently achieves deeper penetration among government supporters. Therefore, It possesses a higher potential and capacity to impose costs on the government, leading to a higher chance of success.
On the other hand, a nonviolent movement can, under specific circumstances, revert the consequences and the power of violence imposed by oppressors back onto the oppressors. This process, known as “political jiu-jitsu,” occurs only when a movement responds to government suppression and violent actions with calculated nonviolent actions. In other words, in this process, the force of suppression and violence used by the opposing party is redirected against them. One of the most important outcomes of this process is creating a divide among government supporters and attracting them to the movement, which means the movement gains strength and subsequently weakens the government.
On the contrary, even the slightest act of violence or threat of violence by members of a movement can lead to severe suppression by the opposing party. It is clear that suppressing movements accompanied by violence is much easier to justify than suppressing peaceful actions. That is where the oppressor side gets the opportunity to use political jiu-jitsu in their favor and employ violent force against protesters or those associated with them more aggressively. Violent actions will also undermine public trust and turn various segments of the population away from the movement, and lead to a loss of support from the international community.
To ensure the accuracy of these statements, it is worthwhile to take a look at two periods, each lasting a few days, during the peak of the Woman, Life, Freedom Movement, in which the suppression, arrests, and the killing of protesters and citizens reached their highest levels.
On the evening of October 26, 2022, which coincided with the presence of thousands of protesters at the Aichi Cemetery of Saqqez city to commemorate the 40th day of Mahsa Zhina Amini’s death, some armed individuals attacked the Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz city, and they opened fire on worshippers present there without facing any obstacles or resistance. Following the hacking of the Fars News Agency’s secret bulletin to Hossein Salami, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, it became clear that government security agencies had prior knowledge of the attack on the Shah Cheragh Shrine but did not prevent it. Subsequently, the level of suppression and the widespread use of lethal tools against protesters intensified significantly.
According to a report by Amnesty International which was published on October 28, 2022: “On October 26 and 27, Iranian security forces intensified their illegal use of force, including firearms, military ammunition, and tear gas. They shot the protesters and mourners who had gathered in the provinces of Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, and Lorestan.”
The simultaneous occurrence of events such as the unprecedented firing of war bullets at protesters in numerous cities, the announcement of the deaths of several protesters on state television, the trial of the first group of detained protesters on charges of “spreading corruption on Earth” and “waging war against God,” the publication of a list of dozens of detained protesters labeled as condemned to execution, and the threatening of protesters by security and military authorities during these days, all indicate that the sudden escalation in the severity of government suppression and violence by security forces was not a random occurrence. It was pre-organized, and its implementation was carefully divided between different government agencies.
Furthermore, during the nationwide strikes and protest gatherings on 15th, 16th, and 17th of November, the intensity of violence by the suppressive forces, especially in Kurdish cities, suddenly jumped once again. The reason for this can be found in an audio file by Qasim Qureshi, the deputy commander of Basij (a paramilitary volunteer militia), which was leaked to the public by the Black Reward group following the hacking of Fars News Agency documents. In a security meeting with government journalists, he claimed that Basij bases were attacked 12 times in these three days.
At the same time, government-affiliated media accused the protesters in Kurdish cities of carrying out chain attacks on residential areas and, in some cases, of killing local security and military officials in these cities. The government authorities’ acknowledgment of sending large convoys of ground forces to these cities on those days indicates that attributing violent actions to the protesters can provide a justifiable pretext for heightened suppression.
According to reports of human rights organizations, within just one week leading up to the 21st of November 2022, approximately 90 protesters were killed, and at least 47 of them were related to cities that have been accused of violent actions by the government’s propaganda apparatus. This serves as further evidence that any form of violence or the threat thereof by protesters can be used as a pretext for even more deadly and severe government-led suppression.
In contrast, during periods when expressions of protest focus on civil disobedience, street performances, strikes, and campaigns to boycott institutions and companies supporting the government, and other nonviolent measures, not only have broader segments of the population been involved in or actively cooperated with the movement, but the costs imposed on activists and movement organizers have been significantly lower.