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The Clash of Islam and Democracy in Iran

The Islamic revolution faces the classic dilemma of all revolutions.

| Mon Jun. 29, 2009 12:16 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

By marshalling the regime's coercive instruments, Iran's 70-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, has, for now, succeeded in curbing the popular, peaceful challenge to the authenticity of Iran's fateful June 12th presidential election. But he has paid a heavy political price.

Before his June 19th hard-line speech at a Friday prayer congregation, Khamanei had the mystique of a just arbiter of authority, perched on a lofty platform far above the contentiousness of day-to-day politics. In his sermon, he asserted the validity of the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad while the Guardian Council, the constitutional body charged with validating any national election, was still dealing with 646 complaints about possible election misbehavior and fraud. As a result, he damaged his status as a just ruler, a matter of grave importance since justice is a vital element in Islamic values.

Furthermore, by boycotting the June 19th congregation, former presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, as well as Mahdi Karrubi, former Speaker of the Iranian Parliament -- all of them respected mullahs -- exposed a deep rift in the ruling religious establishment. That bodes ill for the future of the Islamic Republic.

Khamanei has won the immediate battle, but the conflict between hard-liners and reformists is far from over. Taking a long-term view, Khamanei and his hard line cohorts face a superhuman task of countering an inexorably rising trend. Quite simply, the demographic make-up of Iran favors their reformist adversaries.

A glance at the republic's history bears this out.

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Two Decades of Revolution

Between 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution, and 1999, Iran's population doubled to 65 million, two-thirds of them under 25 years of age. Those young Iranians had no direct experience or memory of the pre-Islamic regime of the Shah -- its inequities and injustices, and its subservient relationship with Washington. Therefore, their commitment to the Islamic regime was less than total. Moreover, the post-revolutionary educational system had proven inadequate when it came to socializing them the way the republic's religious leaders wanted.

During those two decades, Iran's student body increased almost threefold, to 19 million. The overall literacy rate jumped from 58% to 82%, with the figure for females -- 28% in 1979 -- tripling. There was a remarkable upsurge in the enrollment of women in universities. Nationally, their share of university student bodies shot up to 60%. At prestigious Tehran University, they were a majority in all faculties, including science and law.

The total of university graduates, which stood at 430,000 in 1979, grew nine-fold in those years. As elsewhere in the world, university students and graduates would become a vital engine for change.

Much to the disappointment of the mullahs, a study of university students in the late 1990s showed that whereas 83% of them watched television, only 5% watched religious programs. Of the 58% who read extracurricular books, barely 6% showed interest in religious literature.

In his book, A Study of Student Political Behavior in Today's Iran, Professor Majid Muhammadi divided university students into three categories: those born into largely Islamic working or traditional middle-class households (traders and craftsmen); those born to secular, or nominally Islamic, modern middle class parents (teachers and doctors); and those raised in an environment that mixed traditional Islam and secularism.

While the first category was loyal to the regime, and the second kept a low profile, shunning politics, it was the students in the last, and largest, category who felt deeply conflicted. While linked to Islam through tradition, they were attracted to modern, Westernized culture politically and socially. In attempting to resolve the conflict, most of them became politically active, and were transformed into a force for social and political change.

By and large, university students were interested in watching foreign television programs, finding the national channels unimaginative and propagandistic. A poorly enforced ban on satellite dishes meant they could easily get access to the BBC, CNN, and the Voice of America. In the post-1999 decade, the arrival of the Internet, e-mail, blogging, YouTube, Facebook, and most recently Twitter, opened up opportunities previously not available to their older peers.

Irrespective of their social backgrounds, what indisputably impinges on the daily lives of university students and other young Iranians are the restrictions the regime tries to impose on their social and personal freedoms, including going to mixed-sex parties, holding hands with someone other than a marriage partner, drinking alcoholic beverages, listening to modern Western music, watching foreign television channels via satellite, and having extramarital sex. While reformists recognize that restricting such activities is having the singular effect of alienating the young from the Islamic Republic, their conservative opponents consider these restrictions essential to uphold Islamic morality and culture.

Not surprisingly, politically conscious university students have been striving to enlarge the arena of personal freedoms as a means of countering social repression and administrative corruption, and making the Islamic system more transparent and accountable.

Politics in Command

It was against this background that, in 1997, a presidential election was conducted. Muhammad Khatami, a reformist outsider, unblemished by corruption, proceeded to trounce his rival, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri -- the erstwhile Speaker of parliament favored by the religious establishment and perceived to be corrupt -- by a margin of almost three to one. In the next election, Khatami trumped his nearest rival by a five-to-one margin.

Notwithstanding periodic setbacks due to a dispersion of power among the office of president, the parliament, and the judiciary, Khatami created an environment in which the area of social, cultural, and political freedoms expanded.

Initially, for instance, the authorities were very strict about enforcing the wearing of the hijab (a head-covering scarf) and banning the use of make-up for women, nor did they allow young men and women to sit in the same classrooms in colleges and universities. By the time of Khatami's reelection in 2005, however, the authorities were tolerating young women who flouted the strict Islamic dress code of covering themselves fully, except for face and hands. They even allowed an occasional rock concert and they were giving more leeway to non-governmental organizations.

During the first year of Khatami's presidency, the country experienced an explosion of new publications. Following a landslide victory by the reformists in the first round of parliamentary elections in February 2000, a newly bullish pro-reform press even began publishing stories of corruption in the pre-Khatami period. These proved immensely popular.

Khatami's supporters viewed this as a sign of the growing maturity of the Islamic system and the evolution of democratic governance. Before the second round of the elections could take place in May, however, a conservative-minded parliament reacted speedily. Encouraged by Khamanei, it stiffened the Press Law in April, leading to the closure of dozens of publications by the judiciary.

In the 2005 presidential contest, leading reformists were barred from the race by the Guardian Council. Deprived of real choice, most reformist voters boycotted the election. This enabled the hard-line mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad -- a Khamanei favorite -- to trounce Rafsanjani, an affluent, pragmatic conservative blemished by a reputation for corruption.

During Ahmadinejad's presidency, university classes were re-segregated by gender. The law banning satellite dishes was enforced vigorously. The morality police resorted to patrolling the streets to ensure that women wore proper Islamic dress and unmarried couples refrained from holding hands. This was but a part of Ahmadinejad's drive to return society to the early years of the Islamic revolution.

Little wonder then that, in the run-up to the 2009 presidential election, young voters rallied behind Mir Hussein Mousavi, whose academic wife, the artist Zahra Rahnavard, spoke of the hijab becoming optional for women. Mousavi promised to disband the morality police and appoint women to important government jobs.

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