The Subtlety of Slogans

Why “Death to Khamenei” does not mean what it says.
January 25, 2010
Khamenei seems to be concerned about losing influence if negotiations are opened with the opposition. (Photo: Supreme Leader's office)
Khamenei seems to be concerned about losing influence if negotiations are opened with the opposition. (Photo: Supreme Leader's office)

Iranian anti-government protesters have started chanting “Death to Khamenei” but in the context of the evolving slogans of the “Green Movement”, it does not carry the same weight as “Death to the Shah” during the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Although some have seen the slogan as meaning that the Iranian people are seeking to overthrow the regime and eliminate Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, there are indications that neither the leaders of the opposition nor the majority of the Iranian people are ready to face such an extreme outcome.

Instead, “Death to Khamenei” - first widely heard during bloody protests on the Shia holy day of Ashura in December - is merely a way for the people to voice their anger about the supreme leader’s failure to address their concerns.

Protests that followed the disputed re-election in June of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began with the slogan, “Death to the dictator, be it a shah or a doctor” - supporters of Ahmadinejad often refer to him as a doctor. The main slogan written on placards during the silent protest of June 15-18, which came to be used around the world, was “Where is my vote?”

It was after Khamenei’s Friday sermon on June 19, when he made his support for Ahmadinejad explicit and threatened protestors, that people began their nightly ritual of shouting “Death to the dictator, be it a cleric or a doctor” alongside their chants of “Allah-o Akbar”.

Afterwards, an elderly gentleman on Azadi Street turned to the person next to him and said, “You see, he didn’t even mention us!” – meaning Khamenei did not address the concerns of the protestors. “Death to Khamenei” was then heard occasionally but it still was not adopted by the majority of protestors.

At the Friday sermon led by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – still an influential figure whose views lean towards the reformists - on July 17, people chanted “Death to the dictator”. However, this was actually a response to “Death to adversaries of the supreme leadership” shouted by government supporters.

When students from Tehran University were attacked by the security forces on November 4, they chanted “Death to the supreme leadership” and “Rape and crime; death to this leadership”. On the same day, a poster of Khamenei was torn down and trampled in Vali-Asr Square but his name was not used directly.

The funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri – a critic of Khamenei - in Qom on December 21, became an anti-government rally and chants became much more direct, including “Moharram month is bloody, Yazid is done with”. For the first time, Khamenei was being compared to Yazid, a seventh century ruler and hated figure among the Shia. Yazid ordered the murder of Hossein Ibn Ali, the third Shia imam and grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. It eventually became clear who the “dictator” was.

Finally, “Death to Khamenei” was explicitly articulated during the Ashura protests, the anniversary of the martyrdom of Hossein Ibn Ali, and the government denounced the slogan as undermining the Iranian political system.

In a speech on December 30, a Khamenei supporter and Friday sermon leader in the city of Mashhad, Ahmad Alamolhoda, insulted the protestors as “calves and yeanlings” and called for them to be punished as Moharebs. In Islamic jurisprudence, Mohareb signals someone who is the enemy of God and/or God’s representative on earth and whose punishment is execution.

Sadeq Larijani, the hard-line head of Iran’s judiciary, said of the Ashura protestors, “This group has acted dirty and rude … in reality, they are not questioning the elections, but the regime itself.”

Certain opposition leaders have also denounced such slogans. Former reformist president Seyed Mohammad Khatami attributed them to a minority of protestors who he said “have done wrong and have undermined the political system”. He added, “Both the institution of supreme leadership and the third chapter on the rights of the Iranian people are part of the constitution and are accepted and respected by us [the opposition movement].”

He also cautioned against radical change, “Don’t assume that if the current regime is deposed, we will get in its place a perfect one for the benefit of the people.”

In contrast to Khatami, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main figurehead of the Green Movement, put the blame on the regime. “If slogans and actions are taken to unacceptable extremes, it is the result of pushing protestors off a bridge, the shootings, running protestors over, and all the terror.”

The heads of the Green Movement have so far avoided addressing Khamenei directly. Five days after Ashura, Mousavi issued a five-point manifesto that offered the government a way to escape the current turmoil. Many interpreted this manifesto as signalling that Mousavi was ready to compromise. It made no reference to the supreme leader.

However, two days later, five important exiled Green Movement figures came up with a much more demanding manifesto. Although this was not welcomed among the people and many were unaware of it, some of its demands indirectly called for the supreme leader’s powers to be curtailed. For example, the signatories called for the head of the judiciary to be elected instead of being appointed by the supreme leader.

The manifesto was inconsistent in that Khamenei was referred to only once, indirectly and in the introduction where he was called a “cruel leader”. In Shia Islam, disobeying a cruel leader is highly recommended. However, there was no mention of removing Khamenei or even the institution of supreme leader even though Akbar Ganji, one of the signatories, had previously demanded the prosecution of Khamenei in the International Criminal Court.

Another signatory, Mohsen Kadivar, is a reformist cleric who has written a book rejecting the need for the supreme leader. Another, Abdol-Karim Soroush, in September published a harsh letter to Khamenei, in which he even “closed the doors of repentance” on him. However, in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor on January 6, he did speak of the “necessity of national reconciliation” and “the start of serious negotiations” between the government and the opposition.

But will the people chanting “Death to Khamenei” embrace negotiations with him? Daruish is a 52-year-old political activist who in the 1980s spent five years in prison after being accused of being a Marxist. In 1978-79 he had been an active revolutionary, chanting “Death to the Shah” along with everyone else. This time around, although Daruish participated in the “Death to Khamenei” chants, he says, “I don’t agree with this slogan but I shouted it along with the crowd. We were angry. How else can empty-handed people respond to the violence that is directed at them?”

When they fight, Iranians can throw the most extreme insults at each other but this does not mean that they mean what they say. Many quarrels end by one party saying, “I didn’t mean it.”

Although there are parallels between current protests and those during the revolution, the present movement is looking for a gradual process of change. Chanting “Death to Khamenei” results from an immediate sense of anger; an anger that according to a professor of psychology who did not wish to be named has arisen from the supreme leader’s lack of attention to the people’s needs. “By chanting slogans against Khamenei, the opposition is in fact trying to grab his attention,” he said.

It remains unclear whether Khamenei will give in and officially recognise the existence of the opposition. In his most recent speech on January 19, he complained that the stance of the elite was ambiguous and he called on them to make their position clear in the face of “the words and actions of the enemy”.

Khamenei seems to be concerned about losing influence if negotiations are opened with the opposition. This concern was clearly articulated by General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who said the main goal of the opposition was “the reduction of the influence of the supreme leadership and its transformation into a symbolic position”.

The Shah declared on November 4, 1978 for the first time that he had heard the message of the people’s revolution. He was still overthrown three months later. Now, the Green Movement is asking Khamenei to hear its message.

Like the Shah, will Khamenei act too late?

Yasaman Baji is the pseudonym of an Iranian Journalist based in Tehran.

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