Iran: Into the Heart of the Islamic Republic

September 8, 2014 Topic: SocietyIdeology Region: Iran

Iran: Into the Heart of the Islamic Republic

Ramita Navai's deep look at eight ordinary Tehranis offers a window into the nature of the Iranian state.

We see a similar pattern with Tahereh, a teenage girl arrested, expelled from her school, and ostracized by her peers after being seen at a boy’s house. Tahereh’s visit had been culturally risky but innocent—but her family had never fit into the traditionalist neighborhood they’d moved into years before. Her parents “were religious and traditional, but they came from a liberal village where men and women celebrated weddings together, where chadors were white and where it did not matter if your hejab slipped off your head.” Her father thought that the veil “should not be compulsory; it was a matter of personal choice and one’s relationship with God was private....He thought modernity was not at odds with Islam.” This different brand of traditionalism, just as old and rooted as their neighbors’, gets a cold reception. Her father quickly learned to keep his opinions to himself when not at home. When he goes to beg for the police to release his daughter, these alleged guardians of tradition “mock his village accent and [speak] down to him as though he were a simple peasant,” suggesting his daughter would have been stoned “where you come from.” They didn’t realize “that life in his northern village had not changed much since the revolution – in some ways it was more liberal than the laws enforced by the police in Tehran.” Not all traditions make the cut under the Islamic Republic.

And it isn’t just the more liberal forms of tradition that are under pressure from the regime. We meet Morteza—the regime thug hiding in the closet—in a bloody observation of Ashura (the date of the death of Imam Hossein). Forty men beat themselves with chains and cut themselves in a show of devotion. “Violent self-flagellation where blood is a sign of love for Hossein was part of their culture, a tradition that their fathers’ fathers’ fathers had practised.” Yet “the doors were locked and the curtains were pulled,” for “this was a secret Ashura, hidden from view ever since the state banned bloodletting during the ceremonies, deeming it barbarous and fanatical.” Morteza leaves the ceremony and sees “an official, more sedate public Ashura...rows of men in black shirts softly tapping themselves with blunt chains, eyes on the women...a sanitized version of the real thing.” Morteza isn’t quite right to think his Ashura practices are the most authentic—for example, many widely followed Shia leaders outside the Khomeini-Khamenei line  (such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani) also take a dim view of the bloodier ceremonies. Yet it is hard to call a state ban on a deeply rooted religious practice “conservative,” particularly when the practitioners are the state’s loyal defenders. And the regime has put pressure on religious minorities whose faiths predate the Islamic Republic and its founders (the Bahais) or even Islam itself (the Christians, the Jews, and the Zoroastrians). So much for preservation.

This push for social simplicity and conformity and against organic cultural variation is not conservative. Yet there’s a long history of it in Iran, a history to which the ayatollahs wouldn’t want to be linked—indeed, those 1960s reforms that had so angered them are part of that history, too. The leaders of the Islamic Republic were too confident that they’d made a clean break with the past. They failed to learn from the errors of their secular predecessors. Those who have tried to make grand transformations in Iran have only damaged it—often at the expense of their thrones and even of their lives.

The best that can be said of the Islamic Republic, then, is that it practices a degenerate form of conservatism. It is not preserving traditional Iranian society against the ravages of modernity or the cultural and economic pressures coming from the West. It is using force and repression to escape these pressures rather than using prudent reforms and delaying actions to reroute them and to save what can be saved. The mullahs, waking up to a changing world, are merely hitting the snooze button. The irony of this approach is that the conservative task in Iran ought to be relatively easy, given the country’s intense national pride and robust heritage; that the country is no longer a playground for rival empires helps, too.

But there’s a second irony in the Islamic Republic’s path: by turning Shia Islam, so often an independent institution and a vehicle for dissent in Iran’s modern history, into a political symbol, they have vulgarized it and generated a growing disaffection. “So many” of the young people, one of Navai’s characters notes, “barely [go] to mosque at all.” The regime struggles to boost attendance numbers in what were supposed to be its foundational institutions. And those they’ve reached, the regime’s footsoldiers and mid-level leaders, have hardly made themselves appear to be worthy rulers—they’re “churlish and uncouth with their bad suits and crude behavior that match their second-rate Islamic education.” Such men are not likely to preserve Iran or restore its ancient greatness. Iran’s best hope is that they’ll also fail to remake the country in their own boorish image—and that someday, when the world looks at Iran, it won’t see these buffoons, but the fascinatingly diverse society that Navai portrays.

John Allen Gay is assistant managing editor of the National Interest. He is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.