I grew up in Iran, a state that crudely kills people for asking fundamental questions about religion, state power and workers rights. In the West, outright violent repression is much rarer, yet the state, police and the elite still do everything they can to stop people from questioning dominant ideas and practices. The arrest of peaceful republican protesters opposing the coronation of Charles Windsor should be a wake up moment that freedom dies if people can’t use it to challenge the mainstream.
In its propaganda efforts, the Iranian regime loves to show footage of the millions-strong mass crowds who turned out for the burial of dictator Khomeni in 1989 or the terror chief Qassem Soleimani in 2020. These crowds are held up to gullible foreigners as supposed proof of the ‘mass appeal’ of the regime. But the reality is rather different. Aside from the socio-economic pressure to attend such events, many Iranians go because they have been conditioned to view these events as a depoliticised, generic form of patriotism, of mindless flag-waving without a wider meaning. In 2020, a year before I had to flee Iran as a result of being interrogated and arrested, I was the only one in my intellectual student circle who didn’t go to Soleimani’s burial ceremony, as I viewed him as a mass-murderer whose death should not be mourned. My friends, hardly regime loyalists, reproached me for not going. They said in any country, not just Iran, patriotic people should come to the streets for the military and the standard-bearers of the nation, even if they dislike the government.
The flag-waving coronation crowds in London that I saw on TV this weekend remind me of the same-seemingly innocent, unthinking “simple patriotism”. They are not cheering for Charles Windsor because they truly, philosophically believe that in the 21st century, someone’s supposedly “noble” descent justifies their divinely-anointed supremacy over others. In any case, this worn-out, martially-unfaithful old patriarch hardly meets any of the criteria of valour, honour or sublimity, even according to the tilted view of the medieval age. Good, ordinary people turn out for the coronation nonetheless, because they believe it is the ‘British’, patriotic or respectable thing to do. The impulse is the same, whether in the squares of Tehran or on the leafy Pall Mall in London.
At the end of the day, despite all the pomp and excitement, there is nothing good about unthinking obedience towards state power. No matter whether this obedience is repacked as apolitical patriotism, supposedly-liberal political correctness or conservative tradition. Behind it stands a carefully-cultivated self-censorship, a self-induced ignorance about the very real social injustices and crimes perpetrated in the name of the state-flags are being waved so joyously. In Iran, that means ignorance of the long-established internal regime policy of torture, genocidal forced assimilation and de-development of ethnic-minority populated regions of Iran: like my homeland of Iranian-Azerbaijan, or also Iranian-Kurdistan, Iranian-Balochistan, Iranian-Lurestan, Iranian-Turkmenistan and Iranian-Arabistan to name just some places were people are crushed, starved and oppressed in the name of racist Persian-shia nationalism. Inevitably, partaking in such mass events also means professing silent ignorance of the regime’s murderous policy of international terrorism against Jewish people across the world. After all, all of that evil is being done for the same, ‘apolitical, patriotic’ flag my friends ignorantly waved in January 2020 for Qassem Soleimani’s burial ceremony. When flags are used without intent and critical thought, they don’t become neutral: They become a symbol of implied consent with the order of things.
Behind the uncritical Union Jack bunting and flag-waving too stands a woeful ignorance of 500 years of colonialism, genocide and war done in the name of “king and country”, from India and Kenya to Northern Ireland. This no remote past – across the world people are still grappling every day with the toxic legacies – linguistic, political, cultural and psychological of this colonialism. Members of my own extended family died in the British-induced colonial famine in Iran in 1942, we still remember their loss today. Today, British society may celebrate itself for supposedly being “liberal”, “tolerant” or “multicultural”, but all of these words are just empty catchwords of doctrinaire compliance, as mindless as the coronation day flag-waving and medieval-inspired monarchism. The reality is Britain still refuses to pay reparations for it’s colonial crimes, and in fact blatantly continues them, for example in the objectively illegal military occupation of the Mauritian Chagos Islands or the Argentinian Malvinas Islands (no different in fact from what Putin’s imperial Russia is illegally doing in Ukraine). The same London literati elite that silences people in the name of a pretendy “anti-racist” political correctness, gleefully amuses itself in neo-colonial so-called ‘museums’ full of stolen Middle Eastern, Indian, African and Greek treasures, some looted from the homes or grave sites of my ancient ancestors. Political orthodoxy and an endless catalogue of taboos and thought-crimes is needed to stop people from speaking out about this glaring hypocrisy from the West’s new post-modern moral aristocracy.
The power of protests, whether in Iran last autumn, or in London this weekend, can be a powerful counterbalance to injustice, top-down authority and cultural stasis. They show that there is an alternative to castling behind our superstitions and receiving wisdom. That alternative is not the day-to-day politics of norms, group-think and blandness, but of ideas bold and just enough to inspire people to fight for them and change something in the world. Few people in the west will have heard about a working-class Iranian-Azeri woman from Tabriz, Zainab Pasha, who stood up for her culture, for her worker’s rights, for her right to wear what she wanted, against the Iranian monarchy, the corrupt clergy and its western colonial backers in the late 19th century during the tobacco protests. Her revolution ultimately failed, as it was far beyond the norms of the time. Yet, decades later, her words and ideals inspired yet another uprising in Tabriz, under naive, innocently-idealistic Jafar Pishevari in 1945. He led the first revolution in Iran that gave women the right to vote, before it was in turn crushed by a backhanded deal between dictatorial Soviet Russia and the oil-hungry US (Pishevari himself was murdered by Soviet agents in a staged car crash while in exile in Baku, in Soviet-occupied north Azerbaijan). Yet, in the most important way, they did not fail. Today people in Tabriz still carry the names of Zainab Pasha and Pishevari in their hearts, as they struggle against the latest form of monarchical, fascist rule over the land: the rule by the clerical king Khameni, rather than the hated Pahlavi and Qajar dynasties of old. Those in the west who, despite the relative freedom they enjoy, say that fighting for change is not worth trying in light of social apathy, should bear this in mind. Today, campaigning for abolishing the British monarchy, and the entire elitist system of foreign wars and domestic exploitation it stands for may not make you popular, or successful. One day we can give the crown jewels as reparations to African countries from whom the empire plundered them, one day we can open up the Buckingham Palace as a shelter for homeless and impoverished British war veterans, who were sent to loose their limbs for the elitist lies of “king and country” in wars-for-profit in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Malvinas. But that way will never come closer unless you use your voice and protest now.
Image: Guy Smallman