Iran: Islamization of a post-Islamic society

Chapter one
Since 1979, the main objective of the Islamic Republic has been to create an Islamic society. There have been fundamental changes implemented by the Iranian regime in a number of key institutions over which it has held monopolistic control, such as the legal system, the educational and school systems, and the national radio and television system. Nevertheless, 40 years after the revolution, the project of forming a monolithic Islamic society in line with the regime’s proclaimed ideology has failed. Iran at present is a post-Islamic society despite sustained efforts of the political regime to mold the public culture and youth into its ideal.

Research summary by Azam Khatam

Iran has placed the issue of its booming young generation at the top of the public agenda since the early 1990s. For the analysis and forecasting of problems of concern to youth, a national center called the Youth Organization was established. It has been framed in part as a crisis. Following a decade of international sanctions and a devastating war with Iraq, much of the Iranian economy was in ruins by the end of the 1980s. Poverty had increased and living standards had fallen significantly below those of pre-revolutionary times. Furthermore, Iran had been experiencing demographic changes. The number of Iranians increased from 34 million in 1976 to 49 million in 1986 and 70 million in 2006 (Statistical Center of Iran 1387/2009), with an estimated population growth rate of 3.8%. It was however among the demographic group of young adults between 15 and 24 years of age that the most significant increase was seen. This generation, by definition, was entering adulthood by entering the work force and starting families. With Iran’s voting age set at 15 years of age and relatively high electoral participation rates, this group is also of significant political significance. By the end of the 1980s, this young generation was completely socialized under the Islamic Republic, during the fervent and trying first decade of the revolution and the war with Iraq.

Technocratic authorities at the time cast the issue as a looming crisis, arguing that the baby boom of the early eighties had significantly increased the young population, from 6.5 million in 1976 to 14.3 million in 1996 or 24% of the total population. In large part, the crisis was framed in terms of the enormous burden of providing social services for this group which increased to 17.7 million in 2006, nearly triple the amount prior to the revolution.

Education was the more challenging problem. As a result of post-revolution grassroots developmental efforts, literacy rates among this age group increased from 56% in 1976 to 93% in 1996. Although education had expanded after the Revolution, the gains were most noticeable at the primary and secondary levels. According to the Public Census, in 1996, about 50% of male and 66% of female youth were out of school and a majority of them had a primary or secondary certificate. At a critical time in their lives, when they needed to acquire skills and work experience, 33% of youth (9% of males and 58% of females), were neither in school nor at work.

Higher education has become a prestigious path by which urban youth aspire to establish their future economic status and lifestyles. However, the gap between supply and demand for higher education is daunting: Of the roughly 70% of youth who graduated from high school in 1996 and took the general university exam, only 20% gained acceptance. Only 12% of 19- to 24-year-old urban youth were university students or graduates in 1996. Student migration to the West and, more recently, to Turkey, Cyprus, Malaysia, and Dubai, is an alternative choice for upper middle class youth who can afford migration. Others look for scarce, low-paying jobs available in the unstable economy.

Government policies and state resources fundamentally affect the life opportunities of young people in countries like Iran in which the state dominates much of the economy, such as access to training and education, employment, social and leisure services, such as recreation, sports, and cultural facilities, and compulsory military service. In 1996, the official unemployment rate for those between 15 and 24 years old was 19%, and has risen to 24 % in recent years. The unemployment rate was 13% before the revolution. The unstable economic situation has constrained opportunities for job creation. During the second decade of the Revolution, the public sector provided only 23% of new employment opportunities, compared with 80% during the first decade. Youth in lower classes are pressed to look for jobs in family-owned business where they find temporary low-paying work.

By the mid 1990s, the vast majority of young adults were literate, urban, and had professional and middle class aspirations, but were highly frustrated by the scarce resources available to them. Youth blamed the government for its exclusionary policies such as admission policies based on Islamic/non-Islamic criteria. Many view the government’s Islamic cultural policies as responsible for their social marginalization.

Since the revolution, public cultural policies of the Islamic Republic have affected young Iranians, forming the image of the Islamic state in their minds through everyday confrontations, resistance, and negotiation on codes of conduct in public life, especially in urban areas. Since the early 1990s, young people have played a major role in the resistance against official attempts to reshape the cultural and even the physical space of urban areas along monolithic moral guidelines.

The increasing obsession of the political elite with the youth crisis was not the result of youth socioeconomic needs only, but also a matter of visible sociocultural trends among the young population. During the postwar years of 1989 to 2000, the young generation, who had been brought up and socialized under the Islamic Republic, displayed and expressed distinctly non-Islamic ideals, aspirations, and representations. Young urbanites created new, customary, public, cultural codes ( urf ) to resist officially imposed, and often coercive, moral codes of conduct. This cultural agency manifested the power of the urf as one of the sources of legitimizing the public moral codes and challenged the fundamentalist homogenized approach toward sin and crime in social life.

The cultural agency of youth intensified this debate because of widespread legitimacy of urf -based norms among them and the creation of new social imaginaries about moral codes. Comparative national research on religious faith among Iranian youth before and after the Revolution indicates a drastic decline in religion as a collective identity and commitment to a set of public obligations and norms. However, there is a high degree of personal religious beliefs, with religious practices performed in individualized ways (Kazamipour 2003: 35). Youth cultural agency, the power of urf , was the main barrier to the imposition of the monolithic cultural policies of the 1980s.

It is important to note that since 1979, there have been at least two distinct and parallel cultural projects within the Islamic Republic. The first project was concerned with the public life of the general population, whereas the second project focused on shaping the intellectual, educational, and cultural elite of the country. The executive mechanism of the former was the Amr-e be Ma’ruf va Nahy-e az Monkar project. (Translated, this means “Enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong” one of the basic tenets of Islamic jurisprudence and the moral task of any Muslim). The second project was institutionalized as the Islamic Republic’s Cultural Revolution, launched in 1980, which closed the universities for three years, only to be reopened after extensive purges and Islamization of the faculty, administration, and student body. The Cultural Revolution was later extended to all cultural centers and activities.

The first phase of activities to discipline the public culture in the Islamic Republic lasted from 1979 to 1982, when the Dayereh Mobarezeh ba Monkarat (the Department to Combat Immoral Behavior) was established in Tehran. A high degree of consensus existed at the time among Islamist leaders on cultural policies aimed at creating a moral society and eliminating sinful practices associated with the pre-revolutionary period. As the first activity of the Dayereh, they demolished the Qal’eh, the old red light district of Tehran, removing 2,700 prostitutes. About 160 brothels in Tehran were closed in a single month, and on average, 800 to 1,500 people are arrested every month for moral offenses, with some being imprisoned and many receiving corporal punishment by being lashed. Although the average age of the offenders is unknown, it appears that they came from a variety of age groups. There was about one woman per four arrested. Some crimes perpetrated by women, such as prostitution, may have been extremely harshly punished. Of the 650 persons who went to court in March 1982, only one was sentenced to death, and she was a prostitute. Crimes mainly consisted of illegitimate sexual relationships, rape, alcohol consumption, gambling, and pederasty. The head of the Dayereh announced, “We want a spotless society and people should help us to realize it.”

The 8th article of the Islamic Republic’s constitution designates Amr-e be Ma’ruf as one of the bases of social relations, and as a mutual obligation of ordinary citizens and government. This institutionalization was an indication of the revolutionary puritanism of the time and its populist potential. In a speech in May 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini hinted at this populist potential: “ Dayereh Mobarezeh ba Monkarat will be independent from the state, in order to supervise it and no one, not even the highest authorities, will be free of its supervision.” In practice, enforcement of Amr-e be Ma‘ruf has been directed overwhelmingly at the citizenry—and at women, in particular.

The Dayereh was reestablished as a special court ( Dadgah Zede-Monkarat, the Court of Antiforbidden Activities) in 1981.The obligatory veiling for women was enforced that same year. The new wave of Amr-e be ma’ruf activities, nourished by the political tensions with the Mojahedin-e Khalq , the militia opposition group of the time, led to the first attempt to pass a law by Parliament to implement Amr-e be Ma’ruf in 1981, The cabinet of Ali Khameneie also ratified a bill for the struggle against immoral behavior in November 1982, and an Islamic dress code for women was formally legalized.

The second phase of Amr-e be Ma’ruf is marked by the end of the Iran–Iraq war in 1988, and the return of thousands of Basij activists (voluntary militia) from the front. Even during the final stages of the war, prominent conservative figures took the line that the struggle over moral issues should not take backstage to the war. In 1986, a new plan was formulated to make Amr-e be Ma’ruf a greater priority. This call was embraced by rallies following Friday prayers in many cities, demanding greater government attention to moral issues, and was accompanied by a pervasive surveillance program. The peak of this period was the leader’s public decree of July 1990, calling for the struggle against “cultural invasion,” and demanding the support of the Basij forces.

At first, the power of the morality court was absolute. Then, in 1982, the first Islamic penal law was ratified by Parliament. The law codified the prohibition of “non-Islamic” dress for women. Article 102 declared that women dressed “improperly” in public would receive up to 74 lashes. This clause of the penal law remains the only legal instrument for implementing Amr-e be Ma‘ruf . With codification, the bureaucratic state sought not only to restrain judicial autonomy, but also to construct an Islamic identity through threat of sanction. The activities of Amr-e be Ma’ruf and moral court, even at this stage were looming and threatening. Authoritarian enforcement of Amr-e be Ma‘ruf created a “public secret,” by which many city dwellers hid their “non-Islamic” beliefs and habits at home, while appearing to be properly Islamic in public.

This second phase had two particular characteristics. It was supported and implemented by a large organization like the Basij , with 3.5 million members. The Basij, initially created to shield the Islamic Republic from internal security threats, was now assigned the role of ensuring that Islamic ethics were observed. Many Basij volunteers, mostly young people from lower income urban groups, had joined the organization for the war effort. Some of them left the organization to find a job. Those who didn’t, were involved in new task of policing the streets. Basij checkpoints in the streets gradually turned from security issues to imposing Islamic codes. In March 1993, the commander of the Basij stated that “from now on, the mission of the Basij is to implement Amr-e be Ma’ruf va Nahi az Monkar”.

The target groups of the project had changed during this second stage, from combating affiliates and sympathizers of the previous regime to young people who were born and raised under the Islamic Republic, and supposedly had internalized and been shaped by revolutionary Islamic ideals. During this second phase, the discourse of Amr-e be Ma’ruf was articulated as an attempt to forestall the dangers of external “cultural invasion” through new communication technology and mass media, and also as a reaction to the resistance of middle class youth to the dominant cultural ideology.

The discourse of cultural invasion was used by conservatives to confront pragmatic leaders who were accused of being indifferent to the ethical promise of the Revolution. Indeed the new post-revolutionary technocratic elite (e.g., the managerial class and the emerging private sector), who made fortunes using their political power or benefiting from the closed economy, which created enormous profits for those with rare commercial licenses and subsidized foreign currency, was eager to cast aside the “Republic of Piety.” Karbaschi, the pragmatist mayor of Tehran, symbolized these efforts in his modernizing projects for the capital and in his revitalization of Tehran’s public spaces (Khattam 2005). The conservatives’ attacks on the newly established cultural centers in Tehran illustrated growing disagreements on cultural policies between different fractions. Challenges continued, with constant back and forth during Rafsanjani’s second presidential period without much noticeable change. Nevertheless, one clear outcome was that the Basij had been transformed from an informal organization of volunteers dedicated to defending the Revolution and the country to an organized cultural police.

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