The Rhythmic Beat of the Revolution in Iran

Peer Reviewed


"Green Wave." via Flickr.

In the August 2010 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Michael Fischer examines the Green Wave in Iran, which gained worldwide visibility via events following the June 2009 Iranian elections. When President Ahmadinejad was declared the winner for a second term after the disputed elections, hundreds of thousands Iranians rallied to express their discontent with the structure of a government that has been exposed repeatedly for economic mismanagement, financial corruption, torture and and extrajudicial killings. Widespread demonstrations were suppressed violently by armed security forces - riot police, Pasdaran, and the Baseej militia attacking unarmed civilians. Video clips of these attacks, killings, torture and arrests that were recorded by cellphones and other technologies were published on blogs and YouTube, breaching state sanctioned censorship.

Analyzing the aesthetics of politics that play upon the available means of expression and recognition within Iranian civil society, Fischer illustrates how the Green Wave made active use of existing repertoires such as the Shiite paradigm of struggle for social justice, ritual cycles of the Islamic calendar, slogans of the 1979 Islamic revolution, as well as the technical infrastructure of the Iranian civil society and public sphere to articulate its demands for political change. Fischer's account illuminates how "repetition with difference" of political formations opens a way for the next movement, such as the Green Wave. He shows how these "rhythmic beats" of revolutionary demands in Iran are an utmost challenge to the state's monopoly control over interpretation of  Islamic terms and symbols. They are an assertion of "the diversity of opinion as well as multitudes that cannot be easily contained," in the face of "an interpretive control that is explicitly antidemocratic and antirepublican."

Fischer contends that the future of this movement - as any other - is undetermined, dependent on the political forcing of choices. Here his ethnography makes use of simulation and scenario building to explore the emergent alternatives of this indeterminacy, pointing "to structural forces, to configurations of patterns, to coincident connections, to disjunctions, and to trade-offs" shaping alternative scenarios of Iranian futures to come.

"Green Hand."via The Scrooge Report.

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on democracy, voting, and elections. See for example, Amahl Bishara's "Watching U.S. Televisions from the Palestinian Streets: The Media, the State, and Representational Interventions" (2008), Paul Manning's "Rose Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Postsocialist Georgia" (2007), and Julia Paley's "Making Democracy Count: Opinion Polls and Market Surveys in the Chilean Political Transition" (2001).

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on politics and contemporary Islam, including Kenneth George's "Ethics, Iconoclasm, and Qur'anic Art in Indonesia" (2009) and Anne Menely's "Fashions and Fundamentalisms in Fin-de-Siecle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks" (2007).

About the Author

"Michael Fischer." via MIT Anthropology.

Michael M. J. Fischer is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and Professor of Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies in the Department of Anthropology at MIT. He has done anthropological fieldwork in the Caribbean (Jamaica), the Middle East (Iran), South Asia (India), and the U.S. on social change and religion (Protestants and Afro-Carribean religions in Jamaica; Zoroastrians, Shi'ites, Baha'is, Jews in Iran; Jains and Parsis in India); on bazaars, merchants, craftsmen, and agriculture in Iran, Jamaica, India, and Antwerp; on revolutionary processes in Iran; on cinema in Poland, India, and Iran; on communities of scientists, engineers, and physicians in India and the U.S. He teaches courses on social theory, ethnography, anthropology and film, social and ethical issues in the biosciences and biotechnologies, law and ethics on the electronic frontier. He studied geography and philosophy at Johns Hopkins (B.A. 1967), social anthropology and philosophy at the L.S.E., anthropology at the University of Chicago (Ph.D. 1973). He has taught at the University of Chicago, Harvard, and Rice before coming to MIT, and has served as Director of the Center for Cultural Studies at Rice, and Director of the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT. He's been a Fulbright Lecturer in Brazil, a CIES Fellow in India, and a Senior Fellow at the Smithsonian.

Additional Works By the Author

Michael M. J. Fischer is the author of Zoroastrian Iran Between Myth and Praxis (PhD 1973); Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution (1980), Anthropology as Cultural Critique (with George Marcus, 1986, 2nd edition 1999), Debating Muslims (with Mehdi Abedi, 1990), Emergent Forms of Life and the Anthropological Voice (2003), and Mute Dreams, Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledges: Persian Poesis in the Transnational Circuitry (2004). His work includes previous publications in Cultural Anthropology such as: "Introduction to Culture at Large Forum with George Lipsitz: Social Warrants and Rethinking American Culture"(2006), "Anthropology as Cultural Critique: Inserts for the 1990s Cultural Studies of Science, Visual-Virtual Realities, and Post-Trauma Polities" (1991), "Bombay Talkies, the Word and the World: Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses" (1990), "Museum and Festivals: Notes on the Poetics and Politics of Representation Conference, the Smithsonian Institution, September 26-28, 1988, Ivan Karp and Steven Levine, Organizers" (1989) and "Scientific Dialogue and Critical Hermeneutics"(1988).


Fischer's article focuses exclusively on the Iranian civil society's "new instruments" such as "the new social media of the internet, cellphone cameras, Twitter and Facebook" which both allowed for the wide broadcasting of the 2009 protests, and the self-expression of the Green Wave. As such, the article cites extensively video clips from youtube and various blogs which made the events and discussions following the 2009 elections available to view for a wide range of Iranian and non-Iranian publics.

Footage of protests following the 2009 elections:

Fischer contends that the death of Ayatullah Hossein Ali Montazeri - the cleric who was once the designated heir to Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, but later got reduced to isolation in the city of Qum due to his discrepancy with the governing cadres of the Islamic Republic - following 2009 elections provided the Green Wave with a platform to express their reaction to the current Iranian government and recent elections.

Marches in Qum during the funeral of Ayatullah Hossein Ali Montazeri:

Fischer details how the Karbala Paradigm provided a narrative plot for the public representations of the 2009 protests by the Green Wave. This collaged video of the traditional Karbala passion play pardehs showing scenes from the protests is an excellent example of the re-telling of the 2009 protests and the story of Karbala via juxtaposing the traditional images with the current political events and persona :

According to Fischer, aesthetic sensibility and traditions of Ashura and the month of Muharram were borrowed effectively by the Green Wave to communicate their frustration and demands from the current Iranian regime.  

Drums of Ashura:

Related Links

On June 26, 2010 Middle East Report Online published an article reviewing the opposition Green Movement in Iran, one year and counting the disputed presidential elections. Click to read "The Green Movement Awaits an Invisible Hand" by Mohammad Maljoo.

Yet another update on Green Revolution comes from The New York Times on April 9th, 2010. Click here to view the video published on the The New York Times website about Mohsen Sazegara, a prominent Iranian dissident who continues using the internet to produce a nearly daily Web video to continue lending his support for the movement in Iran.

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