Death Of Iranian Woman, Keeps Opposition Alive

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a second term in office on Wednesday. Iranian writer Reza Aslan talks with Steve Inskeep about the opposition which continues to protest the election results. The opposition keeps in mind the death of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman was killed in June during violence that followed the disputed election.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. This is inauguration day for Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As he begins a second term, he'll have to contend with a woman who has already been inaugurated as a martyr. Iranians who accuse the president of a fraudulent reelection still rally around the image of Neda Agha Soltan, a young protestor whose death was captured on video.

(Soundbite of video clip)

(Soundbite of yelling)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of screaming)

INSKEEP: That's the sound of that video. We've brought in Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan to talk about this.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. REZA ASLAN (Writer): Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: What has made this one death powerful more than a month after it happened?

Mr. ASLAN: Well, I think part of it has to do with the revolution taking place in social media. I mean, the news that we are getting out of Iran is not coming from CNN or NBC. It's coming from Twitter and from Facebook. And I think the drama of this video and the heartbreak was so universal that it caught everyone's attention. And I think in many ways, she has become a real icon of the protest movement.

INSKEEP: Now, I know you're keeping in touch in every way that you can with people inside Iran. How is her death and this image of her death being used?

Mr. ASLAN: Well, the most common chant right now for the protestors is that Neda is not dead. It's the government that's dead. And, in fact, right now as I speak to you, I'm wearing a bracelet that says I am Neda, one of millions of these bracelets that are being worn around the world.

So in many ways, she's become a real rallying cry for a coalition, by the way, that doesn't have all that much in common. I mean, we have a coalition here that's united by their hatred for Ahmadinejad and their desire for a new election, but which otherwise doesn't really know what they want. And in some ways, Neda has become that glue that binds everyone together as one movement.

INSKEEP: I suppose that explains why protestors at least attempted to protest at her gravesite last week.

Mr. ASLAN: Yes. Last week was the 40th day after her death, a very important day in Shia mourning rituals. And it really represents a new kind of strategy by the protestors to use these kinds of religious observances in order to shame the government into allowing them to protest. It's a way of saying we're just fulfilling our religious obligations. And if you keep us from doing so, it's you who's being irreligious.

INSKEEP: There are martyrs in many religions, not just Islam and not just Shia Islam. But is there a way that a martyr has special resonance to Shias?

Mr. ASLAN: Oh, most definitely. I mean, Shiaism is a martyrdom religion. It's a religion that was born out of sacrifice and the massacre of the Prophet Muhammad's family, his grandson, at the hands of the Sunni Muslim authorities at the time, some 1,400 years ago. And ever since then, it's had a special affinity for mourning as an act of devotion.

INSKEEP: Will Neda Agha Soltan still be, in effect, an opponent of President Ahmadinejad, even as he begins his second term today?

Mr. ASLAN: I think the dramatic way in which she died and the way in which those horrible images were passed around the world almost instantly is going to make her someone who's not going away very easily.

I think that you're going to continue to see Neda, as well as all the other protestors, the hundreds or so that are still in prison and the dozens that have been killed, that their memory is going to be sustained. And they're going to be used consistently as a way of fighting back against a regime that most Iranians believe is illegitimate.

INSKEEP: Reza Aslan is author of a number of books, including the bestseller "No god but God." He joined us from our studios in Southern California.

Thanks very much.

Mr. ASLAN: My pleasure.

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