By Adam Lankford
How rarely the fate of a nation rests in the hands of just one man.
And yet, in the aftermath of the election crisis in Iran, reform candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi may be facing a momentous decision.
It’s possible that he could be in the unique position to spark revolution in Iran. But to do so would cost him his life.
In order to understand the potential significance of Mousavi’s death, it is important to understand the powerful history of martyrdom in Iran. Every year, millions of Iranians gather to commemorate the holiday of Ashura, which marks the honored death of Mohammed’s grandson, Imam Husayn ibn Ali. Legend has it that Husayn was killed in battle in 680, after he defiantly refused to swear allegiance to the corrupt dictator Yazid, despite the certainty of his death.
For many Iranians, Husayn’s death is much more than just a story or historical event. It’s the foundation of a divine moral code that insists that standing up to oppressive rulers, no matter what the sacrifice, is not just the right thing to do—it’s God’s sacred command.
Over time, the lessons of Ashura have become a fixture in Iranian politics. In the lead up to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini accused the U.S.-backed Shah of being a modern day Yazid: a corrupt and illegitimate leader and the enemy of Shi’a Muslims everywhere. And before long, Iranians rose up and expelled him. Similar charges were made against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. And thousands of teenage boys ended up martyring themselves for the cause, clearing mine fields with their bodies to repel their Iraqi foes. More recently, Iran’s leaders have employed this same tactic by referring to the United States as the “World Oppressor”—the same type of evil, Yazid-like dictator, just on a larger scale.
But now the shoe is on the other foot. For years, Iran’s leaders have used the legend of Husayn’s death to rally the masses to fight against the enemies they selected. But in the aftermath of the disputed election, millions of Iranians have finally recognized that the corrupt government that is harming them the most is actually run by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and their fellow hardliners. The rooftop chants of “Allahu Akbar” and “Death to Dictators” are evidence of this social awakening.
The defiance of the corrupt regime has begun. However, Mousavi’s death would be the next important step for this historical allusion to be fulfilled. As a martyr in the line of Husayn, Mousavi could become a symbol with extraordinarily powerful religious legitimacy that should not be underestimated.
Mousavi’s martyrdom could remind committed Iranian Muslims that fighting back against the corrupt regime is not merely a matter of their own political freedom—it’s a matter of the religious principles on which they’ve based their entire lives. According to the values which they hold most sacred, they must be willing to die—if that’s what it takes—in order to defeat their current oppressors.
But so far, despite their courage, the Iranian protesters who have died during the conflict appear to have been tragically unlucky, not declared and deliberate martyrs. Very few, if any, have been willing to follow Husayn’s legendary lead and intentionally sacrifice themselves for the cause.
On the other hand, Mousavi has already publicly proclaimed that he is ready for martyrdom, and he continues to defy the corrupt regime. If he deliberately provokes the regime into killing him while emotions are still high, he could leave an indelible mark on the Iranian psyche. And that could spark a revolution.
Adam Lankford is assistant professor of criminal justice at The University of Alabama and the author of Human Killing Machines: Systematic Indoctrination in Iran, Nazi Germany, Al Qaeda, and Abu Ghraib. Listen to an interview with Dr. Lankford about his book at PsychJourney.