Title‘politics of fun’

Rituals of Resistance

2 Apr 2010

■ Asef Bayat

Rituals of Resistance

Chaharshanbe Suri (Wednesday Feast) is an ancient Persian festival linked to the Zoroastrian era. Traditionally it is celebrated on the last Wednesday night of the year, before the Iranian Nowruz, when people go into the streets or back alleys to make bonfires and jump over them in a spirit of joy and jubilance. Setting off countless fire crackers by youth has become part of this ritual in modern times.
By all accounts, this year’s Chaharshanbe Suri was quite unprecedented. Never before has such a ritual been so politicized and feared by Iran’s doctrinal regime. Just days before the event, the state-run media began a massive campaign to warn and discourage people from engaging in the ritual. Earlier on, the police chief had warned parents to keep an eye on their children preventing them from going out. State television had planned Hollywood movies to keep the youth indoors. Security forces and Basij militias armed with baton and weapons were dispatched into the streets to keep control of the strategic locations in the major cities. And ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, issued an unprecedented fatwa declaring the ritual to be both ‘irrational’ and ‘illegitimate’ in Islamic terms (gheir shar‘i).

Nevertheless, as was expected, millions of Iranians defied the government and poured into the streets and alleys to express their jubilations in this national rite. Many made bonfires and jumped over them; they played loud music; some danced; others chanted anti-government slogans, and most hung out outdoors until mid-night. And all of this despite the heavy-handed presence of and clashes with the police and Basij vigilantes which in the end left some 50 people arrested in Tehran.
Why does the Islamist regime express so much fear and disdain over a mundane act of jubilance in a national festival? An immediate response may have to do with the regime’s panic that the Green Movement would use the opportunity once again to display a street showdown. This is certainly plausible. Indeed the nightmare of unpredictable outburst of popular anger in the otherwise normal urban streets is one that the Islamist regime has no way of escaping from.
But there is more to the animosity of puritan Islamists towards such joyful rituals as Chahārshanbe Sūri. At stake is not just the fear of street mobilization by the new Green opposition. The fact is that since the very first weeks of the Islamic Republic, Islamist zealots have continued to express a great angst and scorn towards expressions of popular pleasures and celebration— dancing, happy music, youthful fun, and joyful occasions. It seems as though every occasion of mundane festivity, private parties, and gatherings at bustling street corners, or secular celebrations becomes a matter of profound doctrinal anxiety and delegitimation. The recent fatwa against the festival of Chahārshanbe-Sūri is part of a larger paradigm of disparaging playfulness, laughter, and the expression of selfhood embodied, for instance, in fashion.

Placing the ‘politics of fun’ in a broader geographical and historical perspective, I have suggested in my new book Life as Politics (Stanford University Press, 2010) that such disdain of fun and festivity is not peculiar to the Islamist regime in Iran. We have seen even harsher measures in Saudi Arabia and especially in Taliban Afghanistan where movie-going, watching television, theatre, and even innocent joy of flying kites are not tolerated. This anxiety and fear of fun is a peculiarity of the doctrinal regimes and movements (including many current Islamist movements) whose narrow legitimizing paradigms are unable to accommodate, and so are compelled to deject, the ethics of fun and the joy of the everyday.

The hardliners’ opposition is not restricted to public and collective display of joy and festive rituals (which might be argued to lead to a display of political opposition). Even the private and individual expression of fun and festivity is often rejected. An amateur video taken from a Tehran neighbourhood on March 16 this year, the night of Chahārshanbe-Sūri, shows how security forces and Basij attack an indoor private party at late night, dragging a screaming woman taking her to custody; the video footage displays how the security agents cause terror among neighbors for engaging in what most people in the world take for granted: having some fun.

By suppressing acts of festive rituals and fun, ideological regimes tend inevitably to politicize the practices of everyday life, thus contributing to the instability of these very states

The festive practices of this sort are often condemned by the hardliners as ‘western’ and so should be opposed. As I suggest in Life as Politics, Islamists may be opportunistic in denouncing them as part of a western “cultural invasion”, but “what is to be said when it comes to the inhibition of the innocent and indigenous manifestation of public joy – dancing or signing in a one’s wedding, wearing colourful dress, or joking, whistling and clapping?” The fact is that fun, whether foreign and commoditized, or indigenous and innocent can be subversive. “Fun disturbs exclusive doctrinal authority because, as a source of instantaneous fulfillment, it represents a powerful rival archetype, one that stands against discipline, rigid structures, single discourse, and monopole of truth. It subsists on spontaneity and breaths in the air of flexibility, openness, and critique—the very ethics that clash with the rigid one-dimensional discourse of doctrinal authority. Fun builds on the joy of the immediate and instant pleasures rather than on those distant and abstract referents such as the hereafter, the sacrosanct, and the untouchable—the very referents on which the authority of the doctrinal movements and regimes” [e.g., Taliban in Afghanistan or the velayat-i faqih in Iran] rests (p. 156).
By suppressing acts of festive rituals and fun, ideological regimes tend inevitably to politicize the practices of everyday life, thus contributing to the instability of these very states. As these regimes feel compelled to control people’s daily behaviour to bring them to line, they inevitably turn everyday life– festive rituals, playful acts and cultural practices– into the site of constant struggle and defiance; so that each explosion of a firecracker in an otherwise ordinary event becomes a thunderous affirmation to the highest power that ‘I do not want you’.

Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010)

Tehran Review
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