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13.09.2023

Slogans as Political Forces

Mohammad Firouzi

This text was commissioned by Shirin Mohammad as part of the conversation series accompanying her solo show rebellion of the slogans at Künstlerhaus Bremen (01.04.–04.06.2023). Central to the exhibition was a publication compiling slogans that emerged during Iran's protests spanning the years 2017 to 2022, collected by the artist.

Protesting woman in Kermanshah, Iran, 29 December 2017(Dey 96), © Radio Zamaneh news agency

A slogan, stemming from socio-political contexts, presents itself before the political forces as a social fact and shapes the entire political landscape around itself. Thus, it emerges as a moment of utmost significance for the political forces. As Lenin argued, “Too often has it happened that, when history has taken a sharp turn, even progressive parties have for some time been unable to adapt themselves to the new situation and have repeated slogans which had formerly been correct but had now lost all meaning—lost it as suddenly as the sharp turn in history was sudden”.[1] In this context, this critical juncture could ultimately determine the fate and judgement of these political forces. Therefore, at such a moment that slogans wield a profound influence over other forces, one could deduce that they are not merely passive reflections of pre-existing forces but rather pivotal elements that shape the contours of political discourse.

An eloquent manifestation of this power is evident in the Jina uprising, which was ignited by the slogan 'Woman, Life, Freedom.' In a split second, this powerful phrase captured Iran's political and social sphere, uniting all forces outside of the prevailing power structure. Moreover, this slogan not only permeated all facets of previous movements, molding them according to its essence but also revealed previously inconceivable horizons. It paved the way for other empowering slogans like 'Queer, Trans, Liberty,' and 'Trans, Life, Freedom,' which found fertile ground within the framework established by this slogan. The 1979 revolution also witnessed the emergence of another exemplar with such remarkable influence: the slogan 'Down with the Shah'. As stated by Mohammad Mokhtari[2], – whose work A Study of the Slogans of the 1979 Uprising[3], gratitude is owed to, this slogan “… signifies the common thread that united all social forces and groups”, and the distinctive feature of groups like “conservative” and, particularly, “liberal” groups from the revolutionaries[4]. The slogan 'Down with the Shah' wielded an immense power, forever shattering the sacred aura enveloping the monarchic institution and paving the way for a kingless world, a possibility that Iranians had not experienced for millennia. In this new world, there was no room for the “moderate conservatives”, who believed that the Shah must reign but not rule.

Acknowledging slogans as a potent force in political and social movements, one must grasp that each slogan, regardless of its popularity, unfurls an array of possibilities, transforming the present time from the given to the contingent. The study of slogans of an uprising not only mirrors prior facts but also serves as a compass to the horizons and potentialities of a historical moment.

 

The erasure of "Death to the Shah" street graffiti after 28 Mordad coup d'état, 1953, © Radio Zamaneh news agency

Thus, in this short essay, I will try to paint a picture, tracing a path from the 1979 revolution to the Jina uprising in 2022. This attempt will entail an examination and comparison of select slogans utilized during the 1979 revolution and the protests of 2017, leading up to the Jina uprising. Mokhtari's, A Study of the Slogans of the 1979 Uprising, published in Ketab-e Jom'e (Book of Friday), grants us relatively authentic access to the slogans that reverberated during the 1979 revolution. His series of notes, alongside the compilation rebellion of slogans encompassing the Jina uprising's slogans and those from the December 2017 protests, served for this essay as the foundation for examination of chanted slogans in subsequent protests and comparison of some with those from the 1979 revolution. While the authors of rebellion of the slogans refrained from interpreting and analyzing the chanted slogans spanning the years, their choice of commencing from 2017 bears immense significance. The protests in this year marked an irreversible rupture between the people and the Islamic Republic regime. These protests emerged only two years after a presidential election that witnessed a broken record of public participation.

The election's outcome, with the triumph of the candidate representing the reformist faction, held the promise of a moderate compromise between a significant segment of Iran's society and the government in the post-2009 era[5]. However, the state's incapability and lack of political will to fulfill its pledges - encompassing political openness, economic improvement, and normalization of international relations - fostered a profound despair that erected a divide between the government and its people, relegating them to two disparate continents. From that juncture onwards, anyone even remotely associated with the government, including those who expressed critical dissent, became viewed less a supporter of people than a part of a government that was inseparable into distinct political forces. This historical turning point is encapsulated in the slogan 'Reformists, Principalists, your story is over'. A slogan that sets apart the December 2017 protests from the entire 39-year history following the 1979 revolution.

Mokhtari, Mohammad, ‘The Study of the Slogans of the 1979 Uprising’ front page, Ketab-e Jom'e (Book of Friday), No. 20,24 Dec. 1979, Online Iranian press archive wikipedia

On the other hand, in the same year, a striking shift has been observed in the realm of people's protests, as the prominent religious aspects seem to have faded away. A mere eight years prior, during the protests following the 2009 election, some rallying slogans were inspired by Islamic beliefs. Among these, a notable example of this matter is the removal of the government protestors' watchword, 'Allah-o-Akbar[6]', a slogan with historical significance dating back to the 1979 revolution, where it held both symbolic and religious value for the protesters. Additionally, slogans like 'Yā Hossein, Mir Hossein[7]' and 'Nasru min Allahi wa fathun Qareeb[8], death to the demagogic state' were other instances where Islamic beliefs served as a source of inspiration for the protesters in 2009. However, the landscape shifted dramatically after the December 2017 protests. Surprisingly, there was a complete absence of slogans imbued with Islamic beliefs. Instead, the heard slogans made historical references that were non-Islamic, and in some cases, even anti-Islamic, exemplified by slogans like 'Prayer is not a custom of the Bakhtiari[9]‘.

Of the slogans used during the 1979 revolution, 280 (35%) were rooted in religious concepts, as Mokhtari points out.[10] Yet, in 2017, slogans with religious themes were absent[11], indicating a profound transformation in Iran's society, reflecting a changing attitude towards religion. These two key features, despairing of regime reform and lacking slogans referring to Islamic beliefs, stand out as the most remarkable distinct features of the formed slogans from December 2017 onward. They promise the entrance into a new era in Iran's modern history, where religion and the various branches of the Islamic regime are no longer indisputable players in the realm of Iranian politics.

Does the rise of new slogans entail a radically different future? Many individuals hold the belief that a movement's slogans unveil the essence of that movement, or as Mokhtari asserts, “The slogans reflect various aspects of culture, ideology, mentality, and the spectrum of spontaneity or consciousness.[12]" However, a brief look into the history of revolutions confirms that "men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.[13]" Hence, establishing a direct correlation between what is articulated, the intended meaning, and the eventual outcome is not always feasible.

For example, according to Mokhtari, out of the 800 slogans used during an uprising that led to the founding of the Islamic republic, only 16 slogans specifically mentioned the Islamic republic or government.[14] However, it is important to note that people are not always free to express whatever they desire. Take, for instance, the following slogan:

‘Under tyranny, we won't abide, for liberty's sake, we'll sacrifice our life. We will topple the Pahlavi monarchy’

This slogan was initially chanted during the 1979 revolution, and later, in the year 2022, it was used again during a demonstration by pensioners. The last part of the slogan was altered to:

‘Under tyranny, we won't abide, for liberty's sake, we'll sacrifice our life. God damn this life, God damn this life’

Although the revised version might still convey the desire to overthrow the entire political structure of a regime, it had to be expressed indirectly and in a complex manner due to the prevailing oppression. Here's another example of a slogan:

‘We, the miners, will uproot the oppressors’

Does this slogan chanted by miners in 2022, explicitly point out the oppressor and the meaning of oppression? Preserving all its meanings, this slogan can be directed against a particular employer, but it could also encompass a broader opposition to the entire political and economic regime. The wording of the slogans is crafted with such undetermined meaning that make it challenging to fully grasp the significance of each word without a retrospective examination. Because, the underlying forces that shape the subsequent meanings are not readily apparent. Mokhtari writes: "That which poetry endeavors to capture through the essence of an individual's interaction with society, the slogans attempt to recount through the encounters of specific groups of people with society.[15]" It could be argued that just as poetry is not an immediate reflection of reality, slogans, too, often contain intricacies that can only be untangled and their meaning understood by analyzing the influential forces within a movement.

A significant portion of the slogans that Mokhtari classifies as anti-imperialist vividly exemplifies this concern. According to Mokhtari, 92 slogans, comprising 11.5% of all the revolutionary slogans in 1979, specifically targeted imperialism[16]. Nonetheless, Mokhtari observes that due to a widespread lack of awareness about the global regime of capitalism, there has been a pronounced focus on Farah Pahlavi's alleged illegitimate sexual relationships with Carter[17], leading to her sexual humiliation. Undoubtedly, this focus reflects people's ignorance regarding the true nature of imperialism. However, the recurrent emphasis on the queen of Iran's sexual relationships with the president of the USA is not solely a result of ignorance. In these slogans, Farah symbolizes the motherland, which has been violated by foreign powers due to her husband's (Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) perceived lack of merit. The call in these slogans is to cleanse the motherland from foreign interference. Let's consider the following slogan as an example:

‘Carter desires Farah's charm, and seeks the oil company as her dowry’

Or:

‘Farah, rise and set the bed, Jimmy's wishes must be met’

These examples undeniably demonstrate and validate the inherent connection between nationalism and the patriarchal regime. The patriarchal aspect is entirely absent in the Jina uprising, and as a result, the nationalist-oriented slogans in this uprising differ from the nationalist sentiments in the 1979 revolution. Instead, they serve as indicators of an inclusive patriotism and an acknowledgement of the existence of the Other. Consider the slogans below as an example:

‘From Kurdistan to Tehran, I give my life for Iran’

‘Down with Taliban, whether in Kabul or Tehran’

‘From Kurdistan to Izeh, Iran is bleeding’

‘Zahedan, Kurdistan, leading lights of Iran’

Another significant distinction between the slogans of the 1979 uprising and the post-December 2017 protests is the complete absence of any direct reference to state representatives in the latter. In both the constitutional monarchy and Islamic republic systems, the king and the supreme leader hold no administrative responsibility, leaving the prime minister and the president accountable for governing. However, during the 1979 uprising, “for a significant period, the primary slogan of the revolutionary movement was ‘Down with the Shah’[18]” comprising half of all the slogans used. This emphasis on negating the Shah becomes significant when we consider that only 3 percent of the slogans targeted the prime ministers.[19]  As Mokhtari notes the reason for this distinction lies in the fact that “people viewed the political superstructure as a direct result of the Shah's rule, and the statesmen as mere figureheads and puppets.[20]” A similar phenomenon is observed in the post- December 2017 protests, where the entire regime and the supreme leader became the immediate targets of every protest. This common feature highlights the potential of the socio-political situation to evolve into a revolutionary one, although it alone is not sufficient to prove a revolutionary situation. In contrast, during the Jina uprising, the protesters did not achieve internal coherency and were unable to organize effectively. Additionally, they failed to gain support from segments of society that still have significant stakes to lose. Consequently, even after approximately ten months from the Jina uprising, there are no signs of a rupture or disruption in the established power structure. Instead, the community of protestors has become further atomized, and organic connections among its various parts have become challenging to establish. Although it cannot be said that the root causes of the recent protests have subsided, the period of break and suspension has provided an opportunity for the ruling regime to reorganize and strengthen its forces, and if necessary, to activate potential reactionary elements that may have surfaced during the recent movement. The sporadic slogans in favor of the monarchic regime and the resurgence of the name of Cyrus, the king of the Achaemenid Empire, in people's slogans can be seen as examples of this phenomenon. It is noteworthy that the last time the name of Cyrus was chanted in people's slogans was during the 1979 uprising with the following slogan:

‘Cyrus, wake up, I have wet myself’

Which mocks both the Shah and Cyrus, alluding to the Shah's infamous speech during the 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire: "Cyrus, sleep well while we are awake." After four decades, the name of Cyrus resurfaced in people's demonstrations, but this time as a reference to him being regarded as a patriarchal slogan:

‘Cyrus is our father, Iran is our homeland’

In the same way, during the 1979 uprising, Reza Shah wasn't exempt from mockery, and there were 26 slogans referencing him[21]. However, in stark contrast, the slogan "Reza Shah, God bless your soul" emerged as one of the primary slogans chanted during the 2017 demonstrations.

Indeed, these two slogans, though not widespread, highlight the potential that exists in every historical period. Referring to Cyrus as the people's father not only discourages any form of mockery but may also provoke reactions from protesters. The resurgence of these names and the shift from mocking to praising them indicate the existence of latent restorative or pseudo-fascist tendencies that could gain more traction if progressive forces fail to organize effectively. As a result, while significant underground socio-political changes have occurred and continue to evolve, and the imagination of a revolutionary uprising remains possible due to deep political, economic, and cultural crises, there still exists a considerable gap between the current situation and a truly revolutionary one.

“Your story is over” the last part of the slogan “Reformists, Principalists, your story is over” Written on a wall, Via social media.

Observing the last fifty years of Iran's history reveals the significant impact of powerful slogans in the social domain. The slogan "Down with the Shah" during the 1979 revolution and the slogans 'Reformists, Prinicipalists, your story is over' and 'woman, life, freedom' after the 1979 revolution not only represented prevailing realities but also shaped the future horizons through their influence. As influential elements in social movements, these slogans left a lasting impact. Upon closer examination, the less sporadic slogans are found to have permeated all socio-political aspects. For example, the slogans against Farah Pahlavi, though not the central focus of the 1979 revolution, reinforced essential characteristics such as atrocious nationalism and the patriarchal regime within the emerging socio-political order. The breakthrough came with the slogan 'Reformists, Prinicipalists, your story is over' which surpassed all boundaries with the ruling regime and paved the way for the emergence of the slogan 'woman, life, freedom'. This powerful slogan not only made a wide range of other slogans possible, directly opposing the patriarchal regime, but also influenced other aspects of the movement, including the treatment of estranged others and non-conflicting patriotism in opposition to the existing order. On the other hand, it's crucial to acknowledge the presence of restorative and pseudo-fascist tendencies that entered the political arena with slogans like 'Reza Shah, God bless your soul' and 'man, homeland, prosperity'. Particularly given the continuity of the existing critical economic and cultural situation even if these tendencies may not become leading forces, they could nurture pressure groups against any progressive force.

 

Translation from Farsi: Sara. D 

Editing: Mohadeseh Zare

 

 

Mohammad Firouzi has a degree in Sociology from Tehran University. He is interested in the works of the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács and has translated some of Lukács's writings into Farsi.

[1] Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1977, Moscow, Volume 25, page 185.

[2] Mohammad Mokhtari (April 21, 1942 – December 3, 1998) was an Iranian writer, poet, and left-wing literary critic. His body of works includes several books of poetry, translations, and articles. Among his notable works are Born of World’s Anxiety: 150 poems of 12 European poets, The Practice of Tolerance, and Human in Contemporary Poetry. He taught mythology and literature at the Faculty of Dramatic and Fine Arts in 1980 and 1981, but he was expelled from the university during the Cultural Revolution, when academia in Iran underwent purges to eliminate Western and non-Islamic influences. Mokhtari was tragically murdered in 1998 during the so-called Chain murders, a series of targeted assassinations aimed at suppressing and intimidating intellectuals. 

[3] Between the victory of the 1979 revolution and May 1981, press freedom in Iran was in an exceptional state. The previous regime had been uprooted, and the new one was still in the process of being established, which resulted in a lack of a firm censorship organization. Although this period of relative freedom was short-lived, the cultural products produced during this time remain valuable for studying the revolution due to their proximity to the events and the degree of liberty they enjoyed. One of the notable magazines published during this period was the weekly publication named Ketab-e Jom'e (Book of Friday). In its first issue, it displayed a sharp and far-sighted insight, starting with the words: "The enshroud army of committed intellectuals has come to the battlefield for an unfair battle. Let their losses serve as a warning sign of the impending attack on all cultural and civil achievements of the people of this geographical territory.” Ketab-e Jom'e had to terminate its publication after just 36 issues due to the losses suffered, along with the impending censorship and repression that threatened to take control of the country.

[4] Mokhtari, Mohammad, The Study of the Slogans of the 1979 Uprising, Ketab-e Jom'e (Book of Friday), No. 20, 24 Dec. 1979, pages 42–54

[5] In the aftermath, on the 13th and 14th of June 2009, thousands of people, especially Mousavi's supporters (who was Ahmadinejad's main opponent), took to the streets in Tehran and other cities across Iran to protest against the vote counting and the election results. These demonstrations were met with severe oppression by the police and paramilitary supporters of the government, such as those formed in the Basij and Sepah. The level of oppression witnessed in Tehran during these protests was unprecedented in the last decade.

[6] The phrase 'Allah-o-Akbar' [الله‌اکبر ] translates to mean 'God is the greatest', which is an Arabic phrase used in Islamic societies as a slogan against enemies. 

[7] The first part, Yā Hussain, is an Arabic phrase used by Shia Muslims to invoke the memory of Hussain ibn Ali, the third Imam of Shia Islam. This slogan attempts to create a historical mirroring by incorporating the first name of the unsuccessful candidate from the 2009 election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

[8] نَصْرٌ مِنَ اللَّهِ وَ فَتْحٌ قَریب

It is a verse from the Quran which can be translated to ‘help from God and victory near at hand’. 

[9] The Bakhtiari are a Lur tribe from Iran, and the ‘prayer’ in this slogan refers to Islamic funeral prayer, which is a part of the Islamic funeral ritual. The prayer is performed in congregation to seek pardon for the deceased and all dead Muslims. The people from the cities with the same tribe chanted this slogan at the funeral of their fellow tribespeople who were killed by the regime during the protests.

[10] Mokhtari, 116

[11] rebellion of the slogans

[12] Mokhtari, 43 

[13] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

[14] Mokhtari, 116

[15] Mokhtari, 46

[16] Mokhtari, 109

[17] Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States (Jan. 1977-Jan. 1981). He visited Iran from December 31, 1977, to January 1, 1978, less than a year before the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

[18] Mokhtari, 103

[19] Mokhtari, 107

[20] ibid

[21] Mokhtari, 106

This text was commissioned by Shirin Mohammad as part of the conversation series accompanying her solo show rebellion of the slogans at Künstlerhaus Bremen

 

The exhibition was kindly supported by Stiftung Kunstfonds in the special funding program NEUSTART KULTUR of the federal government commissioner for culture and the media, Karin und Uwe Hollweg Stiftung and Freundes- und Förderkreis der HfK Bremen