Pictures of Neda

NedaThe Iran story has faded from the headlines in recent weeks, in large part because the Obama White House has not worked to keep it in the headlines, perhaps knowing that "America" and "Satan" are terms that tend to flow together in the minds of millions of Iranians. This may make conservatives mad and liberals angry, but there you go.

Many mainstream journalists, as we've noted often here at GetReligion, are still struggling to figure out the role that doctrine is playing in this historic event. They have struggled to get the green revolutionaries and the theocratic government of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to fit neatly into their usual religion-and-politics framework.

You know the one. That's the template that has winsome, intelligent, "moderate" religious people on one side and angry, dumb, "fundamentalists" on the other. Iran has been hard to jam into that cookie cutter. After all, as a Muslim scholar told me a year or two ago, "God will always have the right to vote" in a truly Islamic culture

So, the New York Times did take a run at explaining some of this in a recent news analysis piece that has been stored in my GetReligion guilt folder. It ran with the fitting, if obvious, headline, "In Iran Battle, Both Sides Seek to Carry Islam's Banner." Here's the top of that essay:

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, ended his prayer sermon in tears ..., invoking the name of a disappeared Shiite prophet to suggest that his government was besieged by forces of evil out to destroy a legitimate Islamic government.

The opposition leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi, in criticizing the government, demanded the kind of justice promised by the Koran and exhorted his followers to take to their rooftops at night to cry out, "Allahu akbar," or "God is great."

In the battle to control Iran's streets, both the government and the opposition are deploying religious symbols and parables to portray themselves as pursing the ideal of a just Islamic state. That struggle could prove the main fulcrum in the battle for the hearts and minds of most ordinary Iranians, because the Islamic Revolution, since its inception, has painted itself as battling evil. If the government fails the test of being just, not least by using excessive violence against its citizens, it risks letting the opposition wrap itself in the mantle of Islamic virtue.

By the way, as you read that analysis piece, try to find this name -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Violence plays a key role in all of this, yet the violence must somehow be justified as an expression of Islamic justice -- not simply a way of maintaining power.

This, again, brings us to the role of the holy warriors in this story, the Basij force.

The Basij -- paramilitary, plainclothes vigilantes -- is the main force the government uses to try to dispel antigovernment protesters. Thus far, that has been done mostly through beatings, arrests and other intimidation tactics. ...

"In general, the Basij is an ideologically or culturally driven force, but the majority are very committed fundamentalists," said Afshon P. Ostovar, who is writing his doctoral thesis at the University of Michigan about the Iranian security forces.

When violence is used in an unjust manner, what do you get? Martyrs. It is hard to make a consistent argument that you are fighting for peace and justice when people are dying while chanting "Allahu akbar." After all, as the Times notes, "every time anyone inside Iran opens a Web site and sees the images of a teenage girl shot dead in a protest, it chips away at the government's claim to being moral."

4a40a9de88f63_normalThis brings us back to the death of 26-year-old protester Neda "The Voice" Soltani, which the government of Iran is now arguing was staged by other protesters.

Out in the depths of cyberspace, bloggers have begun calling attention to another, less famous photo of Soltani. Actually, it is two versions of the same photo -- both attached to this post. The top one is typical of several media reports.

Of course, the aftermath of Neda's death was confusing, as the government worked hard to prevent the kind of gigantic, emotional, public funeral that is crucial in the Shiite rituals of mourning that follow the deaths of symbolic people. The funeral is the dramatic setting in which a martyr is hailed as a martyr. But Neda did not have a funeral.

It does not help that little concrete information is known about this family or about Soltani herself. Most media reports stressed that she was basically a secular person, a philosophy student and a musician (a questionable pursuit in Iran).

The mainstream press has reported that, in Soltani's case, the police did not return the body to the family and banned public mourning services in mosques. Her family was forced out of its house. What is going on? Some bloggers think that they know and that there is an even greater scandal at work here. Thus, we have this typical post at, linked to a report in a German publication (which I cannot read):

This is the poor young woman who was shot dead by Iranian security forces, and whose bleeding face became an image of the brutality and humanity of the mullahs. Now it turns out the Neda Soltani was a Christian -- a telling indication that the analysts who dismissed the protesters as simply wanting more Sharia, or better Sharia, or Sharia with a different face, were wrong: it just wasn't that simple.

It is also telling that the cross around her neck was cropped out when this photo circulated around the world.

The second photo has not been cropped. To me, this does not look like the cross has been inserted through digital editing. At the same time, I am not sure that a picture of her wearing a cross, with her head uncovered, is definitive proof that she was a Christian.

Anyway, the "Neda was a Christian" story has now spread to the arena, where it is being discussed in the usual non-journalistic, or even anti-journalistic, terms. A typical reader response:

That Neda was a Christian doesn't come as a huge surprise, nor the loathsome attempt to hide it by the media. The questions that arise from this issue are; How many Neda's e.g. Christians are there in Iran? (I suspect far more than the 'official' number) and more importantly what can we, as Westerners do to help them? Send money, get involved in some charitable foundation to help Persian Christians(and Jews and other oppressed Persians)? Is there are way to help those Persians and Christians who want freedom and equality under the law and so many of the things we take for granted in the West? Can we help them escape Iran?

I mention this latest example of Internet rumor for a simple reason: The Iran story clearly isn't over. I also wonder if there is, in fact, any reportable, journalistic information that supports this claim that "the voice" of this new Iranian revolution was, in fact, a member of a religious minority. Would the green revolutionaries accept that fact? Would this change her status? What if she had been Baha'i (and, thus, part of another very important story that has faded from the headlines)? One of the Iranian Jews?

As for me, I still want to know what's going on behind the scenes in Iran. I hope that mainstream journalists do not leave these kinds of stories to the bloggers.

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