Iranian protests: behind the headlines

An interview with Dr. Roja Fazaeli, Trinity lecturer and activist from Iran

On 15 November 2019 civil protests quickly began to spread throughout Iran. Though initially directed in opposition to a nationwide increase in fuel prices, the message of the protests rapidly shifted as protesters began to cry out against overall government corruption, economic hardships, and human rights abuses in the country before eventually calling for the overthrow of the Iranian government. It was in the later portion of the protests that violence ensued, and the Iranian government began to employ increasingly oppressive and disturbing tactics in order to stifle the protestors including a nationwide internet shutdown and shooting at protestors from a close range killing more than 1,000 people. The New York Times and Amnesty International reported threats made by the Iranian government to the families of the murdered protestors in order to hide the full extent of the horrific crackdown from the international community.  

Two short months later, on 3 January 2020, the United States killed Qasem Soleimani, the major general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of the Quds Force, in a drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq. Though President Trump stated that the airstrike was intended to “stop a war,” and prevent attacks on Americans, Iran quickly called for revenge against the US, threatening to take military action while large crowds of Iranians filled public squares in protest and mourning all across Iran. In the week following the US drone strike, Iran fired missiles at bases with American troops but did not harm anyone in what was seen as a “relatively harmless show of force”. Though, in the tense period shortly after the US decided to stand down, an Iranian missile wrongly shot down a Ukrainian civilian passenger jet, killing 176 people. 

Whoever was on the plane, it was so so tragic, but these were elites, dual nationals, academics, people who could have been any of us in some ways.”

In times of political upheaval—as can be seen in the Global Protest Wave of 2019-2020 wherein Hong Kong, France, Catalonia, Egypt, and Iran, among many other nations, saw very large and high profile politically-spirited protests—and in such a diverse community as Trinity, one must consider how these protests impact those of us living abroad. In looking at recent events, Trinity News spoke to Roja Fazaeli, a human rights activist and Trinity professor from Iran, about her experience following current issues in Iran from Ireland. 

“I’ve been in Ireland for the last 26, 27 years,” Fazaeli stated. “But I am very involved with human rights activism. My own scholarship on human rights activism in Iran specifically informs my own activism. I am removed from Iran, but not that removed. I know people who are imprisoned because of their work as human rights defenders. But when you are far away, you are sitting in a safe space. I don’t know how I can say how I felt, after what happened with Solemani and when the plane was shot down, it was very difficult. It was difficult for me, for friends.” Elaborating further, she explained that “yes, you are removed, but when something like this happens, and especially when looking at who was on the plane. Whoever was on the plane, it was so, so tragic, but these were elites, dual nationals, academics, people who could have been any of us in some ways.”

Though Fazaeli has lived in Ireland for more than 25 years, she expressed her feelings of responsibility to continue to remain politically active in response to current events and issues in Iran. In her discussion of activism, she makes a clear distinction between informed and uninformed activism, highlighting her desire to contribute to the former. “Part of what I do both through scholarship and through activism is what I would call informed activism,” Fazali stated. “At the end of the day I am an academic, but I do think that so much of educating the public comes from academia. Part of what I have done, for example, was engage with Irish media, and part of that is education and trying to transmit some more information on the history of Iran, the context of the issue. Sometimes news is broadcast in a way where it’s not contextual, it’s ahistorical. So I try to bring that in a little bit.” Fazaeli also explained that she participates in all levels of activism, stating: “I participate in on-street protests, engage with the department of foreign affairs, participate in public lectures, and work with different NGOs. I still work with different NGOs and they call and ask for consultation of the civil society.” 

“There are some double-standards in how the media reports things. There are some issues that are reported as ‘the problems of the region,’ and then it becomes an international concern when it starts to hit closer to home. It then seems to become a bigger issue.” 

For those looking to position themselves as informed activists following the most recent events in Iran, access to information and how the issue is represented in the media adds a layer of difficulty to properly informing oneself. Fazaeli called attention to the fact that when events are reported on, much of what the public consumes from the media is ahistoric or not properly contextualized. Furthermore, a major concern with the most recent protests was the overall suppression of information by the Iranian government, both through the internet shutdown and state repression of the people and information. This was done, Fazaeli asserted, in an effort to keep the international community from understanding the full extent of the issue. When asked about how she perceives the overall international media coverage of the most recent issues in Iran, Fazaeli stated that: “with the protests after Soleamani, the protests after the new year, there was more wide-spread coverage. Part of it was that it wasn’t just about Iran, it was also about the US and what the US’s role was in this. There was the question of whether this was, from the perspective of international law, a legal killing or not. There was a lot of analysis. I hadn’t seen that much before, but after Solemani was killed, everyone was writing about it.” 

“For me obviously, I was following it very closely and it was really tragic in many ways. More than 1,000 people were killed and we don’t actually know the full numbers. There will not be official numbers coming from Iran, but there were more than 7,000 people arrested and when the protests happened there was sometimes stuff in the news but when the protests halt there is not much that you hear about it.” Fazaeli explained that following Solemani’s death many of the current issues in Iran gained moderate traction in the media, but that there was still little-to-no coverage on the events at the end of 2019. “So when I was invited to speak to the Irish media,” Fazaeli continued. “That was one thing that I tried to highlight. You still have 7,000 people in prison, you still have lawyers, human rights activists, human rights defenders, environmentalists, Baha’is (religious minorities), dervishes – they’re kind of a Sufi sect – so many of them are still in prison. There has been repression and human rights violations in the history of the Islamic Republic. It’s a difficult thing to try to summarize in one go.” 

Drawing attention to the implications of the United States’ involvement and how that shifted the coverage of the issues, Fazaeli pointed out a major issue in the media, stating: “There are some double-standards in how the media reports things. There are some issues that are reported as ‘the problems of the region,’ and then it becomes an international concern when it starts to hit closer to home. It then seems to become a bigger issue.” 

“When you looked at who was protesting, it was the students. I always think that these protests coming from universities give me a lot of hope because they are informed protests.”

Fazaeli was also critical of the ways in which the media portrayal shifted because of political backlash against Trump, arguing: “With what was coming out of the media, when people were waiting to see how Iran was going to react, there was so much analysis, and there was so much backlash against Trump that people were forgetting that the Iranian state is also extremely oppressive.” 

“The US’s role and the Western intervention in the region was highlighted. Whereas Iran’s role wasn’t highlighted as much,” she stated. “I kept looking back at these analyses and saying, ‘Well look, Iran is also doing this.’ If you’re talking about imperialism and talking about colonialism you have to ask, what is Iran’s role here? Solemani was in Yemen, in Syria, as far as I know he was in Bahrain, and even before that in Afghanistan. He was called the butcher of Aleppo; he was in Iraq.” Solemani was a general in the Sepah-e Pasdaran, or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Fazaeli explained, as the head of the Quds force which operated outside of Iran’s borders. “IRGC actually are the people who are responsible for all of the killings and arrests of the protesters in Iran. They also probably had a hand in quashing the protests in Iraq. They support Hezbollah in Lebanon. I don’t know how much of this was really highlighted in the media because what I saw was ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’”. Validating concerns over US intervention in the region, she also made a point to call attention to the need for an objective view of the issues. “This is where I think that academia is very important, and that our role is very important. If we can reach out to the public and inform them, then we are doing our part.” 

At Trinity, Fazaeli pointed out, a positive resource that can help students stay informed is the Long Room Hub which has, over the past few years, organized a lecture series called Behind the Headlines, which focused on discussing, dissecting, and analysing what is happening behind the current major headlines. In addition to the lecture series, Trinity has also established a new Centre for Resistance Studies, which Fazaeli sees as being an important resource for individuals to be able to deeply understand current movements and issues in the world. “It’s important for people to learn the history and the context of these issues,” Fazaeli stated, “and something like the Centre for Resistance Studies is a place where people’s informed solidarity can come from as well.” 

Throughout the current issues with Iran, Fazaeli felt that “one of the things that made me hopeful was seeing the protests that happened after the plane was shot down. When you looked at who was protesting, it was the students. I always think that these protests coming from universities give me a lot of hope because they are informed protests.”

Though the experience of living abroad during a time of political turmoil is an extremely difficult one for many individuals, Fazaeli noted the importance, in her experience, of support from the community. “Throughout the years, with events in Iran, I have had faculty, colleagues, and students show support,” Fazaeli explained. “This was everything from sending an email, to coming and knocking on the door, to show support. Also, having a platform like the Long Room Hub is really powerful as a place where issues and subjects can be analysed and you can have critical thinking around the issue. Again, this is a way that we can inform the public. It’s a form of solidarity. Going forward, I think that students’ own informed solidarity is important.”

Jessica Hobbs Pifer

Jessica Hobbs Pifer is a Deputy News Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Fresh Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures student.