Assault on a Tehran University: Martyr Burials and Violence


by Rasmus Christian Elling.

This morning, armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran buried war victims inside the campus of Amir Kabir University in Tehran. The so-called unknown martyrs were buried amidst tumult and despite protests from student activists. Another symbolic and violent battle between regime-loyal and pro-democratic forces is being fought right now.

The idea of burying martyrs inside Tehran’s universities has a history. Ever since the idea was floated some six years ago, when Ahmadinejad was Tehran’s mayor, it has been a hotly contested topic. Pro-democratic students have protested against the plans because they see it as an instrument for the regime’s oppressive policy: a) it is a way to impose on the university milieu and student life a militant ideology that praises shahâdat (the martyr death), war and military values associated with the Revolutionary Guards and the eulogizing of the eight-year war with Iraq; b) it is a practical way for authorities to clamp down on student gatherings and demonstrations since it is stipulated that the area surrounding martyr graves be treated with utmost respect – indeed, it is prohibited to gather in large numbers in such areas for any other purpose than mourning (which certainly rules out political or cultural meetings); and thus, c) it is a part of a strategy to suppress dissident voices within Iran’s lively university environment. It is one of many tactics in the conservatives’ battle to ‘re-Islamize’ and regain control with Iran’s universities – universities that have struggled to persevere as the vigorous centers of political debate, dissident activities and alternative youth they became during the early days of Khatami’s reformist presidency in the late 1990s.

Thus, the issue of martyr burials has become a battleground between the regime and the pro-democratic forces. Anticipating student protests, the authorities planned today’s burial in advance. A couple of weeks ago, authorities started rounding up key members of the dissident Islamic Students Association (Anjoman-e eslâmi-ye dâneshjuyân) in Amir Kabir Polytechnic University, Tehran – an university known for its vibrant and diverse pro-democratic activist milieu. And yesterday, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i prepared the ground by issuing a public message hailing the martyrs and stating that the youth of today is indebted to these anonymous war heroes to be buried in their campus yard. Thus, the highest political authority blessed today’s aggressive action.

Amir Kabir University’s Student Newsletter website,, has reported on the events (here and here). They explain that the atmosphere had been tense through the last couple of days when a parade of chest-beating mourners delivered the martyr coffins this morning. Before the parade, security forces, Basiji campus police, Revolutionary Guards, plain clothed intelligence officers, armed vigilantes known as Ansâr-e hezbollâh (a violent Islamist organization under the unofficial sway of the Supreme Leader) and even the fire brigade gathered inside and around the university compounds. Authorities denied those key activists who had not already been arrested entry to campus but other students – allegedly as many as 1,500 – created a barrier, preventing for some time the parade from executing the burial ceremonies.

The regime forces violently attacked protestors. Students reported that the security forces and vigilantes used clubs, tear gas sprays, iron knuckles, knives and other weapons in order to wound the protesting students. At least 25 have been arrested and 9 hospitalized with knife wounds and other injuries so far, and the fighting continues while this is being written. One student commented on the Amir Kabir website that he/she had never before seen so many security and intelligence forces in action. In a reference to a leader of thugs that was paid by the Shah to disrupt mass gatherings in opposition to the Shah’s regime in the 1950s – Sha‘ban ‘Bi-mokh’ Ja‘fari (‘The Brainless’) – the student wrote

“Really, the Brainless Sha‘bans of the Islamic Republic cannot even be compared to the Brainless Sha‘bans of the Shah!”.

Or, as formulated in another student slogan repeated on the website: “Ansâr commits the crime, the Leader supports it”.

According the Amir Kabir Newsletter, students carried placards and yelled slogans such as “University is not a graveyard”, “Death to Dictatorship”, “Run off, Ansâr”, “Incompetent Basijis, Carrying the Koran on a Spear” and so on. These harsh slogans reveal the profound animosity amongst students against the militant ideology of the regime. Amir Kabir Newsletter reported earlier today:

“… the situation in university is horrible. While protesting students of the university are being beaten up and wounded, the coffins of the so-called nameless martyrs have been placed in a corner, left in a disgusting fashion along the graves while clerics are signing mourning hymns …”

The latest news – posted on Amir Kabir’s website around 8 PM Tehran time – is that the security forces have surrounded university and is now arresting all student protestors trying to exit campus.

Indeed, the Iranian state and its forces have once again brought death into universities with the intent of stifling discontent and strangling freedom of speech and thought. However, the Iranian student movement might come alive again from such brainless actions as that carried out this morning by the state. One student, identifying him/herself as ‘Patriot’ wrote:

“Right in front of me, they kicked and carried off a couple of the kids in a red van. I swear by [Imam] Ali, from now on, I count the minutes until the fall of this regime and I will do anything. Long Live Freedom, Death to Dictatorship”.

State-run and state-affiliated news agencies such as ISNA, Fârs and Mehr have all reported that yesterday’s martyr burial ceremonies were a success. Fârs wrote:

“The immaculate bodies of five unknown martyrs of the eight years of Holy Defense were [moved from] Tehran University and buried in Amir Kabir University with the attendance of a mass of students and people who are in love with the school of self-sacrifice and martyrdom”

In his speech at the burial, Hojjatoleslam Ali-Reza Panahian said that ever since the Islamic Revolution, the enemies had been wishing for the revolution to go astray but that

“after 30 years [since the Islamic Revolution], we are witnesses to the fact that the Holy Order of the Islamic Republic, by the blessing of martyr blood, has the first word to say in the world [i.e., is a major power].”

Panahian clearly referred to the protesters in this quote:

“One should not call the martyrs’ tomb a graveyard since the martyr is not dead and should not be seen as one of the dead”.

He also referred to the fact that many scholars had asked in their wills to be buried in universities. The Fârs report continued:
“In this spiritual ceremony, a number of students – who can be counted with fingers, and who are connected to the illegal group of ‘Allâmeh [Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat] – tried to create unrest and obstruct the martyr burial ceremonies by provoking their leaders; however a large group of value-driven students directed them out of the central space of Amir Kabir University and into a corner of campus, and thus prevented their rioting.”

Fârs also stated that these “troublemakers” had thrown bottles at “the students” (i.e., those who attended the burial ceremony) and tried to abuse the events for political aims. Fars also reported that the “value-driven” students numbered “thousands” and that they had responded to protesters with slogans such as “The Martyrs are Alive, Allâho Akbar”, “The Blood in Our Veins is a Gift for the Supreme Leader” and “Martyrs, Martyrs; We are Indebted to Your Blood for Our Freedom Today”. Fârs claimed that the “radicals” wounded a number of “students”, but that those attending the ceremony kept their calm and thus prevented the “conspiracy” from unfolding.

The Ahmadinejad-affiliated Rajânews brought the same report but with another intro and headline: “Daftar-e tahkim’s militia’s attack on the martyr burial ceremony”. Here, it was stated that the protesters were the ones who attacked, not the other way around; and that the protesters only numbered “50 persons”.

Needless to say, these reports are in conflict with the reports by Amir Kabir University Student Newsletter, AKUNews. This site reported today that “more than 70 students” have been arrested – but that allegedly more than 40 of them have already been released. The students have also uploaded two videos here and here and series of pictures here and here and here. From these videos and pictures it seems pretty clear that we are talking about a lot more than 50 protesters. However, from the other side of the showdown, IRNA has brought these pictures. AKUNews has also reported that security forces have stormed the homes of key present and former members of The Islamic Student Association at Amir Kabir University today, arresting four.


A scholar wrote me this interesting comment:

“All nations honor their martyrs especially the unknown soldiers and Iran is not an exception. Maybe the regime is wrong in burying martyrs inside universities, but this is such a sensitive issue in Iran that the so-called “pro-democracy” movement should leave it alone. A tomb of unknowns in a university has never stopped any nations from achieving democracy. This shows how distant some reformists are from the reality in Iran.”

This is also an issue that has been discussed in the comments by another reader.

The issue of whether “the reformists” are distant from the reality of many ordinary Iranians is very interesting. As I have elaborated on in my earlier writings on the topic, I think this is correct: the intellectual discourse of how to build a civil society and rule of law was simply too complex for many Iranians to bother about. What most ordinary Iranians do think about are skyrocketing prices on everything, unemployment, inflation, crime etc. This is also why the reformists lost the presidential elections in 2005. It will be interesting to see if the “reformists” are able to re-invent themselves before the coming elections – otherwise, Ahmadinejad’s victory is certain.

However, I am not sure whether it is correct to call those who protested against the martyr burials yesterday reformists. We simply do not have enough information to make such a claim. Indeed, many pro-democratic student activists (and I recognize that this is a dubious term) have distanced themselves from the reformist discourse and politics over the last decade – and many new students have entered universities who might not be that fond of Khatami and his entourage.

What we do know is that these students were protesting against the burials not as a sign of disrespect against the martyrs, but as a sign of protest against the state: a state that dictates controversial measures despite the protests of students (remember that this is not just one tomb in one university; it is similar orchestrated maneuvers in several universities over the last year or so); a state that has clamped down on pro-democratic student activities in a harsh and systematic way for over a decade; and a state that will not allow free speech in universities.

Nonetheless, the scholar mentioned above has an interesting point: that these protests might not benefit the students’ cause in a broader perspective. The Iran-Iraq War was, by all accounts, the most traumatic event in recent Iranian history. The mental scars left behind by the war cut across classes, geography and political affiliations, and Iranians are very sensitive to the issue of war victims and martyrs. There is a deep feeling of frustration over injustice and Western hypocrisy amongst many Iranians, most of whom have lost a family member or friend during the war. It might be, as the scholar mentioned above, implies, that the students have now created a negative image of themselves – and of the “reformists”, with whom many will inevitably (but not always correctly) identify them with.

However, let us not forget that we have not heard any of the reformists groups and major leaders express their support for the students. Until now, Khatami, Mir-Hossein Musavi, etc. have all been silent. As usual, the students are left to fight their battles themselves.

15 responses to “Assault on a Tehran University: Martyr Burials and Violence

  1. Thank you rasmuss what an article. the slogans tell us wuite a bit how people feel about the regime and how unpopular it is among some people.

    “Right in front of me, they kicked and carried off a couple of the kids in a red van. I swear by [Imam] Ali, from now on, I count the minutes until the fall of this regime and I will do anything. Long Live Freedom, Death to Dictatorship”.

    this sound like a slogan from 1979, a pro IR slogan, but ironically it is against the very regime of the imams. comparing this regime to the shahs is courageous and hell of a slap in the face for the regime.

  2. Thank you for this report. Although I have heard conflicting reports about the outbreak of violence, I am very sorry to hear that students had been hurt. I was hoping you could answer a few questions about your post.

    Do you have any information on how many “pro-democracy” students there were protesting these burials? Do you have any sources other than the website of the “pro-democracy” students (AKU website)? Can you please provide us with some information about whether the “pro-democracy” students represent a general consensus about the issue of burying the war dead on campuses? More broadly, can you provide us with some evidence that these “pro-democracy” groups are the only ones that identify themselves as such?

    By the way, what you have termed the “so called nameless solider” is better translated as “the unknown soldier” or the “unknown martyr.” The concept of the “unknown soldier” and the idea of having tombs for “unknown soldiers”, of course, is quite common around the world.

    Thank you in advance for your answers to these questions.

  3. Dear Niki,

    Thank you for your comments. I am puzzled by the conflicting reports, you refer to. If you mean the ones in pro-regime and state-controlled media such as Fârs and Mehr News, I have now read them. There is nothing surprising in them: they portray the burials as something the majority of students have welcomed. The articles completely ignore the fact that there have been protests against such measures for years in universities throughout Iran. News agencies such as Fârs and Mehr are, in my opinion, notoriously unreliable sources and mouthpieces of the Iranian Judiciary and the Islamic Propaganda Organization etc.

    However you are correct that I have not used any other sources than the AKU website for this particular item. And this is a huge problem for the students (and anyone in the world who would like to learn about them): when all seriously critical newspapers and all radical student newsletters have been shut down, when journalists have been imprisoned and when the dominant media today is dictated by the ruling elite, there is not many alternatives to AKU News when it comes to on-campus news. ISNA, for example, have been completely taken over by pro-Ahmadinejad Basiji ex-students. It used to be a student news agency. It would be hard to describe it as such today.

    So, this particular news item relies on AKU News. It is, however, my experience that AKU News is a rather reliable source, although they will – as any other politicized media – be prone to exaggeration in matters such as the number of protesters. I myself have studied the issue of students and politics in the Islamic Republic for ten years. I have lived in Iran and done research among student activists (including pro-regime and Islamist students). I have written my MA thesis on the topic as well as items you can find here on the blog. So part of my opinion – and remember, this is not academic research, it is a blog with opinions – is based on my own experiences and information from sources in Iran.

    So, to answer one of your (implicit) questions: no, I can of course not verify AKU News’ claim that 1,500 students protested today. I was not there, which is why I wrote “allegedly”. No other scholar or independent journalist would be able to verify this, as you know.

    To answer your next question: it is difficult to say if there is consensus about the issue today. If we are to believe this source, there certainly is consensus: the majority is vehemently opposed to the project. From what I have been able to gather over the last couple of years, it is only pro-regime groups such as Basij-e dâneshju‘i that have endorsed the idea. However, I would be very interested in reports of conflicting views.

    As I have written elsewhere, I do not believe that there is a broad, active pro-democratic student movement in Iran right now, but I do believe there is potential for reviving the student movement which by all accounts was large and powerful during the first years of Khatami’s presidency.

    The problem is that since the conservative clampdown on students that started in 1999 and in particular since the intensification of clampdown that started with Ahmadinejad’s announcement of a Second Cultural Revolution, only the fewest students dare to join pro-democratic groups such as the real Daftar-e tahkim (which has been declared illegal) or Anjoman-e daneshjuyân-e demokrâsi-khâh. The price is simply too high: authorities punish students for their political activities, give them “stars” according to their level of activity and expel any student that goes “too far” in his/her criticism. In an environment where students do not dare to express their views, it is hard to measure a consensus. Refer to my other pieces on this blog for more information.

    Regarding “pro-democracy”: this is my term, a way to describe a very broad variety of dissident groups and informal circles that span from Marxist-flavored Shari‘ati-inspired people over social democrats, liberal Islamists and secular nationalists and anyone in between. In common they have the demand that Iran should be reformed in a democratic direction where the power of unelected bodies is either completely removed or at least reduced to a symbolic level, and where the power of elected bodies becomes more than symbolic – i.e., where elections are actually free and democratic. Among these groups there are certainly also people who think that the Islamic Republic-model should be abandoned for a secular Republic-model – although, since it can be punished severely, no-one would state such views in formal settings. As “democracy” in itself is a flexible (!) term, this classification is of course far from clear-cut. However, for brevity’s sake one will have to adopt an operative terminology. My guess is that most members of the real Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat (Allameh faction) and the Anjoman-hâ-ye dâneshjuyân-e eslâmi would say they are “pro-democracy”, even though their definitions of this term varies (and rarely means the same as a student group at, say, Copenhagen University would understand the term).

    Thank you for your suggestion on “unknown soldiers”: I wrote this piece in a hurry and my mother tongue is not English. I agree, to some extent, that ‘unknown’ can be used for ‘gomnâm’ (even though anonymous would probably be more close to the original) – and therefore I have also changed it on your suggestion. However, it is not, in my opinion, correct to translate “shohadâ‘” as soldiers. These are martyrs, not “just” soldiers, and the symbolic meaning of “shohadâ-ye gomnâm” cannot, of course, be compared to tombs or monuments for unknown soldiers in other places. They are termed “martyrs” for ideological, political and religious reasons – and as I have outlined, based on my own interviews with student activists – for practical-logistical reasons (i.e., to facilitate clampdown). And I’m not sure about other countries, but in my own country at least, we do not bury soldiers or martyrs, known or unknown, in the middle of our universities.

    Best regards,

  4. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions at length. Perhaps we can agree to disagree for the moment, since I do not share with your assessment about the general support these groups have on this issue. Nor is it the case that only “pro-regime” sites are carrying contrary news. There are numerous blogs of students who are critical of these “pro-democracy” groups; of course, you may choose to dismiss them as being “pro regime”, but having also followed the student movement(s) for nearly a decade, I’m afraid the picture is not as simple as the one that reflected in assessment that looks at everything as “pro-regime” versus “anti-regime.”

    I know it is very popular to dwell on the “shaheed” part of the “shaheed gomnam,” the diasporic and western discourse in particular are fond of stressing the importance of martyrdom in Iran and other Muslim countries. However, these are wartime soldiers, and the issue of the wartime dead–or martyrs if you insist–is a very sensitive one for the majority of Iranians living in Iran (whatever their stance towards the government). All of us who lived through the war have lost a loved one or had a loved one who fought in the war and we are quite sensitive about the sacrifices that these young men made and this sensitivity and respect spans across the political spectrum.

    The fact that your country or other countries may not honor their war dead in the middle of universities is of no relevance, I’m afraid. Perhaps if in your country there was a living memory of an eight year war where fought largely by college age youth who stood up to an invading country that was being backed practically by the rest of the world, it would not seem so odd to have them interred and honored at universities that they may have attended had it not been for the war.

    Thanks again for your response and good luck with your future research.

  5. Pingback: Martyrs burried in Tehran university! | The World According To Tina Ehrami

  6. Dear Niki,
    Thank you for your response. Could you please point me to these numerous blogs?
    It would be very helpful for future research.

    Reg. martyrs: You are absolutely correct about the importance of the war and the traumatic and devastating effect this imposed aggression on Iran has had. That is not the question here. The question is whether or not it is correct to bury martyrs in campus yards or in graveyards. If you read the comments on AKU News, you can see that these students honor the victims and that they see it as a ludicrous disrespect to bury the martyrs somewhere else than the graveyard.

    Reg. “my country”/”your country”: I don’t want to compare the suffering Denmark experienced during 2nd World War with that of Iran during the war with Iraq. However, it is wrong to say our country does not have a living memory or that we do not honor those who died. We just don’t do it with political aims by burying them in the middle of university and thus imposing a set of rules of how to behave around those graves.

    All the best,

  7. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  8. Hi Rasmus- Sure, they are quite easy to find. You can actulally do a blogsearch using Persian terms, also check out the twitter and friendfeed sites where you will find loads of them. I’m actually writing an article on those blogs and I’ll be happy to send you a copy once it has been accepted for publication.

    I didn’t mean to imply that your country does not have a history of suffering, and I agree that getting into “my country” “your country” is not useful (although in fairness you brought it up first!). I would disagree with you that war is memorialized without political aims in your country, but that is a different discussion. At the end of the day, I am just not convinced that the majority of students are against the burial on campus, and while I personally may not be crazy about the idea of having dead on campus (or war glorified in the middle of parks, as I have seen in many instances in Europe), I would accept a decision that reflects the sentiments of the general student and broader populace.

  9. Hi Niki,
    As you know, there are tens of thousands of blogs, so a blogsearch in Persian will give me too many hits. So please give me some links, if possible. I would like to learn more about students who support the martyr burials – other than the Basij-e dâneshju‘i, of which I am well aware and up-to-date. There can be no doubt that students whose places in universities have been secured due to the fact that their parents are martyrs will of course support martyr burials in universities.

    BTW, reg. memorials in Denmark: I wrote “with political aims by burying them in the middle of university”. Not that there never is any political aims with memorializing the 2nd World War in Denmark. There are many examples of this – indeed, a close friend of mine is doing research on this. However none of these examples are comparable with the political use of martyrdom culture and martyr burials in Iranian universities.

  10. Dear Rasmus,

    I have found your description of the IRI’s actions in Iranian universities and the students’ responses very intriguing and much needed for those of us who live in the bubble we call “USA” You give us all a picture of normal commonsense active resistance to the abnormal oppressive IRIs actions against the purposes of a university or even the traditional ‘bast” in universities. This new version of the “invasion of the body snatchers” is more grisly and gruesome as it comes at the expense of violent attacks on students by the IRI’s thugs. What’s next for the IRI? prayer services in the biology labs? classrooms turned into jails and “interrogation centers”? Thank goodness for their responses to the State’s continued interference in nearly every phase of their lives and minds, or at least the attempted interference. I do hope you can continue to inform us outside Iran, the Middle East and Europe on what other clashes and encounters in Iran. Thank you so much for your writings.

  11. Pingback: Assault on a Tehran University: Martyr Burials and Violence | Iran Human Rights Voice

  12. @ Niki Akhavan:
    I have used most of today going through Persian-language weblogs by Iran-based authors, of all thinkable political or apolitical views. I must admit I have not found one single example of those “numerous weblogs” you mention. I have found a couple, self-described Basijis, who simply link to the Fârs report. Could you please provide some sources for your claims?

    Furthermore, I have not found one single source that reflect what you called “conflicting reports about the outbreak of violence”. So, could you please tell me where these reports can be found?

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  14. Pingback: Amil Imani » Blog Archive » Turning Universities into Graveyards

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