The Lost Children of the Revolution

Twenty-five years after the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, reforms are still being blocked, and the younger generation is increasingly distrustful of the state. Bahman Nirumand reports

Twenty-five years after the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, reforms are still being blocked, and the younger generation is increasingly distrustful of the State. Bahman Nirumand reports

photo: Markus Kirchgässner
Students in Iran are increasingly dissatisfied with the political situation

​​When the Islamists took power in Iran a quarter of a century ago, their main goal was to "Islamicise" Iranian society and to erase all traces of the "decadent, Westernised" era of the Shah. Two weeks after his arrival in Teheran, the Ayatollah Khomeini gave his programmatic address in the holy city of Ghom: "We must root out immorality from our society", he announced. "We shall purify the entire press, the radio, the television, the cinemas, the schools and the universities."

Neither East nor West, but an Islamic republic

The spiritual and political leader of the Revolution insisted that, henceforth, everything would be oriented towards Islam: "Our ministries must be transformed into Islamic bastions, our laws must be Islamic laws. We shall waste no time worrying about whether or not this suits the West. Do not let yourselves be misled by the word ‘democracy'. Democracy is from the West, and we reject Western systems. The people want an Islamic Republic – not just any kind of republic, and not a democratic republic, but an Islamic Republic and nothing else."

This speech was seminal, and its effects were felt immediately. Organised troops of vigilantes calling themselves "Followers of the Party of God" ("Ansar-e Hezbollah") quickly went to work: liberal and critical newspapers were banned, publishing houses and bookshops burned down.

The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution took care of the Islamicisation of schools and universities; shortly after this body was founded, it sent circular letters to professors, lecturers, headmasters, schoolteachers, nursery school staff and educationalists, granting them a period of only a few weeks in which to amend their curricula in accordance with the Islamic faith.

Ultimately, however, the Islamic hardliners never really succeeded in fully implementing their plans. Indeed, the attitude of today's younger generation of Iranians shows that their efforts had practically the opposite effect to that intended.

The Lost Generation

Today, children and young people make up almost two-thirds of the Iranian population; these are people who grew up in the years immediately after the Revolution, or who were born in the years that followed. Around 40 million Iranians are now 30 or younger. They have never known any other world than the one ruled by the Islamists.

At kindergarten, at school, and during their higher education or vocational training, they were subjected to ideological indoctrination on a massive scale. In the first decade after the Revolution, the older ones amongst them included some of the most radical proponents of the ruling order, the most fanatical supporters of Khoumeini and the most embittered opponents of liberal and democratic values.

Many of them endorsed and even glorified the use of violence. In the name of Islam, they were prepared to wage jihad against Iraq, and to die as martyrs in the process.

Nowadays, however, it's precisely these people who oppose the regime most vehemently. Anyone looking for the Achilles' heel of the Islamic Republic can find it here; for what these young people aspire to stands in sharp contrast to the aims and ideals of the ruling clerics.

This generation yearns to live in freedom – without the ideological ballast, without the constant burden of a hypocritical morality and without their spiritual leaders' demands that they hate the current Official Enemy (whoever that may happen to be). The young people of Iran want to think freely, to live freely, and to develop their gifts and talents as they themselves see fit.

In recent years, they have acquired access to the outside world, mainly via the Internet and satellite TV. Desires have been awakened that can no longer be satisfied in the Islamic Republic.

Disappointed by politics

Many young Iranians originally saw politics as the solution to their woes. In the run-up to the Presidential elections in 1997, millions of students, school pupils and women worked for Mohammad Khatami. To everyone's surprise, Khatami won a landslide victory – and he could not have done so without their support.

Khatami had announced his intention of introducing wide-ranging reforms, promising freedom and democracy. Not the least of his assurances was that Iran would become more open and transparent, both domestically and in its relations with the outside world.

These promises were not kept – not even when the reformers gained power in parliament, which had previously been dominated by conservatives. And this was not the worst of it: in Summer 1999, gangs of thugs attacked a hall of residence in Teheran, killing one student and injuring many others; and when the students defended themselves, President Khatami refused to support them.

Some of those protestors are still in prison. Disappointment at the government's behaviour was so widespread that many of the previously-committed students and young people distanced themselves from the pro-democracy movement.

Others kept their cool, insisting that Khatami should resist the stalling of the right-wing Islamists and push through the promised reforms. But instead of relying on the will of the people and standing up to the forces of reaction, the President and his administration – including most of the reformers in Parliament – decided to compromise with the Islamists.

The decisive change in relations between the young people and the reformers came last Summer, after student unrests in Teheran and other cities. The students had been demanding the withdrawal of the death sentence against Dr. Hashem Aghajari, a well-known liberal academic and scholar of Islam who had sharply criticised the conservative Islamists.

"Mister President, do not remain silent!"

Major protests ensued, in the course of which countless students were arrested. The country's largest student organisation ("Tahkim-e Wahdat") made a final appeal to the government. In an open letter to Khatami, they wrote: "Mister President, do not succumb to resignation! End your silence, protect the students and take action against those who are breaking the law! If you are unable to stop what is happening, we ask you to make a courageous decision and step down."

There was no response to this appeal; so what alternative remained to the students, except to end the dialogue, to stop cooperating with the state and to go their own way?

Nonetheless, there was much controversy over which was the right way to go. Eventually, this led to a split in the organisation, and many students subsequently became more passive. Then the conservative-dominated Council of Guardians declared that they would exclude most of the reformist candidates from taking part in the parliamentary elections on February 20th… and the students' organisation reacted by announcing its readiness to resume cooperation with the reformers.

This may well be the last chance for the reformists; for if they agree to a compromise with the conservatives yet again, they will lose all credibility, not just amongst young people, but amongst the Iranian population as a whole.

Lethargy as a consequence of political stagnation

Yet when we compare the present day to the period before the Revolution in 1979, today's young Iranians do seem less rebellious than their predecessors. Though there is a politically committed minority, most members of the younger generation are preoccupied mainly with their own problems.

With few opportunities for vocational training, a shortage of jobs, a complete lack of leisure and entertainment facilities and the absence of any prospects for the future, many young people have subsided into apathy and fallen victim to drugs. The level of drug addiction amongst young Iranians is extremely worrying, and it's only one consequence of the country's clerical dictatorship.

Politically committed or resigned and apathetic, pacified by drug-dependency or filled with barely-realisable longings: for years now, a gulf has been growing between this young generation and the ruling Islamists.

Though older Iranians are also somewhat estranged from the Islamist regime, the gulf is even greater between the young people and the ruling clerics – and it's highly unlikely that anything can now bridge it. The Revolution lost its children a very long time ago.

Bahman Nirumand, © 2004
Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

Bahman Nirumand studied German, philosophy and Iranian Studies in Munich, Tübingen and Berlin. He suffered political persecution under the Shah's regime, and was forced to leave Iran in the 1960s. He now works as a freelance journalist in Berlin.

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