Ayatollah Khomeini is best known as the stern face of the Islamic Revolution that took over Iran in . But the founding icon of Iran’s Islamic Republic is rarely recognized as… a pioneer of nonviolent strategic activism in the Middle East. At least in route to gaining power – and certainly not in exercising power – Khomeini and his movement mastered the art of nonviolent confrontation to mobilize grassroots support and respond strategically to repression by the Shah’s regime. Now, thirty years after Khomeini’s revolution, Iranians are again taking to the streets and reviving many of the Ayatollah’s own techniques - only this time to protest the actions of the regime he founded.
In , chants of “Allahu akbar” resonated at night from rooftops across Tehran and other major cities. Today, those chants have re-emerged, only with a different message. Khomeini’s followers also capitalized on their weakness - their lack of weaponry - to become a sympathetic victim in the face of crackdowns by the Savak security forces. Today’s students gunned down at rallies or clubbed by Basij security forces have similarly become symbolic underdogs, risking physical harm to take a stand for justice. And while Khomeini’s sermons were spread to followers via the new technology of underground cassette tapes, passed from home to home via a clandestine network, today’s updates from the streets are shared via cell phones and twitter feeds, reaching a global audience beyond the censor’s reach.
The sudden emergence of massive grassroots protests over the past four days has out of nowhere injected new energy into the Mideast’s movement for nonviolent reform. The challenge remains, however, whether the grassroots protests will be able to effectively maintain momentum, turn setbacks into opportunities, and create dilemma actions that force the repressive regime to turn its military dominance into a detriment. It also remains to be seen whether and how activists outside Iran will step up to provide effective solidarity. In the meantime, Khomeini’s own techniques have been revived to confront the regime he founded – and the world is watching, if not yet acting.
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