How virtual social networks translate into street protests: The case for Mahsa Amini’s death under IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran’s) Morality Police?

By S. I. Ejaz

On September 16, 2022, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini of Kurdish ethnicity, succumbed to wounds while in the custody of the country’s notorious morality police. What followed was a series of protests, both at home and abroad, against the incumbent Iranian regime, the flagbearer of the post-1979 Islamist ruling ideology. The presiding political communication scholarship often perceives Iranian conflicts from a binary standpoint. They categorize the population as either pro-Shah or pro-Khomeini, a limited understanding of a country of 80 million people with an average age of 31. Most Iranians today did not experience life under the Shahs or the 1979 Revolution. Therefore, it is essential to develop an updated and nuanced conceptual framework to study the country’s political networks. 

Background & Context

This is not the first-time young Iranians are protesting against the theocratic Islamic Republic, although the average Iranian today is on the street to protest the gruesome killing of Amini. Lately, the regime has seen waves of protests from 1999, 2009, 2017, and 2021, and the ongoing one. However, this wave of protests differs from the rest. It encapsulates the wider Iranian society and is the first to reflect elite-subaltern harmony (Al-Sulami, 2022). One fundamental trigger to the recent protests has been online social media in an otherwise severely censored media regime. How do virtual social networks translate into street protests? Are social media platforms bringing like-minded Iranians together via forming homogeneous networks? Or is it vice versa, and Iranians from different socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds uniting for a single cause? In this essay, I aim to answer these questions. 

Before I begin, it is essential to acknowledge that network diversity remains a contested term. It stems from a Western standpoint, where the phenomenon of individuals forming networks with like-minded individuals originated from the US (Lazarsfeld & Merton, 1954), followed by subsequent literature from McPherson et al. (2001), Lawrence and Shah (2001), etc. While the literature illustrates the existence of homophily in social networks, the empirical evidence might differ from one society to another. For this article, I shall look at the ongoing protests in Iran and ask whether the protesters are coming together due to shared socio-demographics (status homophily) or values (value homophily)? An alternative explanation could be the common objective of reconstituting the state-society relationship by eliminating Islamic Republicanism in present-day Iran. This common objective, however, took decades of conflicts, protests, disruptions, and often international interventions, to coalesce. 

Having established the existence of homophily in the wider Iranian society, I will dissect the networked movement in question, the anti-regime protests across Iran. Unlike the previous ones, these have lasted more than three months across the country’s urban and rural pockets.

Conceptual Framework

I will use Tufecki’s (2021) framework to classify the movement into three parts: the movement’s making, the tools of protests, and the aftermath of the said protests. Tufecki’s works, unlike other political communication scholars, are far more apt towards events in the Middle East, Turkey, and volatile regions. Her take on the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Cairo and the 2013 Gezi Park in Istanbul compels us to reconceptualize the public sphere. To what extent does religion play a role in constructing a networked public sphere? Are we heading towards a post-Islamist and post-secularist world order? Egypt and Turkey, though not theocratic states, have often found themselves in a conflicting social contract between Islamism and secularism (Yilmaz, 2014). Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and individuals like Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen in Turkey are resorting to post-Islamic practices such as democracy and modernity to win votes and maintain their influence on the electorate, which brings them closer to post-secularism in the public sphere, which Jurgen Habermas discussed. Not only are such forces trying to limit the political roles of religion, but they are also trying to diffuse tensions between one’s faith, personal freedom, and the state’s invasive role towards one’s religiosity.

On the other hand, Iranian authorities are yet to follow this path of post-Islamism, as they are adamant about maintaining a theocratic order. Iran cannot afford to follow states like Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, and the recent wave of liberalism in the Arab world due to its hegemonic power structure. In principle, Iran has a presidential system, legislature, and judiciary. However, unlike a Western democracy, the Islamic Republic is under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader, who holds power over the President and his cabinet and acts as the Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces. Therefore, the whole state apparatus, with its different branches, stems from the clerical oversight of the Supreme Leader. In Dahl’s (1957) terms, the Supreme Leader here is A, who exerts power over the Iranian state to the extent that he can get the state to do something that it would not do otherwise. For instance, the whole state apparatus around policing the morals of its citizens, especially the ‘hijab’ mandate for women, has faced severe backlash from the public but has remained in effect since 1983, barring a few relaxations and exceptions over three decades. Suppose we hold the Iranian state to any other self-serving rationale of a nation-state. In that case, none of the other Islamists except Afghanistan under the Taliban regime will go to such extents, including physical and mental torture, lobbying, and censorship to enforce a piece of clothing on women. Having said that, there are examples of ultra secular states, for instance,the French Republic under President Macron using state apparatus to ensure women do not cover themselves as per Islamic rituals. Whether France, Iran, Afghanistan or Al-Shabab in Africa, the underlying issue remains the state’s approach towards policing female bodies to propagate power, and hegemony.

Nevertheless, unlike other states, present-day Iran derives all its power from  so-called “Islamic” values, interpreted by the Supreme Leader and his group of hand-picked clerics. Networked protests against discriminatory legislation, state-enforced morality, and patriarchal governance have been part and parcel of Iranian society since 1979, or even before that against the Shah’s regime. However, until the advent of digital media, previous protests could not have a significant impact due to the lack of resources, global attention, and economic outlook of those protesting. Now that current protests can evade traditional censorship, publicize, coordinate, protect, and make themselves heard worldwide, the regime seems on the edge of collapse. According to Tufecki, digital technologies have transformed the trajectories of social movements and reset the power dynamics of state and society, where giant software platforms can tilt a social movement in either direction. I shall now break down the ongoing movement into the previous sections and argue for the success of online-offline mass mobilization in the case of Iran today.

As Tüfekeci mentions, the ongoing protests are the first stage in a potentially long journey; initially, the movement shall reconfigure itself through the assimilation of digital technologies and then burst into smaller sections. The chant, ‘women, life, freedom,’ initially originated in the Kurdish parts of Iran in 2013. A decade later, down the line, it is now a famous slogan for a country-wide mass-movement, which seems unstoppable despite the brutal disruption measures by the government. An authoritarian regime like Iran, in the last month, has not been able to curb the country-wide protests, despite propaganda-peddling on state television, shifting the blame to its “enemy” countries, and cracking down on regime critics. A leaderless movement just must persuade the masses to come out and protest for a common goal, unlike the state, which must execute and use the bureaucracy, military, or other arms of government through a defined order.

Social Media & Social Movements

Similar movements in the past including Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and the Arab Spring in 2011 were all successful to an extent. These movements relied on disruption, civil disobedience, chaos, and social media mobilization. If Darnella Frazier had not filmed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, the BLM movement would not have “gone viral” and initiated change around the world. Amini’s alleged murder triggered an unstoppable wave of protests breathing down a dying regime, which may be in sync with the events in Tunisia following Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Unlike the urban and middle-class background of the previous protests, Amini was an ordinary Kurdish girl who, like most of the protestors, came to Tehran for a better life, making it more relatable and culturally appropriate for most conservative Iranian circles. As the protests continue, cities like Mashhad, and Qom, previously considered as loyal to the regime, are up in arms against the state, with chants of “Death to the dictator”, replacing the 1979 era slogan of “Death to America”. Drawing on Zhu’s (2017) analysis of the Occupy Central Movement, events in Iran can be attributed in a similar fashion, where the country in question lies in the peripheries of the world system, is undergoing a constant wave of protests fueled by low national income, high political grievances, and international isolation in addition to high internet penetration. 

However, as protestors continue to mobilise, the masses are uniting on an ideological basis. One can only trace the events leading up to Amini’s death and its repercussions. The online mobilisation had already started from Amini’s arrest on September 13 to her death on September 16. Through Instagram, Twitter, and Telegram, women’s rights groups had already gone public with Amini’s arrest. It is important to note that these groups, just like the BLM movement, have been protesting for decades, but Iran’s George Floyd moment was September 16, 2022, when Amini passed away. The official version of her cause of death was a heart attack, which was not bought by the Iranian public. Therefore, state authorities initially released a video on Twitter and then onto other platforms, where Amini collapsed in the morality police detention centre. The public and human rights organizations did not accept the validity of the video footage when it went viral and was picked up by all mainstream media outlets. The regime was already on the back foot. Three days into the protests spiraling out of control, the authorities started cracking down on internet access, restricting access to Instagram and WhatsApp, proving that the internet-fueled protests had already converted onto the streets of Tehran and urban centres. A few weeks later, the UN sanctioned Iran’s morality police, and a motion has already been forwarded to the UN Women’s Rights Council for Iran’s expulsion. As Iran continues to restrict internet access, it is evident that the regime is beginning to fear the politically motivated use of the World Wide Web (Wojcieszak & Smith, 2014). 

That said, there is ample evidence of the recent online-offline mobilization within the Iranian public sphere. Even with a crackdown on all major social media platforms, the protests are growing from rural villages to girls’ schools and markets and spearheading into neighbouring Afghanistan, currently under Taliban control. However, one can still not conclude whether the latest protests are bringing Iranians closer or drifting them apart. The movement’s heterogeneity or homogeneity can only be established after the protests have subsided. Scholars can gather empirical data from the protesting groups precisely because the protesting parties have vested interests and may have been operating with a self-serving bias. For example, certain sections of the women, life, freedom movement want to go beyond the gendered frame. They want a complete overhaul of the Iranian Constitution annihilating the Islamic Republic. These groups are primarily based in Iran and have always criticised the ruling regime.

It will be important to monitor the movement and its eventual result, which might have a long-lasting effect not only on the Muslim world but on all such nation-states which tend to invoke religiosity for political legitimacy, and unending control over their subjects. Scholars, political scientists, and concerned governments can use this research line to predict the Iranian state’s possible future, which is not only a formidable military might but also a next-to-nuclear power being the second nation with a constitutional recognition of Islam to nuclearise after Pakistan. While the ongoing networked movement is political, it can soon have profound national security implications for Iran’s friends and foes.

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This piece was published as part of “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”: A series of weekly articles and interviews that unpack different symbols and concepts at the heart of the most recent developments in Iran

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