Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Iran's pro-government rallies fool nobody

By Hamid Dabashi, Special to CNN
  • Hamid Dabashi: Iran staged rallies to counter anti-government protests
  • He says Internet images showed differences in real rallies vs. those put on by Ahmadinejad
  • Government bused people in, provided free food, made it clear you better show up
  • Dabashi: Clumsily engineered spectacle shows how aware government is of its illegitimacy

Editor's note: Hamid Dabashi is the author of "Iran: A People Interrupted." He is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

(CNN) -- The Ahmadinejad government responded to the courageous anti-government protests throughout Iran in December by cranking up its propaganda machine to stage pro-government rallies. But that tactic won't work.

The transparently staged events are the surest sign of the regime's insecurity and its awareness that it must manufacture the illusion of legitimacy.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, abusing the financial resources that belong to Iranian people, put together the spectacle on December 30, calling it a "spontaneous" show of support for the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic.

Some people who saw this clumsily engineered carnival might be led to believe that Ahmadinejad's government, and by extension the Islamic Republic that he represents, is widely popular -- and that the Green Movement demanding civil liberties represents a small minority of Iranians. It does not.

Soon after the Islamic revolution of 1977-1979 in Iran, my colleague Peter Chelkowski and I began collecting an extensive archive of visual materials -- ranging from posters, graffiti, murals, elementary school textbooks, billboards, and even stamps, banknotes and chewing gum wrappers -- that were effectively used to turn a multifaceted cosmopolitan revolution into an exclusively "Islamic" one.

People's livelihoods and paychecks depend on cooperating with such sinister carnivals.
--Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies, Columbia University

It took us more than a decade to collect our archive and publish "Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic," in which we demonstrated how the custodians of the Islamic Republic went to excruciating lengths to make sure Iranians spent their days under an avalanche of visual propaganda.

What the custodians of the Islamic Republic did on December 30 was nothing new. It was yet another page from an old and tiresome book that, after 30 years, has lost all effectiveness.

On that day, people at public schools and governmental ministries were told they had the day off. Free buses stood by to take the employees and their families to the rally.

Minutes after these official instructions were issued, copies were published on the Internet.

Food and drink were freely provided for the participants. Non-governmental agencies and private companies were told they would lose lucrative governmental contracts if they did not dispatch their employees and their families to the rally.

Even school exams scheduled for the following Thursday were canceled or postponed so that students would not have to worry about homework as they rehearsed the chanting of "Death to Moussavi!"

The "Moussavi" in the chant was Mir Hossein Moussavi, the leading opposition candidate in the last presidential election and a standard-bearer of the Green Movement.

Religious seminaries from around the country and families of the Basiji and Pasdaran militia were mobilized. Preachers and national television alike encouraged people to take part in the rally.

They were told that Moussavi's supporters had insulted the sacred memory marked by December's religious holiday of Ashura and they had to come out to restore it.

Meanwhile, squares for the rally's venues were carefully selected and locations for TV cameras were judiciously chosen to magnify the size of the crowd. Crude editing techniques generated the impression of a massive turnout.

Music and bombastic newscasters worked to manufacture an exciting and dramatic event. Given the clumsiness of the spectacle, one can only think that Green sympathizers were working for national television to make sure viewers understood the footage was bogus.

But these attempts are useless. My generation of Iranians remembers only too well how as schoolchildren in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we were told to report to school at the crack of dawn when the late Shah of Iran came to our hometowns.

We were hurriedly taken by bus to the airport to wave the little flags our teachers had just handed us and cheer his motorcade. We would show the whole world how much we loved him and how happy we were to welcome him to our city.

In less than two decades, my generation of students were out in the streets as adults shouting "Death to the Shah!" A few months later, the Shah died in Egypt in ignominy.

The difference between now and then is the miracle of the Internet. Within minutes of the national television broadcast, the Internet was flooded with blogs comparing the spontaneous rallies of the Green Movement with the staged rally in reaction to it.

Bloggers created a comparative chart: In one, the security forces beat people up, push them down from bridges over highways, shoot with live ammunition, throw tear gas; in the other, the same forces greet demonstrators warmly, provide them with buses, free food and drink, and redirect the traffic for their convenience.

In one, people are run over and killed by armored trucks; in the other, people pretend they are ready to die for their leader.

In one, reporters go to jail if they cover the rallies; in the other, they are promoted and given bonuses. In one, millions are called thousands; in the other, just the opposite.

None of this is to suggest that Ahmadinejad and his clerical godfathers have no popular support. They do. People's livelihoods and paychecks depend on cooperating with such sinister carnivals.

The louder such rallies scream, the more the world can see how dangerously aware the custodians of the Islamic Republic are of their illegitimacy.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hamid Dabashi.