Radicalism and the Iranian Student Movement’s Quest for Democracy
Radicalism has been a feature of Iran’s student movement ever since its inception, and, as such, it exists despite judgments on its value to the movement. A brief examination of the history of Iran’s student movement and a comparison with other social and political campaigns indicates that radicalism is not only a distinctive feature of this movement but, in some ways, its comparative advantage.
This article attempts to identify the role of radicalism in Iran’s student movement and explore questions such as: is radicalism inherent to the student movement or is it a historical and social consequence arising at a specific time and place? Do present day student activists exhibit radicalism? And could radicalism, in principle, yield positive results for the student movement given today’s environment?
Radicalism refers to the reliance of principles and the origins of a particular issue. The political use of the term was first coined in Britain in the eighteenth century, particularly to refer to a movement trying to push through government reforms at the time. English philosopher Jeremy Bentham and his followers were dubbed “philosophical radicals.” In the humanities, radicalism refers to thoughts and deeds favoring rapid, severe, and fundamental actions to improve society and demanding elemental changes in political, economic, and social affairs. Radicalism, in other words, signifies any political and social word or deed that demands in depth, immediate, and comprehensive change in existing institutions. To reach its goals, radicalism rejects compromise, and is opposed to conservatism. Radicalism sees no benefit or value in retaining the status quo and deems reform and improvement necessary for fundamental change to occur. Radicalism is not prisoner to existing constraints. With a future-oriented perspective, it strives to transcend the everyday existing limitations and constraints.
Existing realities do not prevent radicalism from considering its ideals nor do they limit its development. Radicalism is founded on the philosophy that existing institutions fall short of meeting new and increasing demands for change and responds to the ruling government’s measures to block these changes. Radicalism actually emerges from the collapse of ineffective and inefficient institutions and methods which preclude development and progress and continues to persist until the establishment of effective and powerful new institutions and methods.
As such, radicalism does not reflect a universal and eternal value. Its appeal and usefulness depend on existing conditions. Radicalism will decrease when existing institutions are capable and flexible enough to meet people’s needs and address their problems. Radicalism, however, becomes a recourse when old establishments are inefficient and unwilling to improve or reform or when ruling systems must resort to excessive force or violence to suppress independent or nascent political and social movements.
Some who wish to justify their conservatism and stagnation have deliberately perpetuated misunderstandings about radicalism. For example, blind radicalism is often confused with dynamic and avant-garde radicalism. Radicalism pays homage to rationalism, acting as a tool to reach objectives rather than as a means to justify the status quo and profit-seeking calculations. Blind radicalism, a deviant interpretation of radicalism, can be compared to a child with an “An Infantile Disorder ” (an analogy which Lenin used to describe young, brash Leftist groups). This type of radicalism ultimately perpetuates the stagnation of existing inefficient institutions. Blind and illogical radicalism is characterized by romanticism, illusion, haste and nihilism, all of which clearly have an adverse impact on social movements.
Another strategy used to counter radicalism is to equate it with violence and drastic, impulsive change. Violence and speed are not the major determining features of radicalism. The purpose of radicalism is to address issues from a practical perspective and to approach fundamental changes with a holistic approach.
Timeframes for achieving objectives, intolerance, and use of violent versus nonviolent approaches are minor, secondary matters. If haste leads to superficiality and fails to bring about fundamental change, it will not be regarded as true radicalism. Instead, the possibility of ultimate success determines the pace of radicalism.
As with revolutions, radicalism can be pursued in various ways, including peaceful or violent means. Violence is one way radicalism emerges, but it is not what radicalism is inherently. In fact, radicalism is not violent by nature. Rather, violence manifests itself when all other means are exhausted and when the blatant violence of the opposite side ruins any chance of progress. As such, radicalism cannot be assessed by how much violence it entails. When most Western media and political parties call the violent and terrorist activities of Islamic fundamentalist groups “radical,” they promote an incorrect and negative connotation of “radicalism.” The correct or incorrect use of “radicalism” depends on its use and on the motives and objectives of those who use it. The misuse of radicalism, like other social concepts and phenomena, by inhuman and illegitimate movements for their personal gains should not be applied broadly to all radicalism.
With these definitions in mind, radicalism in Iran’s student movement stands for those activities and perspectives that follow the radical model in student protests. This element has consistently held the upper hand among Iran’s student movements. The rise of student movements in Iran has been the most significant source for the growth and strength of radicalism. Radicalism thrives within Iran’s student movement for a number of reasons, including Iran’s political problems, the ruling regime’s crackdown on academic freedoms, the unmet needs and demands of students, the formation of separate independent student movements, and the youthful, enthusiastic, and idealistic spirit of Iran’s youth.
Prior to the 1979 Revolution, the student movement rapidly became radical, supporting revolutionary forces and ideals. Most revolutionary organizations, especially the armed and guerilla groups, were comprised of students. The years between the 1979 Revolution itself and the 1981 Cultural Revolution saw the rise of radicalism in Iranian universities, a trend that was suppressed in a bloody and violent manner.
The student movement that re-emerged in the 1990s views radicalism as the cornerstone of effectively influencing matters inside and outside the universities. Efforts to remove barriers to freedom of expression, increase political and social diversity in the universities, pave the way for student involvement, overcome ideological and political barriers, prioritize issues of freedom and democracy, bring about independence of the universities, lay the groundwork for the establishment of guild councils and student organizations, and expand existing student organizations, are all examples of student objectives prior to Khordad 2, 1376 (May 23, 1997, the day reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected president). All of these examples are characterized by radicalism.
Mobilizing the 2nd of Khordad movement, promoting Mohammad Khatami’s agenda, supporting reformist plans and ideals, strengthening the civil society and its political and social forces, and overcoming obstacles during the reform movement all occurred using “radicalism.” Many reformist and opposition figures appeared in the universities. The students adopted radical approaches and clashed with government agents. Many radical student activists landed in jail or were barred from completing their education or getting decent jobs.
Prior to Khatami’s election, only the state’s left and right wing moderates were allowed to speak at the universities. Even some figures from the radical or reformist wings such as Behzad Nabavi and Mohtashamipour were barred from speaking at universities. Thanks to the relentless efforts and radical endeavors of student activists, this trend gradually waned. Reformists, religious-nationalist personalities, as well as some opposition group members were permitted to gather and speak at the universities. This would never have been possible if students had persisted in using conventional methods, adhering to state-issued directives and laws.
Ending the ban on public speaking for Dr. Abdul Karim Soroush, countering the harassment of civil and political activists critical to the government, discovering the source of political serial killers, neutralizing the infamous plots of the anti-reform “headquarters” in the July 9, 1999 attack on students, resisting the suppression of student movement, defending press freedom, supporting political prisoners and exerting efforts to free them, overturning the ruling to execute Hashem Aghajari, and many other activities would not have been possible in the absence of radical student movements.
Over these years, the credibility and standing of the student movement has been largely due to its radical approach, bravery in representing national interests, combating the power brokers, and avoiding expedient collusion with those in charge.
The radical approach enabled the student movement to go its own way after the reformist movement was diminished, having failed to address the needs of people, effectively promote democracy, and boost civil society. While state-sponsored reformists and advocates of reform within the power structure had to deal with one defeat after another, the student movement retained its standing in society and became an inspirational symbol of structural reform. Additionally, the movement persisted in the face of the ruling regime’s extensive pressure and plans to fundamentally change the power structure.
After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president and strengthened the military-security apparatus, radicalism continued to play a dominant role in student movements and served as the first line of defense against an agenda which contradicted basic human rights and spread propaganda and a culture of fear and crisis.
Recent instances of the student movement’s radical approach to issues include:
· Students of University of Tehran objected to the appointment of a chancellor from outside the university.
· Amir Kabir University students persevered in holding student elections and set up a student-elected Islamic Association.
· Students spread awareness about students in trouble for political-social activities.
· Students protested decrees issued by the University Disciplinary Committees.
· In a historic act of defiance, Amir Kabir University students disrupted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s propaganda maneuver on Students’ Day.
· Shiraz University students protested against Interior Minister Mustafa Pour Mohammadi.
· Students have resisted the repressive and coercive policies of Ahmadinejad’s administration.
All of these activities play an important role in neutralizing efforts to suppress academic freedom and independence within universities.
The radical student movement will continue to fight the status quo in Iran, including existing barriers to democracy, human rights, freedom, justice and civil society; censorship and self-censorship among the media; increased suppression of intellectuals, writers, and independent political and social activists; the President and the Ministry of Higher Education’s plans to impose a single voice and ideology on the universities; and the suppression of independent student bodies. During these difficult times, radicalism has a strong chance of helping the student movement reach its goals, but only if it avoids greed and power, superficial radicalism, and haste in its pursuits.
As political liberalism has gained the upper hand in the universities and as radicalism pursues the promotion human rights, democracy, and political freedoms, some have recently declared that radicalism has reached the end of its utility in Iran’s student movement. While radicalism entered Iran’s student movement through the leftist Marxist movement and its class struggles, this historical coincidence does not mean the two movements are one and the same.
Radicalism is by its nature utilitarian, serving a diversity of ideologies, creeds, and goals. The historical development of liberalism indicates that, since its inception, the bourgeoisie was effectively a revolutionary movement against feudalism. As key periods for liberalism, the French and American Revolutions were clearly radical and revolutionary. Recent international developments demonstrate that most peaceful attempts at democracy, where students have often had a decisive role, have set forth liberal demands, but have also been revolutionary and radical. Consequently, contrary to the views of critics, radicalism has persevered, and despite existing constraints and the costliness of radical activities, with its steady practical approach, radicalism can overcome these difficulties and help to promote independence of universities, academic freedoms, dynamic student activities, and student support of civil society.
Establishing an independent university system governed by academics, stabilizing democracy, respecting human rights, fostering approaches and institutions supportive of social justice, strengthening students’ civil society, and freely expressing views and pursuing demands without fearing humiliation, insult, suspension or jail will allow radicalism to remain relevant and bring it closer to its ultimate goals.