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How protests in Iran are similar to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Women and girls in Iran are still not backing down. Coming up on a month after Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran's so-called morality police, Iranians continue to protest in the streets of cities and towns across the country. Iranian American writer Reza Aslan has been pondering the moment. In a new piece for Time magazine, Aslan writes about women throwing off their veils, cropping their hair and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with men to fight. Here's the twist. Aslan is writing there not about today but about a different moment in Iranian history - one most Americans have probably never heard of - the Constitutional Revolution of 1905. He argues it's the closest parallel to what is happening in Iran today. Reza Aslan, welcome.

REZA ASLAN: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So tell me, briefly - what was happening in Iran around 1905, 1906? Who was protesting and why?

ASLAN: In 1905, a band of educated, young revolutionaries poured out onto the streets of Iran, backed by the clergy and by the business interests in order to demand the creation of a constitution that would outline the rights and privileges of all citizens and, of course, the creation of a parliament - an elected parliament that would be able to pass legislation and, in general, curtail the absolute authority of the shah. This was the first democratic revolution in the Middle East, and it was the first of three major revolutions that Iran has experienced over the course of the 20th century. And in each one of those revolutions, just like today, women were at the forefront.

KELLY: But you argue - you come away from this and say, there's kind of two main lessons that you think we could learn from what was happening in Iran during the Constitutional Revolution more than a century ago. The first is about that you need a diverse coalition of people for anything to change. Explain.

ASLAN: That's right. People who have been watching Iran or who understand Iranian history know that there have been countless uprisings and popular protests over the last hundred years or so. But the ones that had been able to elevate from protests to revolutions were the ones that were able to bring in a coalition of the educated middle class - the clerics who maintain an enormous amount of control and power over the pious masses in Iran. And I'm talking not about the grand ayatollahs, but sort of the mid-level clerics and the seminary students. And then, most crucially, the business class - the merchant class - the bazaari merchants. In 1906, in 1953 and in 1979, these three groups were able to come together, and that coalition is what ultimately resulted in radical change in the Iranian government.

KELLY: The other big takeaway that you see is what the rest of the world does - how the rest of the world is watching and responding. What parallels do you see there?

ASLAN: Well, of course, in 1906, people came from all over the world with guns and bombs and actually physically joined the revolution. That's not really, of course, possible today, nor is it advisable. But the truth is is that we have something even more powerful than guns and weapons. We have our voices. We have the ability to make sure that the cries for freedom that are coming out of Iran are actually heard and responded to by insisting that the Iranian government pay a price for this brutal crackdown.

KELLY: As an Iranian, what's it been like to watch everything happening today in Iran from outside - from afar?

ASLAN: I've been watching Iran for 40 years now. I've been studying, you know, Iranian history going back all the way to the dawn of the 20th century. And I can tell you with confidence - I've never seen anything like this before. The power of these young women, girls, teenagers - children, frankly - who are willing to put their bodies in front of bullets in order to say that we cannot have any more of this - the only thing that will satisfy us is the downfall of this regime - I don't see how that force can be stopped, regardless of the power or the violence of the Islamic Republic.

KELLY: That's the Iranian American writer, Reza Aslan. His new book is "An American Martyr In Persia." Reza Aslan, thanks.

ASLAN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.