If you control the funeral you control the revolution

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Sun, February 20th, 2011

As the Middle East erupts in protest, funerals have served as the flashpoint. On Tuesday in Bahrain 10,000 mourners gathered in a hospital parking lot to begin a funeral procession for 21 year-old Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima who was killed in rallies the day before.

In Bahrain, a funeral exploded into a massive and chaotic anti-government protest after police fired birdshot to tame the crowd, killing another man. In Iran, the government clashed with the opposition over who could claim the dead. In Libya, government troops mowed down mourners with machine guns.

Police fired birdshot to tame the crowd, killing another man. Shiite villagers rushed to join the procession, which adopted an angry anti-government tone. The funeral had become a powerful way for people to express their discontent with the regime. The following day in Iran a funeral power play emerged over who could claim the dead. And this weekend in Libya, government forces mowed down mourners with machine guns at a funeral for anti-government protestors in the city of Benghazi. Dozens may be dead.

A young Iranian art student named Sanea Jaleh was among two people killed during protests Monday, the first time opposition members had rallied in over a year. Jaleh’s funeral was Wednesday, the procession began at Tehran University, which is located in the center of the city. Police blocked streets near the university, resulting in massive traffic jams. The only way to reach the funeral was on foot but entrances were manned by plain-clothed members of the paramilitary Basij force, some 500 of them were at the funeral. They checked identity cards of anyone looking suspicious, in some cases allowing only government supporters in.

Those close to Jaleh said he had been a member of the opposition, but the government spun a story saying he had actually been a member of the Basij, and that he had been killed by the opposition. Pro-government protesters flooded the funeral, chanting, “BBC’s Mousavi is an English spy”, referring to the opposition leader behind the 2009 Green Movement, now under house arrest. Members of Parliament released a statement demanding Mousavi and another opposition leader be executed.

The government’s story was that Jaleh had been shot to death by members of an outlawed group called the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, also known as as the Mojahedin-e Khalq. The group has opposed the Iranian government for decades. The People’s Mujahedeen called the government’s claim a “preposterous lie” and restated that it was the Iranian authorities who had fired on demonstrators and killed Jaleh. “These desperate attempts and ludicrous allegations…much like the clerical regime’s other attempts at shutting down the internet and mobile phones, or jamming satellite television broadcasts, will prove fruitless,” read a message released by the group. “The uprising and the struggle of the Iranian people shall continue until the downfall of the ruling religious fascism and the establishment of democracy.”

Back in Bahrain, the funeral procession for Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima, energized by the death of a countryman, continued on towards the cemetery. The group chanted anti-government slogans then performed a set of Shiite burial rituals. It “seemed to carry echoes of an old African-American spiritual or work song,” noted an NPR correspondent.

Inside the cemetery, Mushaima’s father sat weeping. “This is for every Bahraini,” he said between tears. “This is for the country. This is for everybody who is coming for the celebration. Everybody here is celebrating as a wedding, not as a death.” Afterwards the mourners returned to Pearl Square, a location in the capitol city’s center the people have dubbed their Tahrir Square. They were ready for more teargas and rubber bullets but the riot police had vanished. In a televised speech King Hamad, the leader of Bahrain, promised political reforms. He also capitalized on the spotlight provided by the funeral. “We extend our condolences,” said the king, “to the parents of the dear sons who died yesterday and today.”

Funeral protests are not unique to the Middle East. Two years ago in Greece, the funeral of a 15 year-old shot to death by police while hurling a homemade bomb sparked riots across the country. And in South Africa during the mid-1980s, funeral protests became such a popular tool of expression against racial injustices that the Apartheid government banned them. Even the US has had its recent share of funeral protests. Pastor Fred Phelps and his Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church have been protesting soldier funerals for several years across America’s heartland. The small group waves provocative signs and taunts mourners with chants and jeers. Incensed by the church, several states have enacted legislation forbidding funerals protests.

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