x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Young learn the price of dissent

The protests in Iran seems less about political leanings and more about the opposing sides of democracy and theocracy.

The venue of the interview was odd: an obscure Cuban cafe in downtown Tehran. Waiting in a dark alleyway outside, the interviewee, a baby-faced student of mining engineering at Tehran's Amirkabir University, was visibly nervous that he had been followed. Once inside, he quickly dislodged his cell phone battery, worried his phone could be a homing device, giving away his location. "When I was in jail," he said in Farsi, "my interrogators told me things they could have known only if they were tracking me."

In the course of the interview, he described the litany of abuse and torture he was subjected to after being tossed into Section 209, the dank solitary confinement block in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. His crime: along with other student protesters, he had vociferously bellowed "Death to the dictator!", denouncing Mahmud Ahmedinejad, while he was delivering a speech at the university on a freezing winter day in 2006.

His father mortgaged his property to get him out on bail. His phone was tapped, his movements were probably watched and he faced the prospect of a lengthy nerve-racking trial that could culminate in him being tossed back into Section 209. After the interview, he sidled into the shadows, back to the uncertainty of his life. That was a year ago. This week, the world witnessed blood-curdling scenes from the streets of Tehran - seen through amateur videos - over the "stolen election". This is no embryonic student protest; it is the most intense protest movement since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Protesters are descending on the streets defying the brutal Basij militia and riot police. Ominous echoes of "Death to the dictator!" are heard again. This time, however, they are defying the Islamic nation's highest authority, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even though in his Friday sermon he vowed to crack down with a vengeance. But are these protests just about the election? Is this just a blip, or the beginning of a long standing movement? These protests are symptomatic of a country at the crossroads between moderate and conservative, between democracy and theocracy.

Meeting young Iranians such as the student protester revealed a deep generational rift in Iranian society. Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, the clergy, who took charge of the country, have worn both the turbans of religion and the hats of government. The principle of velayat e faqih (rule of Islamic jurisprudence), which places the clergy above all other institutions, holds that society should be governed by a supreme leader, a cleric best qualified to enforce Islamic law, until the appearance of the Shiite messiah. It is this doctrine that makes Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and all others subordinate to him. Khomeini, and now Khamenei, have created an atmosphere of enforced "Islamic purity" that grips everyday life.

But many of the country's young - 70 per cent of the population is under 30 - who did not witness and cannot relate to the revolution, find this atmosphere too stifling. Many are keen to wrest back their country from the clerical establishment, whom they blame, not openly but in private conversations, for curbing their social freedoms. The oppressive rule of the clergy has encouraged a baffling duality. A year ago, young boys chanted "Death to America" at Friday prayers, but privately, behind closed doors, worshipped the likes of Metallica and Sylvester Stallone. Others publicly adhered to strict Islamic codes in public, but swilled homemade vodka at home. They publicly shunned alcohol, but were customers of illegal bootleggers in Tehran's famous Bazar-e-Bozorg, surreptitiously whispering "whiskey, whiskey" into the ears of young passing Iranians.

"If you force religion down people's throats," Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist cleric and Iran's former vice president, said, "it makes them less religious, not more." It is not just the young, but a broad section of Iran's clerical class, too, that advocates a separation of religion from governance. Some moderate clerics in Qom, the centre of Shiite learning, are not completely at ease with Ayatollah Khomeini's idea of velayat e faqih.

A few from Qom's Mofid University, blamed the politicisation of Islam for Iran's pressing woes - its international isolation, human rights abuses, and a crippled economy despite being blessed with enormous oil wealth. But such moderate voices rarely speak out, fearing they will be muzzled by the one man who calls all the shots in Iran: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This protest is not so much pro-Mir Hossein Mousavi or anti-Ahmedinejad as it is against Khamenei's vision of Iran.