[I]n the span of less than half a century, many Iranians have undergone a seismic shift in attitudes – moving from a tendency toward Islamism under secular rule to a yearning for secularization under theocracy.
This shift illustrates what the renowned Iranian scholar Homa Katouzian has dubbed Iran’s “short-term society.” Katouzian likens Iranian society to buildings whose owners prefer to demolish and reconstruct them from scratch, rather than renovate and make them more appropriate to the times. His idea is premised on the radical transformations the country has witnessed in its modern history. Since the turn of the 20th century, Iran has seen a succession of revolutionary upheavals: the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), which succeeded in establishing a parliament and social rights within the framework of a constitutional monarchy; the rule of Reza Shah (1925-1941), who undertook a vast program of modernization (including secularization) from above; the premiership of the liberal democrat Mohammad Mossadegh, who nationalized Iran’s oil industry in the early 1950s and was thwarted by a foreign-backed coup; and the 1979 revolution, which marked the rise of Islamism and the establishment of an “Islamic Republic,” enjoying popular support in its first decade of rule.
These major changes in the structure of Iranian society have produced a state of insecurity at multiple levels, pushing a volatile population toward rebellion whenever it has felt the ruler’s grip loosening. This is what we are seeing now with the protests triggered in September by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini – who hailed from Iran’s Kurdish community – after her arrest by the morality police for wearing the hijab “inappropriately.” In response, Iranians took to the streets and social media, proclaiming the Kurdish slogan, “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” or “Woman, Life, Freedom.”
So far, this movement has differed markedly from any other since 1979, not least due to the unified slogan it has adopted. That the movement is moreover spearheaded by women, in a country where women are known for their tenacious and audacious character, must surely ring alarm bells for the entrenched regime.
Yet the grievances underlying and leading up to this moment have been building for years — Amini’s death was simply the spark that lit the fire. For the first time since 1979, a momentous social movement has erupted, making plain to all the extent of the rift between the Islamic Republic and significant segments of Iranian society. Some observers might counter that the 2009 protests, ignited by disputed presidential elections, were of a similar nature. This is true to an extent, but the crux of that uprising was a struggle between the two main political currents within the Islamic Republic, known as “principlists” (or hard-liners) and reformists, respectively. If 2009 could be described as a crack in the system, 2022 marks a deeper fissure.
Despite being leaderless thus far, the 2022 protests are the first major confrontation between the political and religious establishment and a generation that feels no affinity for it. The young men and women in the streets today have no ambitions within the existing political system, which they feel does not represent them. For years now, they have steadily invented their own imagined world, one without Iran’s social and religious laws, knowing full well the government could ill afford to get into a confrontation with them. The death of Mahsa Amini was the straw that broke this camel’s back. [Continue reading…]