Thursday, February 15, 2007


Now for a bit of encouraging news...

The Globe and Mail
Doug Saunders
Feb 14, 2007

What if they had a revolution and nobody came?
Iran's baby boom created a generation that now feels stifled by the spirit of 1979

TEHRAN -- The first thing you see in the sprawling shrine of Ayatollah Khomaini on a recent Wednesday afternoon is the small crowd of visiting Iranians, mostly poor villagers, gathered around his Plexiglas-walled tomb, offering banknotes and prayers to the man who launched the world's first and only Islamic revolution.

Look across the half-built shrine in the outskirts of Tehran, and you'll see something very different. There, along the marble wall on the opposite side of the enormous chamber, a dozen young couples sit together, hold hands, chat quietly and stare into one another's eyes, precisely the sort of activity that Mr. Khomaini's revolution banished.

"It's what you'd call a make-out place," one young man says. "If we were holding hands on the street or in the shops, the morality police would get us. But they'd never think of entering this place, so we come here after classes."

While none of the behaviour here would be described by a Westerner as making out, in Iran it is a crime for unmarried men and women to congregate or physically touch, and if caught by the morality police or bands of Islamic vigilantes, they can be punished with flogging. A generation ago, people just obeyed. Now, all over Iran, in rich neighbourhoods and poor villages, you see young people finding clever ways around the rules.

Here, in countless scenes like these, are the bizarre contradictions that govern Iran today and that underpin its awkward relationship with the outside world. This is, on paper, a society that is ruled by Islamic law to an extent unknown anywhere else, governed by mullahs who impose their strict readings of the Koran on every aspect of public and private life.

"It is definitely a totalitarian government," says Tehran movie director Dariush Mehrjui, whose acclaimed films have been censored and banned under various Iranian regimes since 1966, and who says that things are worse now than he has ever seen them. "But it is not at all a closed society.

As a society, this is nothing at all like Eastern Europe under the Soviets." Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, since he won the office in 2005, laws have become more
restrictive: Dissenting newspapers have repeatedly been banned, critical views in universities have been aggressively repressed, bloggers have been locked in prison and primary- and secondary-school curriculums, according to United Nations workers, have been changed so that they consist mainly of prayer.

Yet despite the laws, Iranian society is in many ways more open and liberated than in most countries in the Middle East, certainly more so than in Arab states that fear Iran's influence. In places like Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive cars, shake hands with men or wear anything that isn't black. Iranians staunchly defend their freedoms, and seem to be pushing for more.

Well-informed Iranians say that Mr. Ahmadinejad faces a conundrum: Just as his government is trying to export its Islamic revolution to the wider Middle East, through endorsement and likely support of movements in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and many other places, it is facing a new generation at home that has diminishing interest in those values.

And a growing number of people here are quietly predicting that the Iranian revolution will likely run out of steam due to mounting public dissatisfaction and economic malaise, like the Soviet Union did in the late 1980s, unless it is strengthened by some outside threat such as a U.S. invasion.

Iran is facing the largest baby boom in the world: Between 1979 and the late 1980s, its population doubled, from 35 million to 70 million, with an average of almost eight children for every family. That number has plummeted back to slightly more than two children to a family at an equally amazing rate, but the country is left with 70 per cent of its population under 30 years of age. Mr. Ahmadinejad is gambling, according to those close to him, that this postrevolutionary generation will embrace his rigidly conservative values as they get older.

"What they're saying in his cabinet is that they just need to hold on to power for two years, until most of these kids are over 30 and start having families, and then it will all be all right, because they'll become less rebellious and more serious about the revolution," said a man who works closely with Mr. Ahmadinejad's party.

But those who observe this generation closely say that the opposite seems to be happening: As they come of age, the Iranian baby boomers are decreasingly interested in the values that led their parents to overthrow the U.S.-backed regime of the Shah, expel the government and impose an authoritarian regime that is a mixture of radical Islam and Soviet-era economics.

"According to our research, this generation has a totally different point of view toward the revolution; they are not the young people of 30 years ago," says Amir Nikpay, a University of Tehran anthropologist who has just completed a major study of the values and beliefs of Iran's enormous baby-boom generation. "This generation has no connection to revolutionary values."

A day later, on Thursday night in central Tehran, another typical scene: Four young women pile out of a car, all of them screaming at uniformed police officer. "How dare you ask us for a bribe! We weren't even doing anything wrong," the driver, her red head scarf barely covering her hair, shouts repeatedly. The mustachioed officer mutters an inaudible response.

She raises both arms and strikes him in the chest, pushing him away. The policeman looks bewildered. As a crowd watches but does nothing, she pummels him. He backs off, gets into his car, and leaves the scene. The women drive off.

That sort of grassroots rebellion against the social mores of the revolution is increasingly visible.

For instance, despite the Islamic regime's absolute ban on alcohol and drugs, Iran now has two million heroin addicts, the highest proportion in the Middle East. According to the government, most are under 30.

Mr. Nikpay and other scholars have found that Iranians born after the revolution are devout Muslims, perhaps more universally than before, but that they believe strongly that religion should be a private matter, a major transformation of belief that has also been detected in Turkey and other countries.

The implications, for an Islamist government, could be staggering.

"In this generation, when they have a decision, they refer to their own personal beliefs, not to the beliefs of their family or community or government," Mr. Nikpay said. "The majority of this young generation are believers in Islam, but this majority is also saying that they want to separate the church from the state, and that the regime, the state, cannot base its legitimacy on religion."

Signs of rebellion are increasing. Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian feminist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work, is in the midst of a surprisingly successful petition campaign to get a million women to put their names on a statement denouncing Islamic law as harmful to women.

It is unique in being directly targeted at the central values of the revolution itself. While it is generally acceptable to criticize the President and other elected figures -- they are regularly parodied on state-controlled radio -- to question the Supreme Leader or the revolution itself is an unmentionable taboo. While a number of the women associated with the campaign have been arrested and imprisoned, it does not appear to be losing steam.

Such dissent appears to be mounting. The opposition to Mr. Ahmadinejad in parliament this month has come from parties that, while more pro-Western and supportive of fewer restrictions and a more liberal economy, are still loyal to the revolution.

The quieter opposition on the street, driven by Internet connections and TV signals, is coming from an entire generation of people who seem to have little interest in the principles that brought the ayatollahs to power.

I have met a few Iranian women, and you will not find them wearing Muslim garb, a headscarf for the occasional trip to the mosque, that's about it. Strong women, all.