22 - 28 July 1999
Issue No. 439
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Iran's brave new worldBy Assef Bayat *
The drama of the student demonstrations is over for now. On Tuesday 13 July the balance of forces changed decisively. Street violence and chaos pushed the conservatives onto the offensive. Now, the threat of repression looms ominously over the Iranian nation.
Coverage by the international news media of the recent events has tended to overlook one crucial point: namely, the clear evidence that the violence and chaos that ensued during the last three days of the demonstrations were not initiated by the students, but rather were the work of agents provocateurs from the conservative-led Basij militias, who concealed their identities by shaving their beards and changing their attire to infiltrate the students ranks. It was they who were behind the looting, attacks on government offices and arson.
A few infiltrators were actually identified by the students and the press. Realising the deception that had been practised on them, the main student organisation, the pro-Khatami Daftar-i Tahkim Wahdat, called for an end to the demonstrations, as did president Mohamed Khatami himself.
It was only after the student protests had elicited national support, that the conservatives sought to turn the situation to their own advantage. They aimed to create a national crisis to discredit the student movement, demonstrate Khatami's incompetence and underline the turbulent consequences of his reforms. They are determined to thwart the opposition press, particularly in the run-up of the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
They therefore staged a show of strength, shuttling thousands of supporters from provincial towns to Tehran the night before Wednesday's pro-Khamenei demonstration. State employees were allegedly forced to take part. What had started as a peaceful protest, and then evolved into a mass student demonstration, has now become the perfect pretext for a conservative backlash. Already, key student activists are being rounded up by the security forces.
In the weeks to come, the movement is likely to suffer a severe setback, as the right-wingers become more assertive, and ensure that the scandals in which they are embroiled -- such as the Intelligence Ministry's involvement in murdering intellectuals -- are put firmly on the back-burner.
Yet neither the reform movement in general, nor student activism in particular, are likely to go away. These movements are the outcome of profound and fundamental structural changes in Iranian society since the 1979 Revolution. It would take more than a few crackdowns to turn the clock back.
Last week's student demonstrations recalled in some ways those of the late 1970s: they were nationwide in scale; they demanded democracy and they decried the injustice of the rulers. The current ideological and socioeconomic context, however, is decidedly different. While the secular leftist trend outnumbered the Islamists before the revolution, the current movement is dominated neither by one nor the other of these two opposing forces. It is an expression, rather, of what we might call "post-Islamism" -- a trend which rejects religious rule, while fusing Islamic notions with the ideas of individual freedom and choice, as well as certain aspects of democracy and modernity.
We should not forget that the Iranian youth of today -- of which the students are only one small part -- were born after the 1979 Revolution. They barely remember the fervour and upheaval of that period, and they have different concerns and anxieties than did their parents, who demonstrated against the Shah some 20 years ago.
They are the product of a rapidly urbanising culture. These youths yearn for modernity. They are exposed to the full impact of globalisation: to the international media, to calls for human rights and all the aspects of a culture that values individual self-expression.
Like young people in metropolitan centers in the rest of the world, they listen to Ricky Martin and Cher. Surprisingly, I find them far less religious than their Arab counterparts. It is clear that the Islamisation of schooling launched in post-revolutionary Iran simply failed to produce an "Islamic youth". Recent official studies reveal that bad-hijabi (laxity on observing forced veil) among school and university girls has been increasing continuously. "We are encountering a serious cultural onslaught. What is to be done?" one official wondered. While over 83 per cent of young people spend their leisure time in front of their TV sets, only 5 per cent watch religious programmes; and of the 58 per cent who read books, less than 6 per cent are interested in religious literature.
Rural areas have also experienced many significant changes which have had a far-reaching impact on rural youth. The countryside is rapidly taking on many previously urban characteristics, with the proliferation of electricity, day care centres, health clinics and various means of communication and transportation.
In many villages now, people read newspapers, graduate from college, pursue diverse occupations and own TV sets (and, in some cases, satellite dishes). According to the 1996 census, only one million of Iran's 12.2 million households did not have at least one TV set. All these add up to a great diversity of role models and sources of legitimacy.
One crucial consequence of this has been the decline in the traditional sources of authority. The rural mullah (clergyman) is no longer a dominant figure in the village. Indeed, a remarkable social change which I observed in my own small village close to Tehran has been the growing authority of the village youth vis-à-vis the traditional elders. Ageism, it seems, is finally giving way to a more objective appreciation of competence. In the view of one Iranian observer, this trend is reflected at the national level in the declining authority of parents over their children, teachers over students, religious experts over laymen, and husbands over wives. In particular, the expansion of higher education into rural areas has been crucial in forging the new social mobility of rural youth and forming their new role and identity.
As in many parts of the Third World, the new student movement in Iran is largely the product of massive educational expansion over the last two decades by a populist state. It is that state which the students are now standing up against. The student body in Iran swelled from 7 million in 1979 to a staggering 19 million in 1996. Over this period, on average 10 families would produce 2 graduates of higher education, with the current college enrollment surpassing one million. Interestingly, girls have enrolled in colleges at similar rates to boys. Traditional women found the Islamic setting of the educational institutions more reassuring and thus conducive to attendance. In addition, the Islamic government discriminated positively in favour of the more "traditional" and lower-class segments of the population, including women.
The current student body represents a formidable social force equipped with an impressive political awareness (in part due to their experience of the state's pervasive control of individuals), as well as a strong identity and considerable expectations. However, their desire for a better material life and greater political participation has often been dashed by a sluggish economy and by the clergy's tight control over both political institutions and private life. The struggling economy turns their expectations to outrage; cultural restrictions suppress the expression of their youthful desires; and the intransigent sabotage of political reforms by the conservative clergy make them ever more frustrated. Indeed, this is a familiar scenario in several Muslim countries where, in the absence of other credible alternatives, a morally-outraged youth turns to Islamist politics.
These observations lead to a central question: Which ideological inclinations will these Iranian youngsters now pursue, since they have already experienced Islamism? In this post-Islamist phase, young people seem to live in a thoroughly ideological void, and one which is going nowhere.
The new post-Islamist intellectuals, such as Abdul-Karim Soroush and Mohsen Kadivar, have tried, with some success, to offer the youth a new world view -- one which does not throw religion out, but attempts to blend it with democracy, individual freedom, civil society and tolerance. President Khatami embodies this trend in the political realm, and the youth of Iran have demonstrated their general support for him. Now, it is time to reciprocate. The ruling clergy, both the pro-reform and the conservative factions, urgently need to show that they are willing to accommodate the concerns of the youth and the student movement, who have proved their political maturity through their responsible behaviour. The alternative to such a reaching out is likely to be an acute sense of alienation, leading only to more frustration -- and more violence.
* The writer is a Cairo-based Iranian scholar and an associate professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo.