Authors: Azadeh Moaveni
Tavana told me he did not see much point in pursuing an open society or holding the powerful ayatollahs accountable for gutting the economy of an oil-rich nation. “Civil society, democracy, human rights, these are all just buzzwords. You can’t do human rights unless you teach people what rights are, and right now that’s not part of the curriculum.”
The Rafsanjani strategy of Islamic dictatorship lite—of buying young people’s acquiescence by doling out more social freedoms, while hounding pesky critics who demanded political change—did not disturb Tavana. He neatly outlined how the U.S. invasion of Iraq had ended young Iranians’ dreams of being rescued by tanned and polite American soldiers, who would deliver a shiny latest-model de moc racy. Forced to accept a grim yet stable future in the arms of their ayatollahs, he said, people were making the best of their disagreeable situation. Tavana’s summation depressed me, but he remained in good spirits, energetically poking a straw into the dregs of his iced mocha. I could imagine him in ten years’ time as the speechwriter for an Iranian president. Young people like Kambiz Tavana seemed curiously able to mold themselves to the demands of the political moment: one day, a disgruntled democrat; the next, a pragmatic, pro-regime hack. He embodied for me the state’s own inability to define its postrevolutionary identity. Was Iran destined to become a model of Islamic de mocracy? A regional player with superpower ambitions? Or would it just remain a shabby dictatorship stuck between East and West?
On the way to Naziabad, a working-class district in south Tehran where I would finish the day’s reporting, I mulled over Tavana’s pronouncements. I wondered whether his preoccupation with social freedoms would be echoed in this neighborhood, where young people tended to be poorer and lacked such westernized habits as the afternoon iced espresso drink.
The huddled brown apartment blocks were interspersed with fruit sellers, butcher shops displaying forlorn heaps of raw chickens in their front windows, and kiosks adorned with portraits of the Shia Imam Ali appearing as tanned and handsome as a Brazilian soap opera star. In north Tehran, such kiosks would sell imported European
chocolates and Zippo lighters, but here they peddled the Iranian version of Kit-Kat (Tic-Tac),
(prayer beads), and special pillows that murmur the Koran. The murals extolling revolution and martyrdom that adorned the sides of Naziabad’s buildings had clearly not been touched up in years, the faded ayatollahs still frowned sternly and the artwork still bore the raw touch of Maoist propaganda. Though the city had yet to deliver its twenty-first-century billboards to Naziabad—central and north Tehran were treated to sleek black-and-white portraits of beaming revolutionaries; gorgeous, graffiti-inspired renderings of Persian calligraphy—the neighborhood’s power is still considerable. Its Basij militia commands units across the city. Many of the city’s influential politicians have risen to prominence from Naziabad’s side streets, and mayors of Tehran, along with senior clerics, often pay visits to its main mosque.
Nasrine and I had agreed to meet at a busy intersection; waiting for her to arrive, I peered into the window of a bridal shop filled with mannequins wearing décolleté gowns adorned with feathers and sequins. Their finery in no way contradicted the black-clad figures of the neighborhood women striding past, plastic bags heaving with summer fruit. The brides from this culturally conservative neighborhood would most likely celebrate in the company of only female relatives, so they could dress as seductively as they pleased. Nasrine handed me a plain veil of navy cotton, which I pulled on in place of my thin scarf, and we set out toward the neighborhood mosque, in search of its mullah. It was three in the afternoon, an hour when many Iranians go home for a siesta. Most shops and doctor’s offices close in the mid-afternoon, in the old European style. A gardener spraying enameled tiles till they sparkled in the sun directed us toward the mullah’s house.
We rang the mullah’s bell, and only when the iron door clicked open did I notice I had forgotten to bring a pair of closed-toed shoes. If the Iranian press corps had had a prize for Most Unsuitably Dressed Reporter, I would have won easily, year in, year out. Most female journalists kept alternative manteaus, headscarves, and shoes in their offices, for reporting trips to more conservative places like mosques
and universities. Without an office to speak of, I often ended up as I did that day, suitably modest from head to ankles, with one forgotten detail, in this case a crimson pedicure, ruining the effect.
Hajj Agha (Iranians referred to most clerics over thirty this way; it literally designates a man [“agha,” or mister] who has performed the hajj) invited us into his spare living room, empty but for a machine-woven carpet and a few cushions for furniture. He cast a bemused glance at my toes, but said nothing. Nasrine, in her most honeyed voice, addressed him with a string of gracious Farsi formulas: “How is your health? May your hands not hurt for agreeing to see us. I hope we are not disturbing the family, who I hope are well …” Then she began explaining our reporting needs. She was skilled at eliciting information from men, an indisputable aid to her reporting, and one of the reasons why I had asked her to join me.
Hajj Agha adjusted his blue-gray robes and invited to us sit down. Even he expected little to change with this election, he explained. When he heard that I worked for an American magazine, he stiffened slightly, but said we were welcome to talk to the Basij of his mosque. Like most of the militia, he said, they tended to be underemployed, occasionally borrowing a motor bike to work as messengers outside the Tehran bazaar.
The origin of the Basij as a frontline militia during the Iran-Iraq War is one of the saddest stories of the Islamic regime. Comprising volunteer soldiers too young to serve in the regular army, the Basij were used as human mine sweepers. The government dispatched them onto the border plains to certain death, supplied with plastic keys meant to open the doors to heaven. When the war ended, the Basij was transformed into a paramilitary force with the hazy, worrisome mandate of “promoting virtue” among young people, nominally accountable to the country’s chief authority, the Supreme Leader, but run unsystematically out of local mosques. Depending on the bias of the news source, the Basij today are variously described as an Islamic version of the Boy Scouts, a voluntary militia, or a thuggish street gang. Really they are all these things at once. Basijis carry official cards; some carry weapons (from the classic AK-47 to the more medieval mace, depending on the task at hand); and they operate both
independently and in coordination with what human rights groups call the state’s “quasi-official organs of repression.” The murky origins of the Basij’s authority lie in the government’s mix of Islamic and secular law, an unworkable amalgam that produces only lawlessness.
I suppose most Iranians would favor the description that reflects their particular history with the Basij, either as the recipients of its happy largesse or as victims of its unofficial but vicious authority. In the short time I had spent in Iran, my experiences with the Basij included being thrown out of a mosque because a lock of hair peeked out beneath my scarf; being arrested at a checkpoint because I was in the company of a male colleague; being pulled over on the freeway for sleeping in the backseat of the car (I had just traveled overland from Baghdad to Tehran and had nodded off in exhaustion; “Is
now also illegal?” I asked in exasperation); and being chased with a club for attending a soccer rally. If I had endured all those run-ins in the course of just five years, I could only imagine what those who had spent their whole lives in Iran must have suffered.
Western reporters tended to view the Basij only through the lens of social class, writing that they were well received in low-income neighborhoods and shunned in the affluent suburbs of north Tehran. While this captured the element of class frustration in the Basij running checkpoints in north Tehran, it missed the dislike of middle-class and working-class Iranians for the Basij’s strong-arm tactics. They often acted like mafia enforcers in ordinary neighborhoods, demanding bribes from store owners for letting them sell contraband music and films and raiding private parties to confiscate alcohol that they would later resell for profit. They abused their privileges within the university system, intimidating other student organizations and crushing student protests.
But regardless of the Basij’s reputation for enforcing a Taliban-esque morality, they also happened to be far more representative of Iranian society than most people realized. In 2001, a majority of their ranks had voted for Khatami.
As dusk settled and the call to prayer echoed from the mosque loudspeakers, the men of the neighborhood gathered inside to kneel in the direction of Mecca. After prayer they filtered out, disappearing
into the narrow back alleys or the produce shops, and the nineteen-year-old head of a Basij unit joined us on the lawn outside the mosque. His name was Hossein, and the gel that slicked back his hair glinted under the orange of the street lamps.
We began by discussing television.
“I only watch Fox News,” he said.
“Fox News?” I repeated.
“Yes, it is important to know what the military Americans are thinking.”
When I asked if he was pleased with Khatami, he responded quickly.
“He is a good man. But he has allowed the atmosphere to get too open. Worst of all, he has melted before the West. At night we sit with my father, and we discuss. Why should Iran have to curtail its nuclear program? We who control the Strait of Hormoz.”
Hossein was eager to show us that despite his nationalist views, he was a thoroughly modern young man. In our thirty-minute conversation, he managed to mention that he met friends on orkut.com (Google’s social networking site), owned a complete collection of Eminem, considered
A Beautiful Mind
the finest movie ever made, and enjoyed weekend trips to the Caspian subsidized by the Basij. He said he would vote in the election, for a conservative candidate with close ties to the Supreme Leader.
“What about your friends?” I asked, nodding toward the young men in untucked shirts and shabby shoes who were congregating near the front of the mosque.
“Them? It hasn’t really come up.”
After our talk, Nasrine and I bought potato chips for our journey back to north Tehran, a trip that took two hours in traffic. On the way we debated how the Basij might vote in this election, whether they might take another chance on a reformist candidate, or favor the conservatives whose more austere campaigns resonated with their traditional sensibilities. We both felt that Hossein did not entirely represent the Basij’s wider cadres. His status in life—as a college student, reasonably well trained in English, who owned a mobile phone—suggested he was the son of a well-off conservative bureaucrat, pushed
forward to speak to us by his less educated Basij peers, because he could articulate his views. In fact, Hossein was something like a voluntary fundamentalist. He did not
the Basij; his ties of loyalty to the force were hereditary, traditional, and optional. He could afford university and weekend trips to Mashad and the Caspian Sea without the militia’s help. But his low-income friends, the ones who had spoken reluctantly when Nasrine and I approached, self-conscious about their unrefined answers to our questions, relied entirely on the Basij for the very minor perks that brightened their otherwise bleak, impoverished lives.
Were the Basij a problem or a benign sociological reality? Their existence reflected the fact that a portion of the populace still believed in Khomeini’s legacy, but to my mind, this was not necessarily pathological. Compared with those youths in other Muslim countries who considered Osama bin Laden a hero and were signing up to be suicide bombers, the conservative Basij were tame, even manageable. They became a threat only when they ceased to be a civic organization for traditional youth, and became a tool in the hands of militant ayatollahs hostile to democratic change. I had spoken to many Basij members during my years in Iran, during demonstrations and at universities, and it was obvious they were not an independent movement, but a private force operated by remote control. Men who wanted to maintain active membership—and enjoy those trips to the Caspian, those bus rides to Imam Reza’s shrine in Mashad—had to show up for duty; that sometimes meant breaking up lectures by progressive clerics and beating students during sit-ins. The Basij, in short, did not mobilize themselves, but were mobilized by others.
This distinction mattered deeply to Iran’s future. It meant the difference between a core of fundamentalists who would die to prevent change, and a core who might not embrace democracy, but who could be convinced of its merits. In the 1997 and 2001 elections, the Basij were permitted to vote freely, and they cast their ballots for a moderate who advocated an open society and rule of law. Somehow, though, I could not imagine them voting for a reformist this time around. The Iran of 2005 was not the Iran of 2001; the notion of reform now rang empty, and the reformist candidates had not risen to
the challenge of convincing people otherwise. Would they vote for Ghalibaf, the conservative police chief? He was a natural candidate, but so far the style of his campaign did not resonate with the youth of Naziabad; everything from his choice of poster attire (chic shirts and glasses) to his sponsors (one was a maker of nonalcoholic beer) seemed to cater to a more secular, middle-class constituency. That left only Ali Larijani, the respectable but somber director of state radio and television, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a relative unknown whose only record of public service was an undistinguished term as the mayor of Tehran. Perhaps, as the reformists hoped, the conservative vote would be divided among these various candidates, and in the end someone reasonable—pragmatic and open to the West—would win.