Protests in Iran
The longing for a modern form of Islam

Forty-three years after Khomeini's revolution, the regime is facing its greatest internal challenge yet. State Islam in Iran is being rocked from beneath.

The Iranian state's response to the protests that have been shaking the country since September, in the shadow of the war in Ukraine, has been criminal. Human rights activists say that to date, more than 450 protesters having been killed and 18,000 arrested.

Information isn't easy to come by, since the regime is obstructing online communication and reporting. But from the very start, it has been clear that – contrary to the knee-jerk claim made by the German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) in September – the clashes in more than 230 towns and cities across the country do indeed relate to Islam, or rather to the Iranian form of state Islam.

Unlike the uprisings in 2009 and 2019, these protests were not sparked by election fraud or rising petrol prices, but by the enforced wearing of headscarves. Ever since Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman who had violated the Islamic dress code, died in the custody of the morality police, the movement that arose in response to her death has posed the greatest domestic political challenge to the theocracy since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

A rejection of the theocracy

Under the slogan "Zan, Zendegi, Azadi!" – "Woman, life, freedom!" – female students and ordinary women have joined in solidarity with male students, businesspeople and workers in the important oil and gas sectors in their opposition to the theocratic regime under the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "The extent of the current protests is unprecedented," according to Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

 

Even as far back as 2006, a Gallup poll found that 56 per cent of people in Iran rejected the control of public life by religion. Today, the country is regarded as having the most strongly secular society in the Middle East. The majority of Iranians evidently no longer want an Islam that is obsessed with conformity and rules, or mullahs who in the past year wanted to prohibit people from having dogs, because they are "unclean".

"In this respect, the system has achieved the exact opposite of what it wanted," the Islamic theologian Hamideh Mohagheghi said in an interview with the Catholic news agency KNA. However, the desire for a spiritual, personal faith that respects the decision not to wear a headscarf as a private matter, is still deeply anchored in the population – even among the country's Western-oriented young people, says Mohagheghi, a German-Iranian academic who teaches in Paderborn. It is a longing for a modern form of Islam that combines the local culture with democratic freedom – a dream shared by so many people in the Islamic world.

A paradox of Shia history

This need is essentially met by the tradition of debate that exists within the Shia sect of Twelvers that predominates in Iran. For centuries, its scholars were more spiritually flexible – and less political – than the Sunni orthodoxy. Instead of worldly power, they were awaiting the return of the twelfth Imam, the descendent of Mohammed's cousin Ali.

Unlike the Sunnis, Shia scholars always practised ijtihad, drawing on the Koran in order to arrive at independent legal decisions, in place of a rigid and unchanging Sharia law. They were even open to Eastern philosophy's love of speculation.

With this in mind, it seems like a paradox of Shia history that an Iranian Ayatollah should have been the one to spark the rise of political Islam in the twentieth century. Khomeini's concept of the state as the "rule of legal scholars" was a break with tradition and was even deemed inadmissible by a few critical senior clerics. The promise of the revolution, that this rule would guarantee the will of the people, soon gave way to a claim to totalitarian power. Since the fraudulent elections of 2009, parliament has been dominated by an ultra-conservative majority because any candidates who tend towards reform are struck from the electoral lists by the Council of Guardians.

With Khamenei as supreme leader and the former hard-line prosecutor Ebrahim Raisi as president, two hardliners from the Shia clergy occupy the highest offices of state. Nevertheless, the clergy is not a monolithic block, even (or perhaps especially) 43 years after the Revolution. So although there are some reports of minor mullahs having their turbans pulled off by regime opponents, or being left standing by taxi drivers, observers note that many clerics have some sympathy for the protests or are at least willing to enter into dialogue. Recently, dignitaries from the theological centres of Qom and Isfahan publicly criticised the brutal approach taken by the Revolutionary Guards, who also control the economy, and the Basij militia, which supports the regime.

An Islamic Republic without an Islamic majority

Even the ayatollahs, who number in the thousands, cannot be equated with the regime. Only a fraction of them hold public office. Their spiritual authority and their followers, from whom they receive donations, make them largely independent of the state. One example is the prominent Ayatollah Ali Ayazi (born 1954) from Qom, who is advocating for more rights for minorities and women, calling the theocracy into question, and basing all of this in Islam.

But Iranian society is also split, as the theologian Mohagheghi points out. "Millions of people who are living in poverty content themselves with meagre handouts from the state and allow their votes to be bought. They regard their poverty as an entry ticket to paradise and hope for the return of the hidden twelfth Imam." The system manipulates these people with simplistic promises of salvation and anti-western propaganda. These days, evidence of this is provided by the crowds that are repeatedly summoned to the rallies with which the establishment likes to display its popularity.

Right now, it's almost impossible to say how successful the protests will be, and whether they will be stifled by further violence and small concessions to freedom. So far, those involved in the uprising have lacked charismatic leaders to steer the protests. The greatest catastrophe, however, would be a civil war, in which the regime would have the superior military might. (KNA)

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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