Iran is a country one associates with an old man carrying laundry on his head, who also wields absolute power and limits people’s freedoms in the name of Islam, while also enforcing anti-western rhetoric onto a population who is split into those who agree and disagree. Well that idea would qualify as racism because it is only 99 percent true (the other 1 percent consists of rhinoplasties, hookah bars, tea and greasy meats).
The truth is, Iran is filled with a variety of political parties with differing ideologies, however, its citizens can be generalized into those who support the Islamic Republic regime, and those who criticize it. These two groups can be further generalized, as the regime’s supporters generally consist of an older generation of religious conservatives, while its critics tend to consist of the westernized youth population. And yes, of course there is a significant population of youth who do not conform to this stereotype, who are crucial to the future existence and maintenance of the Islamic Republic.
However due to fear resulting from crackdowns on political oppositions, arrests, and significantly high cases of executions (over 567 recorded executions, which is 42 percent of overall executions, according to Al Jazeera News), critiques of the the Islamic Republic regime and its leaders (specifically towards the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the previous Ayatollah who was also the current government’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini) have been given in private settings such as homes.
However, just like everything else in the world, people have a limit, so they took to the streets to express their grievances in the form of protests and clashes with the police, sometimes violent, from around the end of 2017 to the beginning of 2018. There was a diverse number of reasons people protested, predominantly leaning towards failing economic conditions and the low standard of living. Throughout the past couple of weeks, these protests have faded away and ended, but are still of significant value. This was one of the few times, along with the 2009 Iranian Green Movement, where people were publicly displaying disapproval towards their government.
But what do these critics want, and where Iran is headed because of them? What is the bigger idea behind these protests and their enablers?
I reached out to three members of Iran’s youth, who are critics of the Khamenei regime and the current governmental system of Iran, to try and find an answer. The three included: Majid (a 24-year-old young man who aspires to immigrate to the United States to pursue his rap career, and a self-proclaimed activist/protester during the recent protests), Mahsa (a 19-year-old woman who considers herself fairly religious with strong belief and passion for Islam), Mariam (a 26-year-old woman and university student who is also very religious as well as religiously conservative), and Kiana (a 16-year-old girl who is also a self-proclaimed critic of the regime). I am purposely choosing to not mention last names, to protect their identities and ensure their safety.
To keep my questions open to interpretation, I asked very general and vague questions, to some extent even unclear, in order to elicit a response of what the interviewees personally wanted to communicate, and not be limited to a response that does not effectively cover their ideals.
My dialogue with Majid went as followed:
Robert: “What things need to change?”
Majid: “From the beginning, I have always had a problem with theocracies. Everything aside, a religious government is a dictatorial government. That is why they are not capable of running the country because they do not have the skill set to do so. This is why our situation gets worse and worse than the day before. Even the government’s supporters aren’t satisfied with their officials. I believe Khamenei is forcing his ideas onto people, and ignores that of others. He is ruining the country. The government in its entirety needs to change.”
Robert: “Why are these problems there?”
Majid: “My opinion is that the problems arise from government not knowing how to govern. Imagine a priest becoming the head of NASA. Even worse, a mullah is the leader of a country.”
Robert: “What is the goal of these protests? Is Iran going to reach this goal?”
Majid: “The majority is not happy with the economic situation, the lack of freedom, and Khamenei’s foreign policy. They want the whole regime to change. No one knows if Iran will be free from its government, but one thing is for sure, dictators throughout history never last forever. The president and cabinet is not on the people’s side. All those in power are close allies to Khamenei. People have no true representatives in government. The president has no real power either. Even if he did, he could not create serious change.”
Robert: “Where is government headed in Iran?”
Majid: “These protests will change nothing politically because the regime consists of dictators and peoples’ opinions mean nothing. But the government is a little scared.”
Robert: “How are these protests going to change the way people view the concept of government? What is the common ground between those for and against the Islamic Republic?”
Majid: “Majority of protesters are against the regime and want it changed. The Islamic Republic’s supporters are all from the same family, which is how they make their money. They lack intelligence as well because they believe Khamenei is the only rightful successor to Khomeini and that he was chosen by God, therefore they must support him. More than eighty percent want a regime change.”
Robert: “Would democracy be good for Iranians considering they mix emotions and politics?”
Majid: “Democracy does not exist in Iran. I may go to jail because of a rap song I wrote about the protests, even though I insulted no one. Some of the mullahs even ordered the executions of all protesters.”
Robert: “What do you think about women taking their hijabs off in the streets as protests?”
Majid: “People have the right to choose what they want to wear. I’m against mandatory hijab.”
Robert: “Does the government of Iran act Islamic? If so, why?”
Majid: “The government knows they aren’t Islamic. Even Mohammad never forced hijab onto people. Charging interest on loans is haram in Islam, but all the banks do it.”
Some seriously strong claims were made, such as saying the government’s supporters lack intelligence, and that they all belong to the same family to make money, which may not be supported by significant evidence. These claims though, when still taken into consideration, reveal some of the underlying grievances of Iran’s citizens, whatever that may be.
I later asked Majid whether he participated in the protests. He said yes, then gave a brief overview of the economic difficulties plaguing Iran.
“Yes I did participate in the protests. The economic situation is getting worse. A $50K car in the America would be $100k here. People are driving twenty year old cars produced in South Korea, that are out of stock,” he said with a sad face emoji.
Mahasa responded to all of my questions in a single generalized paragraph to sum up what her central concerns were.
“Iran is a great country with good people, but the problem started when true Islam and true Shiite ideology is not put into use,” is what she started with.
She then began her brief take on Iran’s economic crisis.
“Some things have changed, hurting Iran. People protest due to economic issues, a result of American choices, that bother the people. Everything is more expensive,” she said referring to the sanctions placed and enforced by the United States.
Mahsa transitioned her focus to speaking on Islam and social issues.
“The issue with the hijab is that everybody should live how they desire and worship any religion they want. Religion should not be forced onto people even though Islam is the most complete and fulfilling religion, and I love it because I did my research and believe in it. And the Islamic Republic does not act Islamic,” were her closing statements.
When it came to my interview with Mariam, she also answered all my questions in a single paragraph, to stick to the issues that mattered to her the most.
“Honestly, I do not know whether I am for or against the Islamic Republic. I’m not political. I’m more for humans. Wherever there is humanitarian action, I support it. I do believe these days human rights do not exist,” she said.
Her next statements, though, may have answered her own previous doubts.
“No the government is not Islamic. Everybody is entitled to choose how they dress. I think there should not be laws forcing people what to wear, as it is a personal matter…There is no argumentative flaw to these protests. People want their rights. Democracy is very good. Half of Iran is aware of what is going on. It is government that uses the people as if they are puppets in their show. I believe politics and religion must be separated. It is partly the peoples’ fault because they remained silent. Majority of people do not want this regime because now everyone knows who this government really is. There is only a small amount of people still supporting the Islamic Republic, and they do it because they are receiving benefits. Other than that, this regime consists of liars and thieves…We are still hopeful though that good days are coming,” is what she claimed.
I finished our conversation by thanking her for speaking up and by asking her how Iran’s relations with the western world may change in the future.
“If the mullahs as a group die, everything will be fixed,” was her closing remark.
One would expect a person who is religiously conservative to have a great deal of respect and awe for the clergy, as they are supposed to be the highest ranking members of Islamic society, being experts in Islam, its values, and its law. But it does not seem this way. Mariam may or may not represent all religious conservatives, but it is still worth noting what this might mean when it comes to differing views on what is truly Islamic.
While on the topic of Iran’s relationship with the west, my interview with Kiana had one key point about what some Iranians want from the western side of the world.
“The negative point to the protests is that they did not change anything because, I think, due to only a small percentage of people protesting, and that there was no strong support. Until the most powerful nations: Israel, England, and even Trump, want it, nothing will happen,” she said.
At this stage in Iran, it is unclear which side, whether anti-Islamic Republic or pro-Islamic Republic, wins the war of Islamic values and ideals, forever hanging Iranian society and government. It will only be clear when it occurs. Until it does, this youthful group of the population will remain pushing to be heard.