An “emerging secular and democratic consensus” faces the Iranian theocracy
LONDON: On September 13, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian, was arrested in Tehran for violating the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women. In the custody of the Gasht-e Ershad – the “Guidance Patrol”, or morality police – she suffered a catastrophic head injury and, after three days in a coma, died in hospital.
Her death was the trigger for hundreds of protests across the country, which saw men and women take to the streets in large numbers, with women openly avoiding the compulsory wearing of hijab and cutting their hair in public in a gesture of challenge.
Now a new report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change – TBI – backed by two consecutive polls of thousands of Iranians, has concluded that the widespread rejection of the hijab is nothing less than a symbol of a national desire for regime change.
The current protests are “not a flash moment,” says Kasra Aarabi, co-author of the report and Iran program manager at TBI’s Extremism Policy Unit.
“The protests we are currently witnessing are unprecedented in their duration and scale. But they are a continuation of the unrest trend that emerged in 2017, since when we saw Iranians constantly taking to the streets.
Aarabi, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a native Farsi speaker, believes the current unrest, among the worst seen in Iran since the 1978 revolution replaced the Shah’s modernizing regime, is a turning point. for Iran.
“This is the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic,” he said.
“It has been clear for years that the Iranian people do not want reform, they want regime change, the fall of the entire Islamic Republic and the establishment of a secular democracy.”
Young Iranians, he says, are witnessing the big changes happening elsewhere in the region, from the building of bridges in the Abraham Accords to the big modernization reforms in Saudi Arabia, “and they think, ‘Why can’t- he not we have that?'”
The TBI report draws on two polls of tens of thousands of Iranians, which demonstrate how Iran has become a secular society, despite more than 40 years of living under a harsh Shia theocracy.
Key findings include that men and women in Iran are almost equally opposed to the compulsory wearing of the hijab, rejected by 70% of men and 74% of women.
This opposition also spans what might otherwise be expected to be the urban-rural divide, where people are traditionally seen as more conservative.
Only 21% of urban Iranians believe in the practice, support only rising to 28% in rural communities.
Predictably, the rejection of compulsory hijab wearing is strongest among young people – 78% of respondents aged 20-29 oppose it.
However, this practice is also opposed by 68% of Iranians aged 30 to 49 and 74% over 50 – the so-called generation of the revolution.
Only a small minority of Iranians support the practice – just 13% women and 17% men.
The protests against the hijab, says the TBI, are clearly aimed at regime change: 84% of those who oppose the dress code also want to see an end to the Islamic Republic.
Furthermore, “the anti-regime protest movement in Iran is fundamentally secular,” the report said, adding that “76% of Iranians who want regime change also consider religion to be unimportant in their lives. “.
In fact, the “unprecedented secularization” sweeping Iran is such that the BIT concludes that “Iranian society is no longer religious.”
Only a declining minority in the theocratic republic adhere to the Islamic requirement to pray five times a day, ranging from 33% of rural Iranians to just 26% of city dwellers.
In terms of education, only 26% of Iranians with a university degree pray five times a day, while the percentage of people with a high school diploma or less is little different at 28%.
Although the report, “Protests and polling insights from the Streets of Iran: How removal of the hijab gone a symbol of regime change,” was released on Tuesday, it contains unpublished data from two surveys conducted in Iran in 2020 and 2022.
This, says the BIT, demonstrates that the issue of the hijab and the aspiration to secularize Iranian society has been simmering for years.
“Today’s protests are a consequence of the huge rift between the regime and the people of Iran,” Aarabi said.
“Despite living under a radical Islamist theocracy, the Iranian people are the most secular in the Middle East. There has been a gradual process of secularization and liberalization that began in the early 1990s, which has reached unprecedented levels over the past five years.
The new report is based on polls conducted in June 2020 and February 2022 by the Group for Analysis and Measurement of Attitudes in Iran – GAMAAN – an independent non-profit research foundation registered in the Netherlands.
Instead of conventional face-to-face or telephone survey methods, GAMAAN says it uses “digital tools and alternative methods to capture the real opinions of Iranians…allowing Iranians to answer questions honestly on topics sensitive, without fearing for their safety”. .”
A survey conducted by GAMAAN in June 2020 questioned 39,981 respondents on issues relating to religion. In February 2022, 16,850 Iranians answered questions about political systems.
Analyzed by demographic breakdown, says the TBI, “the results reveal a consensus that regularly emerges in the streets, which is anti-compulsory hijab and anti-regime at the grassroots.”
Thousands of arrests followed as the regime cracked down on protesters. Some have been charged with crimes punishable by death, such as “enmity against God” and “corruption on Earth”.
This month, at least five executions of protesters have taken place and have been confirmed by the state, and an unknown number of people, including children, have been killed during protests.
The HRA news agency, founded in 2005 to monitor human rights abuses in Iran, says more than 400 protesters have been killed and at least 17,250 people have been arrested.
Last week, UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, reported that “since the end of September, around 50 children are believed to have lost their lives in the public unrest in Iran”.
The latest was a 10-year-old boy, Kian Pirfalak, one of many people shot dead during and around the protests last Wednesday (November 16). He was hit by gunfire and died as he and his father were driving home in the western Iranian city of Izeh.
The protests, widely covered in the West, escalated further this week when Iran’s soccer team conspicuously refused to sing the national anthem ahead of their World Cup opener against England in Qatar. .
Ahead of the match, skipper Ehsan Hajjsafi said the team supported those who had died in the protests, adding “we have to accept that the conditions in our country are not good and our people are not happy”.
The West, says Aarabi of the TBI, had failed to recognize the transformation that occurred in Iranian society “because it focused only on the vision of Iran and dissent in the country, through the prism of the 2015 nuclear agreement, then Trump’s withdrawal from this agreement.
“But this dissent is not motivated by the nuclear deal, nor by the reimposition of sanctions. He is motivated by life under a totalitarian, misogynistic and ideological regime, which has always prioritized the interests of its radical Islamist ideology over those of the Iranian people.
Commenting on the report, Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister who founded his institute in 2016, said that “the people of Iran have shown extraordinary bravery and courage over the past two months. They should know that they have the support of millions around the world who admire the stand they have taken for freedom.
“I’ve always said, and I say it even more today, that the most liberating event for the Middle East will come when the Iranian people finally have their freedom.
“For ordinary people in Iran, the values that many may call ‘Western’ are actually theirs. Neither they nor their country should be defined by the Islamic Republic. As a great people, whose history and civilization are rich and varied, they and they alone must define their own future.
“That’s why I firmly believe it’s in our interests today in the West to show our deep solidarity with the protesters who are risking their lives for what we so often take for granted.”
It was, he added, “time for us in the West to recalibrate our policy so as to make a clear distinction between the Iranian people and the Islamic Republic. Our efforts must serve the former.