British Embassy the Sanctuary of the Constitutional Activists!

  May 24, 2021   Read time 3 min
British Embassy the Sanctuary of the Constitutional Activists!
Taking sanctuary in the embassies of the foreign countries in Iran was one of the ways for putting the pressure on the ruling regime to clear a room for the dissidents. The British Embassy's event in the hey days of constitutional movement in Iran is one of the most notorious events due to heavy presence of the clerics.

In July 1906, a renewed call for the government to convene a “shari‘a-bound assembly (majles) of the house of justice” regained momentum. In support of the Majles, the restive Tehran population gathered in Tupkhaneh Square (Maydan-e Tupkhaneh), adjacent to the citadel complex, and staged one of the earliest public demonstrations that had occurred outside the mosque or the shrine setting. The clampdown on demonstrators by government troops resulted in the death of a young religious student, offering a pretext to a group of pro-constitutionalist ulama headed by Tabataba’i to leave the capital and reside in Qom. The ulama’s departure in protest was always treated with anxiety by the Qajar government, especially in times of crisis. Simultaneously, the merchants of the Tehran bazaar rallied behind Behbahani (who had ties with the British legation in Tehran), playing a crucial role in the burgeoning protest movement.

Fearing government retaliation, the Tehran merchants managed to organize a vast sanctuary (bast) in support of the Qom protesters in the safety of the British legation in Tehran. Taking sanctuary in the grounds of a European power was an unprecedented, even sacrilegious, move. More so because it was in the British legation that the protestors openly demanded for the first time the establishment of a constitutional (mashruteh) order. The bast attracted a crowd from all walks of life, particularly from the bazaar guilds, small merchants, and artisans. Altogether there were about five hundred tents representing trades and professions, as humble as cobblers, porcelain menders, and fresh walnut vendors. On the final day as many as fourteen thousand individuals participated. The atmosphere was joyous but orderly, and the mood congenial and optimistic. The chief merchants of the bazaar sustained the cost of the tents and food for the public for the full two weeks of the bast. Massive copper cauldrons were brought from the mosques and the takkiyehs and placed on makeshift hearths in a common kitchen to prepare huge quantities of rice, stew, and Persian ash, which were delivered on trays to the tents, whose banners identified guilds and other organizations.

There were also frequent sermons and speeches highlighting the evils of tyranny and the benefits of a constitution. The protest was novel, above all, because of the central role of the merchants. They took the lead from constitutional activists in persuading the ranking mojtaheds to comply with the idea of the constitution. Even more than the Tobacco Protest fifteen years earlier, the merchant class was the engine behind the protesters and the voicing of their grievances. Moreover, the bast enjoyed the tacit support of some middle-ranking British diplomats in Tehran. Facing the protesters’ enthusiasm and their growing numbers, British diplomats could do little but allow the bast to proceed unhindered. The British blessing, momentary though it was, hinted toward a shift in the British Foreign Office’s policy in Iran under Sir Edward Gray— a subtle response to Russia’s increasing commercial and political influence in Iran and to the Qajar court’s tilt toward its northern neighbor. As far as the constitutionalists were concerned, the bast in the legation offered not only immunity against the government and the blessing of a European power, but also a secular space, one outside the mosque and religious sanctuaries. The relative freedom in the new space allowed Western-educated intellectuals and graduates of the Dar al-Fonun to help refashion the idea of the “house of justice” into a demand for a European-style constitution.