Iranians compete for Palestine

Both the government and opposition take to the streets to mark Jerusalem Day.

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, who is expected to lead al-Quds Day prayers, wants “decisive and ruthless action” against  the leaders of the anti-Ahmadinejad protests [EPA]

The gap between the Iranian government and much of the country’s population that has been growing since the disputed presidential elections in June is going to be narrowed today, for a most unlikely reason: Palestine.

For three months, the opposition has been calling for the annulment of elections that are widely believed to have been fabricated to keep Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, in power.

The government, for its part, has been trying to suppress the protests, which began with a huge march immediately after the elections and have continued with smaller demonstrations, graffiti writing and electronic campaigning. Several thousands have been arrested – hundreds of them still in jail – and dozens have been killed, either on the streets or in prison.

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Today, both the government and its opponents will be celebrating al-Quds, or Jerusalem, Day, the name given by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to the last Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Making the announcement in August 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini said he was calling on all the Muslims of the world to hold ceremonies on this day to demonstrate “the solidarity of Muslims world-wide and announce their support for the legitimate rights of the Muslim people”.

Since then, al-Quds Day has been celebrated in a number of Muslim countries and by Muslim communities elsewhere, but nowhere has it had the same status as in Iran. The celebrations in Tehran have been especially significant in recent years, when

Iran’s support for the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and Ahmadinejad’s calls for the removal of Israel as a political entity have caused controversy inside and outside Iran.

International attention has focused largely on neutralising what has been described by some as the Islamic Republic’s ‘existential threat’ to Israel.

Many Arab governments have also been worried about losing their status as declared champions of the Palestinian cause to a non-Arab state whose anti-American and anti-Israeli stance has been winning it support among the Arab masses.

Great national investment

Ahmadinejad, left, was sworn in for a second presidential term on August 5  [EPA]

Inside Iran, where fondness for political Islam has been declining fast, the government has come under criticism by those who believe it has been squandering the country’s wealth to boost Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Increasingly, the Islamic Republic has been arguing that such support is needed for Iran’s political interests. General Hasan Firuzabadi, the commander of the Iranian Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that ‘the people of Palestine defend our security as well’, and described support for the Palestinians as ‘a great investment for the future’ of the Islamic Republic.

The new argument is in line with a number of other nationalistic gestures made by Ahmadinejad’s government, for instance his references to leading figures in classical and modern Persian literature – Rudaki, Hafiz, Rumi, and Sohrab Sepehri –  as his government’s counterweight to the West’s ‘arsenal of nuclear and chemical weapons.’

Ahmadinejad’s literary allusions have caused a mixture of fury and ridicule at home and abroad, given his less than erudite discourse and his apparent obsession with nuclear capability.

In the same manner, the recourse to ‘national interests’ as the reason for promoting what was once introduced as a pan-Islamic cause has been taken by the opposition as further evidence of the government’s dishonesty, opportunism and demagogy.

Unable to hold demonstrations for three months, the opposition ‘Green Movement of Freedom’ has called on its supporters to turn this year’s al-Quds Day green.

Not only are the protesters expected to wear and carry as many green items as they can, they have also put a green shade on the focus of the celebrations, the Palestinian cause.

Green rights

A few opposition activists have been promoting slogans such as ‘Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, I will give my life for Iran.’ Many more, however, have called for slogans in support of human rights for all peoples, including Palestinians and Iranians.

The opposition’s growing stream of online publications has been carrying many articles expressing sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinians.

Some authors write from an Islamic point of view; others point out that the Palestinian cause was supported by Iranian left-wing groups who took up arms against the Shah’s government well before the clergy entered the political arena, and who were among the first victims of the Islamic Republic’s violent suppression of its opponents and critics some 30 years ago.  

Polemics have been augmented by political art, equating the loss of the Palestinian lands and rights under Israeli occupation with what the Iranian opposition movement describes as the usurpation of the Iranian people’s rights and control of their land by Ahmadinejad.

The theme has been highlighted in two fliers that have appeared in Iran in the past few days. One is a ‘Green’ version of Handala, the cartoon character that was created by the Palestinian artist, Naji al-Ali.

In this flier, Handala wears the green scarf and wrist-band which symbolise Iran’s ‘Green Movement’, underneath a caption that reads: ‘Palestine is right here. September 18.’
The other flier shows two young women, one Palestinian and the other Iranian, respectively wearing the Palestinian keefiyeh and the Iranian protest movement’s green scarf.

Each carries a dove on one arm and raises the ‘V’ for victory sign with the other. The caption under the image reads: ‘This land is ours: Tehran-Jerusalem’.

Countering discord

The state has been preparing itself for a possible confrontation with the opposition.

In contrast with Ayatollah Khomeini’s explicit statement that the “al-Quds Day is universal and not exclusively concerned with Jerusalem”, the current leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that the “al-Quds Day belongs to the cause of Jerusalem and also symbolises the unity of the Iranian nation”.

Addressing last Friday’s prayers, Ayatollah Khamenei warned against anyone “trying to use the al-Quds Day for causing discord”, adding that “discord must be confronted” because “only a united Iranian nation can hold aloft the banner of al-Quds proudly”.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has also warned against al-Quds Day being used ‘by the enemies for disruption and deviance.’

Rafsanjani sidelined

Rafsanjani will not be leading al-Quds Day prayers for the first time in 25 years

Another sign of concern over possible unrest has been the removal of a former president, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, as the leader of the al-Quds Day prayers, a position he had held for 25 years.

When Rafsanjani led the Friday prayers in July, a month after the disputed presidential elections, thousands of opposition activists joined the traditional congregation who regularly attend the prayers at Tehran University.

In his sermon,  Rafsanjani said the public’s faith in the Islamic Republic had to be restored, those arrested during the post-election unrest had to be released, and those who had suffered violence had to mollified.

Opposition activists who applauded Rafsanjani’s sermon were later dispersed by security forces using tear gas.

Rafsanjani has downplayed his removal as the prayers Leader, saying it should not be seen as a political move, and has called on the public to join the Jerusalem Day march.

Similar calls have been made by the reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami, and by two protesting presidential candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Today’s prayers are due to be led by a mid-ranking conservative clergyman, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, not related to the former president, who has already attacked the protests against the elections.

In a sermon soon after the disputed polls, Ahmad Khatami, who is also the deputy head of the influential body of Experts Assembly, called for “decisive and ruthless handling of the leaders of the riots, whose heads are stuck in America and Israel’s trough, so that it would serve as a lesson for everyone”.

Hossein Shahidi teaches journalism at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. He is the author of Journalism in Iran (Routledge, 2007).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source : Al Jazeera

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