By William J. Furney
BIRMINGHAM, England — A well-built young man furiously twirls a giant Iranian flag on a crammed street in Birmingham, England, on a warm Saturday afternoon in late October as his demonstrating colleagues cry out in unison amid Christmas displays already sprouting up in the median of the thronged shopping thoroughfare.
Steps away, religious groups — Muslims and Christians, each trying to outdo each other — who think they know it all and that they are the only ones who matter on a speeding planet of 7.8 billion people make blaring pitches, with the assistance of speakers, to convert those from other faiths and bolster their numbers.
No one was listening, and they were wasting their time.
For these Saturday-afternoon shopper-spectators, the focus, thanks to the rowdy and eye-catching demo, is clearly on Iran — more particularly on the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody in September for failing to wear the hijab face covering properly.
The passing of a young and evidently healthy woman in what can only be described as deeply suspicious circumstances sparked a wave of anger at home and around the world. Protests across Iran against the alleged police brutality have led to the deaths of around 277 people, in clashes with police, according to the monitoring organisation Iran Human Rights. Women cast off their hijabs in defiance; others cut their long tresses.
Iran says Amini suffered a heart attack, fell into a coma and died; the young woman’s parents claim she was beaten and had bruises on her body. Iran’s heavy-handed, murderous approach to the tsunami of protests, however, has only further served to rile the Iranian people. At least 1,000 people have been arrested, but the actual figure of those picked up over the unrest could be as high as 14,000, rights groups say.
“Instead of accepting people’s legal demands, the Islamic Republic is clamping down with repressive measures and show trials. The charges and sentences have no legal validity and their sole purpose is to commit more violence create societal fear,” said Iran Human Rights Watch director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam.
The uprising presents the most serious threat to the ostensible dictatorship of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been supreme leader for over three decades and wields far more power than President Ebrahim Raisi, since the Arab Spring protests a decade ago that rocked the region.
Sporadic and fleeting demonstrations have since erupted in Iran, over the country’s dire economic situation and soaring inflation — made worse by US sanctions over the country’s nuclear ambitions — perceived corruption and an impenetrable ruling elite that offers almost no political opportunities to anyone else. The new groups of protesters, led by women outraged over Amini’s death, now want the 83-year-old ayatollah booted from office, and his Islamic republic dismantled, in favour of an actual democratic state.
“Khamenei has made it his mission to preserve the revolutionary identity of the state, particularly that it remains devoted to Islamic principles and opposed to the West,” says Ray Takeyh, an Iranian scholar at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “This has been a difficult task given the widespread public disillusionment with Islamist rule.”
Half a world away, in England, Iranians’ sisters and brothers are doing all they can to draw attention to their plight, and showcasing their own rage against the brutal regime. When the Birmingham protest ended, I went for a trim, and, as it happened, my barber was Iranian. As he snipped, I told him about the Amini protest, and he wasn’t surprised. “There are many protests against Iran here,” he said, alluding to Birmingham’s sizable Iranian population.
“The ayatollah doesn’t care about the people; he only cares about staying in power,” said the youngish barber, who fled his country in search of a better life in Europe.
He told me he arrived in England in 2011, in a truck from France with six others, having paid a people-trafficker the equivalent of £1,200 for the short journey across the English channel. He had practically no English and applied for asylum, which was granted.
Now, just over a decade later, he was fluent in English; married, to an Englishwoman (for two years; no children yet, much to his parents’ consternation); and had his own business: a two-chair barbershop at, of all places, a petrol station in central Birmingham. A brother also lives in the city.
My Iranian barber returned to his homeland earlier this year, his first trip back since leaving, to visit his parents and sisters. “Life is hard for them in Iran,” he said. “The price of everything is going up, and they are angered over Mahsa Amini’s death. We hope this time there will be change.”
- Title photograph by William J. Furney