One of the characteristics of Iranian society is the accumulation of various neglected political, social, economic and cultural demands, which, at times like this, all flow together. Isn’t this multiplicity of demands worrisome? Doesn’t it move a social movement away from its primary goal?

Bayat: I don’t think so. In fact, the multitude of demands and expressions of hopes and dreams are markers of an episode of social struggles that seek structural transformation. No social group – workers, the poor, the middle class, women or youth – on its own can shift the balance of power between the dissenting public and the regime. Real political transformations have always been achieved through the coalition of different deprived, dejected and oppressed social groups and classes. Therefore, the question is not whether the accumulation of neglected political, social, economic and cultural demands will have negative impacts on the process of struggle. The question is how to articulate these neglected demands in the framework of a shared, comprehensive, simple and comprehensible claim with which those suffering constituencies can identify and with whose language they can speak.

This is the very expression of the overarching “greater good” that I pointed out earlier. On this basis, for example, the slogan "Woman, Life, Freedom" should be articulated in such a way that the various groups involved could feel and internalise its resonance, with the emphasis that the realisation of such a collective claim would require profound political, social and economic changes.

Some analysts worry that current developments will move in a direction that threatens integration and peace and the stability of the country. How likely do you think this is?

Bayat: I’m not quite sure how evidence-based these analyses are, or how serious such a risk is, but it must be addressed. In general, any powerful movement is under threat of abuse. Opportunists here and there or abroad try to use it for their own advantage, might claim themselves as its leaders, or express support for ulterior motives. Who really believes that a person like [former U.S. President] Donald Trump, let alone [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, wants democracy in Iran? They themselves are serious threats to democracy in their own countries.

Fortunately, the movement of "Woman, Life, Freedom" seems to display enough capacity and political awareness to not pay attention to such political games and to continue its journey by relying on the power of the people. In fact, in recent years, Iran has not seen such a convergence of diverse groups, ethnicities and social classes; it feels like a new “Iran” has been born. Of course, there will also be those who would attribute the dissent and protests to foreign intrigues and conspiracies. Such claims are neither new nor specific to Iran. Mubarak and his supporters also attributed the Egyptian revolutionary movement to foreign conspiracy, Islamism and extremism, but the reality was quite different.

 

What is your assessment of the future of this movement? What scenarios or possibilities do you imagine?

Bayat: Predicting the future of this episode is very difficult because it depends on many factors. It depends on questions to which we don’t have answers. For example, we do not know to what extent the regime would resort to pervasive violence to quell street protests or strikes. If the regime’s strategy is to resort to sheer violence, how much moral outrage will follow among ordinary people and the operators of the system such as the security forces? What will be the positions of the traditional elites, religious leaders, ayatollahs or moderate politicians? Will these elites and men of religion respond to the call of conscience? We still don’t know what path the reformist camp and its leaders will take.

The tragedy of many reformists at this point is that they can neither deliver reforms (because they have been thrown out of power) nor engage in a revolutionary dynamic (because they feel they are by definition reformists, not revolutionaries). This sad state of paralysis has to do with their dogmatic, static and ahistorical approach to the concepts and strategies of sociopolitical change. It seems as if a reformist must remain a reformist until the end of his life and a revolutionary is destined to remain a revolutionary forever, regardless of what happens on the ground, on the political scene, where the fluid and complex reality requires appropriate, nondogmatic and creative ways of doing politics. More importantly, we do not know to what extent and when the allied social groups such as workers and teachers will exhibit wider solidarity actions with the uprising. In short, it is very difficult to foresee.

However, no matter what happens to this uprising, this movement at this very point has already made significant achievements. We are witnessing a crucial paradigm shift in the subjectivity of Iranians. In large and small cities, even in villages, among parents and young people, among ethnic groups and the lower and middle classes, a new "nation" seems to have been born – one that insists on reclaiming life and living with dignity. And it shouts it out in the streets of the uprising. Many things are unlikely to go back to the way they were before. Maybe this is the de facto end of the morality police, even if they don’t abolish it officially. New norms have imposed themselves on the reality of public life. Maybe the "optional hijab" is one of these norms.

What is your wish from this movement of social protests?

Bayat: My wish, perhaps like the wishes of millions of Iranians, is to see that these neglected demands of the diverse social groups and classes in this country are fulfilled, with the least cost to human lives and their material infrastructure and without any interference of foreign powers. The realisation of this desire depends, on the one hand, on the capacity and continuity of this movement and, on the other, on the conscience and judgment of the rulers. Maybe this is naive. Maybe this is impossible. But the truth is, as Max Weber suggested, that historical experience shows that we humans could not have achieved the "possible" without time and again thinking about the "impossible".

© News Lines Magazine 2022

Asef Bayat is an author and professor of sociology and Middle East studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

* Readers interested in learning more about such concepts as "the art of presence", "non-movements" and "quiet encroachment" may refer to Asef Bayat’s book "Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East" (2013).

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