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Alternative Media and the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution
Introduction and Context
Major social upsurges occurred in Iran during 1978-79. The Shah (king) was forced out of the country in November - despite, amazingly, public expressions of support from Washington, the USSR and Beijing, normally at loggerheads with each other - and the fiercely conservative Shi’ite Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini took control in February 1979, establishing an Islamic Republic. Small alternative media played very major roles in these events.
The Shah’s father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, had been installed as king by the British in 1924 to protect their oil interests. In 1941 they had replaced him with his son to ensure continued allegiance. However, in the 1950s a major crisis developed between the Western countries and Iran’s right to its oil revenues, because the Western oil consortium not only controlled the market price of oil but also kept a large slice of the profits. In 1951 Muhammad Mossadegh became prime minister and nationalized the properties of foreign oil companies. This law was supported by many Iranians, although not the Shah’s court.
The Shah was exiled in 1953 when nationalist forces, angry at Western domination of Iran’s oil resources, overthrew him. He was briefly succeeded by the elected Prime Minister Mossadegh. In 1954, however, a coup mobilized by the British and the CIA led to Mossadegh’s overthrow and the Shah’s reinstatement.
Afterwards the Shah negotiated a new oil arrangement with the Western countries, and the results guaranteed a better profit for Iran than for other oil producers in the region at that period. However, with the rise of U.S. and European influence in Iran because of the oil industry boom, price-inflation rose 30-50%, with a devastating effect on the poor. This period simultaneously saw the development of a very rich and powerful upper stratum in favor of Western-style modernization.
During the 1960s the Shah continued his modernization program, but many Iranian clergy considered he was alienating the Iranian people from the teachings of the Qur’an into both secularism and social injustice. Theological students demonstrated repeatedly against his Westernization program, especially in Qom, a leading religious center. They were particularly opposed to the opening of liquor stores. The response by government forces was to kill hundreds of demonstrators, which prompted Ayatollah Khomeini to denounce the Shah’s regime as a tyrannical Western-dominated government. (Ayatollahs are senior clerics in Iran, although there was historically no single central authority figure corresponding to the pope or patriarch in Christianity.)
When Ayatollah Khomeini spoke out, the Shah declared martial law, and also sent military units to a variety of cities with orders to shoot to kill the demonstrators. The government claimed 80-100 people were killed in these demonstrations, but western observers calculated that at least 10,000 would be a closer estimate.
There were then five important factors that led to the Shah’s second exile and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini: the blatant corruption endemic in the Shah’s regime; world market demand for petroleum; the rush to westernize Iranian society, including its media; the brutality of the secret police (SAVAK) and the military; and finally the use of small media to mobilize citizens against the regime.
When Khomeini was exiled to Iraq, he became a hero in the eyes of many Iranians. He also had access to the national infrastructure of mosques, which enabled many other ayatollahs to deliver speeches against the Shah. Corruption and repression under the Shah’s regime were not their only targets. A new law of the Shah’s government gave women the right to apply for a divorce without the permission of their husband and also gave wives the rights to discuss with their husbands the issues associated with a second wife. The transfer of family matters from religious to secular courts provoked opposition from religious conservatives. Yet although these changes were popular with the wealthier classes, they did little for the average poverty-stricken Iranian woman (The Iranian Revolution).
A further factor which deeply alienated the religious lobby was the flood of Western, especially U.S., television programs and films which came to dominate Iranian screens during the 1960s and 1970s. The Shah’s regime had nationalized the broadcasting industry in order to exert closer control over it, and then had substantially filled up television broadcasting schedules with cheap Western material. For the religious lobby the representations of gender, women and sexuality, not to mention the absence of Muslim priorities in general, were spiritually subversive. For wider sections of the public too, not necessarily animated to the same extent as the clergy by strict religious priorities, to have everyday Iranian life and issues quite frequently “bumped” by foreign shows was seen as another index of U.S. cultural imperialism and the Shah’s connivance with it.
The few independently-minded Iranian films which sought to reflect upon contemporary Iran were usually permitted only to be seen in foreign film festivals, but were banned from domestic exhibition. A classic case in this regard was the 1969 film The Cow, directed by Daryush Mehrju’i, which depicted the desperate conditions of life in a typical Iranian village, entirely untouched by the Shah’s trumpeted modernization drives or oil revenues.
1966 saw the establishment of book censorship and police searches of libraries, especially those associated with the mosques. Over the next ten years the Shah approved still more repressive laws, including decrees that set long jail terms for anyone using a photocopier machine to distribute politically oppositional materials. Once arrested on a political charge, torture was normal (Nafisi).
It is difficult to isolate one particular event that led to the final collapse of the Shah’s dictatorship. Many have argued that it was the vast numbers of demonstrators and Khomeini’s popularity. There were disturbances in over fifty five Iranian cities, and the army was told to open fire on demonstrators. From September to November 1978 Iran was in complete turmoil, with many government workers out on strike, causing many consumer shortages in major cities. Even school teachers and university professors went out on strike. There were electrical blackouts and curfews. The oil workers’ strike turned into a general strike nation-wide, yet now the army was no longer prepared to fire at will into the demonstrators, as soldiers feared for their own lives.
To Big Oil the Shah was plainly out of control of his public and therefore of the reliable supply of oil. This further meant that the most important external support for the Shah’s power, the U.S. government, newly concerned by how this repression would be carried in the world’s media, signaled its refusal to support the Shah’s abuse of power (“The Islamic Revolution 1978-79”). When he left Iran, Washington even refused to admit him for terminal cancer treatment.
Alternative Media Come into Their Own
As the situation in Iran heated up, Khomeini came to send his political sermons ever more frequently via audio-cassette. The great merit of these tiny items was that they could very easily be concealed, and that the technology for reproducing them in very large numbers was now easily available. However, to maintain continual rapid response to changing events, Khomeini began reading his sermons over the phone from his Paris exile house to an agent in Iran who was recording them. They would then be rapidly circulated to pro-Khomeini mosques and to countless individuals. The scratchy and blurred quality of Khomeini’s voice recorded on the phone paradoxically lent a sense of urgency and realism to his messages (Sreberny-Mohammadi & Mohammadi, 1994, pp. 122-123).
Once Khomeini was re-exiled to France instead of being in the relative isolation of Iraq, he had easy access to telephones and recording equipment, and was now center stage. Many news organizations adopted him as the legitimate leader of all continued resistance to the government in Tehran. The fact that he denounced the Soviet Union with as much venom as the USA exonerated him from suspicion of being ready to swing Iran into the Soviet camp. There came about, paradoxically, a temporary fusion between Khomeini’s alternative media strategy and his coverage by major sections of the world press, a fusion which greatly strengthened his dominance at home.
The sermons and communiqués of leading pro-Khomeini ayatollahs were vital in mass mobilizations. They did not seek to persuade or even inform, but rather to summon to action, for example to a national day of mourning by the entire Muslim community for those martyred by the Shah’s regime. Those addressed were reminded of their absolute religious duty to support what is good and to reject evil, which effectively in that context signified to rise up against the atheistic, anti-Islamic and unjust Shah. This was not merely an obligation for individuals responding to their consciences. The duty was collective, one for the entire Muslim community to enact. In the Iranian Shi’ite religious culture in which the community elders had absolute right to authoritative interpretation and the mass of the faithful were required to follow them, refusal to obey risked not only social censure from one’s neighbors, associates and family, but also, and simultaneously, bearing the guilt for that sin into the next world.
Khomeini pronounced on one occasion in one of his sermons “Your uprising is for God and the freedom of the Islamic community.” In perhaps his single most famous sermon, delivered in late 1978 during the month commemorating the martyrdom of the original founder of the Shi’ite movement in Islam, Khomeini’s rhetoric celebrated “the month in which blood triumphed over the sword, the month in which truth condemned falsehood for all eternity and branded the mark of disgrace upon the forehead of all oppressors and satanic governments…the month that proves the superpowers may be defeated by the word of truth…” and continued on “Advance together, with a single voice and single purpose, to the sacred aim of Islam - the abolition of the cruel Pahlavi dynasty…and the establishment of an Islamic Republic based on the progressive dictates of Islam!” (cited in Sreberny-Mohammadi & Mohammadi, op.cit., p. 114). The entire address to the public was in the instantaneously accessible form of Either-Or, God or Satan, nation/people or the government.
From 1977 onwards, Khomeini’s movement also began to circulate vividly colored posters which popped up overnight on the walls of city streets. Those who put them up did so at great risk, and normally did so in small teams, with lookouts for police or less immediately recognizable members of the ubiquitous informer network. On one such poster (Sreberny-Mohammadi & Mohammadi, 1994, p. 91), Khomeini’s face dominates, his head in an ayatollah’s characteristic black turban, denoting his religious authority. His lined forehead signals both wisdom and suffering. His beetling eyebrows signify both energy and iron determination. Beneath his beard seven men are raising a flagpole with a streamer on it reading “There is only one God.”
In the background to the right, a huge plinth with the Shah’s statue on it is being toppled by three more men. In the background to the left, Khomeini’s clenched fist is about to crush four tanks protecting skyscrapers representing US and Western power. His fist is larger in size than the office blocks and the tanks combined. In the foreground eight bodies of male protestors lie scattered in a semi-circle at the feet of the group hoisting the flagpole. Behind and above Khomeini’s head, representing the martyred protestors’ blood, are red arrows pointing up to heaven. The poster is a meld of heroic masculinism and martyrdom, religious commitment and political confrontation, all spearheaded by Khomeini.
It is important to emphasize that a huge number of posters and other forms of alternative media of the anti-Shah movement were not Khomeinist. Another poster reproduced by Sreberny-Mohammadi and Mohammadi (op.cit., p. 101) shows the faces of ten individuals (all male), representing an assortment of secular and Islamic leftist and nationalist activists, including Mossadegh, who had led the struggle for a free and independent Iran. Three had been executed by the Shah’s regime. As soon as the Shah departed Iran, however, the temporary unity existing among these different currents of opinion fractured. This opened up a field of forces in which the legitimacy of traditional religious symbolism and rhetoric combined with the extensive national organization of the Khomeinists and the funds of wealthy bazaar merchants, to give the Khomeinists a more and more decisive edge. Their physical ruthlessness helped, too.
Posters and graffiti, extensively covering the exteriors of public buildings, walls of private houses, public phone booths and buses, were not the only instruments deployed by the resistance. When for example the regime publicly claimed 57 victims of the army’s machine-gunning of a demonstration, the opposition circulated a huge volume of photos, many horrific to look at, with mortuary identification numbers in the thousands. Demonstrators carried huge blown-up photos as they marched, including a famous Olympic wrestler executed for speaking out against the regime and a nationally recognized poet who had been first blinded and then executed. In direct defiance of the regime’s prohibitions, the photocopiers at the universities in Tehran and elsewhere were used intensively to xerox anti-Shah leaflets and pamphlets. Electrical blackouts in cities were used by the demonstrators to paste posters and paint graffiti on walls.
Men who wore neckties were vilified as “tie-wearers,” people slavishly following Western fashion. Simultaneously, the Khomeini camp insisted ever more vociferously that in public women must wear a veil (the hijab) over their heads and around their faces, as a signal of both modesty and loyalty to Iranian tradition. This latter claim was vigorously opposed by both the Shah’s supporters and the secular Left (Downing, 2001, pp. 124-127).
Conventional media played complex roles during the count-down days. For example, in early October 1978 the Shah announced imminent liberalizations. Immediately the press published a 17-point demand for lifting censorship. On October 11 the military informed journalists that they had to get clearance for all items of foreign and domestic news. A number of journalists immediately went on strike. On October 14 the government issued a statement guaranteeing press freedom. Cartoons immediately proliferated showing a pen being released from a cage. Street vendors displayed signs reading “Censorship no, truth yes.” In tea and coffee houses, articles were read aloud and debated. TV news showed the bloody consequences of military repression of demonstrations. Commentators openly analyzed prison conditions and SAVAK. The regime’s foundations began to disintegrate faster and faster, day by day.
In an equally momentous example the previous August, a fire killing some 400 people in the Rex movie theatre in the southern oil city of Abadan had also galvanized colossal public revulsion. Previous demonstrations against movie theatres as symbols of malign western influence had only targeted them when empty, but this time most of the doors had been locked, and arson was evident. And the date was crucial: the 25th anniversary of the Shah’s return to power in 1953. Because of extreme public distrust of the Shah’s media, the speed with which the regime pointed to the opposition as responsible boomeranged, and violent anti-Shah demonstrations ensued for several days. After the Islamic revolution, an Islamist group did in fact claim responsibility, asserting it had been seeking to focus responsibility on SAVAK. Media politics on all levels could scarcely have been more intense.
The consequences of the Shah’s ejection and the ascent of Khomeini had remarkable effects in Iran, but also beyond. The seizure of the U.S. embassy hostages in 1979 contributed to the electoral defeat of the Carter Administration in 1980 and the arrival in power of the highly conservative Reagan Administration. The Khomeini regime also became for a considerable time a beacon to advocates of a politically insurgent Islam across the region and beyond. However, inside Iran itself the role of alternative media in this revolution not only helped oust the Shah, but beyond that enabled extremely conservative religious leaders to seize control and set up a theocracy.
Algar, H. (n.d.). A Brief Biography of Imam Khomeini, ch. 5. Retrieved August 21,
Downing, J.D.H. (2001). Radical Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Nafisi, A. (1999). The Veiled Threat: The Iranian Revolution’s Woman Problem, The
New Republic (February 22)
Smith, F. E. (1998) The Iranian Revolution (1978-1979). Retrieved August 21, 2005.
Sreberny-Mohammadi, A. & Mohammadi, A. (1994). Small Media, Big Revolution:
Communication, culture and the Iranian revolution. Minneapolis: University of
Thanks to Lars Eilebrecht, Ned Freed, Alan Sontheim, Sander van Zoest etc. Have fun!