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Letters from Modern Persia

When walking through cities like Tehran, Shiraz or Bandar Abbas there is hardly anything that makes you feel like you’re in the world’s top theocratic state. Nothing except for the omnipresent chador and pictures of the country’s clerical leaders. Yet, taking a look behind this gloomy state-imposed cover reveals a glance of a country where the use of VPN connections to bypass Internet restrictions, is more common than the name Mohammed and a country where alcohol bans are routinely circumvented. One by one clues that hint at a different, unconventional image of Iran’s dynamics emerge.

Over the past few years, there has been a range of setbacks that have enhanced the agony among Iranians from different layers of society. Most recently, heightened tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have pushed Iran into a vacuum, and in turn, elevated the inflation rate that has hit the pocketbooks of many Iranians. Over the years, the latter seems to have fostered a cultural countermovement that is carried by a progressive middle class and white collar laborers that all share an unconditional love for the country’s Persian/Zoroastrian heritage and an aversion for those who oppose it, the mullahs. An unorganized societal development that is not to be confused with the Green Movement that sprang up in 2009.

The regime’s shrinking popularity became apparent during the festivities in the context of the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The contrast between the forged images that were broadcasted at night by the state media could not have been greater than the reality found on the same streets hours earlier in the center of Shiraz.

Instead of encountering crammed streets with masses of flag-waving nationalists, I found nothing but a dwindled crowd, comprised of children that were forcefully singing nationalist songs on a perfectly placed platform; joined by dozens of fans and strayed city dwellers that cheerfully greeted my Caucasian face while accepting one of the state dispersed leaflets that were sacredly crowned with the words “Down with America.”

The street scene was ultimately topped with the dramatizing effect of noisy helicopters and soldiers trying to impress a handful of spectators by scrambling down from the city’s Court of Justice.

Conversely, however, hotels in remote places like the islands of Qeshm and Kish in the Persian Gulf; mountain villages around Shiraz, Yazd or Tehran; and desert towns around Khoor or Garmeh in the center of the country were known to be fully booked these days by those who preferred to avoid the hustle and bustle that surrounded this propaganda machine.

Many Iranians yearn for the liberal times before the 1979 revolution. Packed with an unconditional love of Persian history and Zoroastrian traditions, many Iranians radiate nostalgia. This especially pertains to the 3,500-year-old Zoroastrian beliefs that are still seen everywhere through its sayings and symbols such as the Farvahar. But also its doctrinal triptych of the principles “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds” is heard several times a day. The weight of these ancient cultural traditions is also reflected in Iranians’ widespread admiration for many of the nations’ legendary, medieval poets such as Ferdowsi and Hafez who accentuated Zoroastrian influences in their writing. The great presence of Zoroastrianism in Iranians daily lives is quite remarkable given the fact that the number of Zoroastrians living in Iran’s Islamic theocratic state is estimated to be a mere couple of thousand.

On Facebook alone, the main Zartosht or Zoroastrian fan page count over a quarter-million fans. Taking into account that the page is in Persian, which Iranians are prohibited from visiting, this makes the number even more bewildering. In practice too, the religion to which Freddy Mercury adhered, still plays a pivotal cultural role. When I asked Reza Mohammed, a student studying IT and English, about the role of Zoroastrianism in Iran’s Shiite society, he told me: “It laid the basis for our great civilization and even though our government prefers to portray it as idolatry, Iranians still like to identify themselves with it.” Reza’s friend, Mohsen Zuheyr, added, “it offers a way out from the regime’s constant interference and [as such] gives us peace of mind.”

And so it seems as if Iran’s great Persian history is propelling a wider progressive and cultural countermovement against Tehran’s hardline Islamic rule. A movement of both men and women who want to live beyond the regime’s margins.

Religious Doctrines and Political Realities

In a conversation with Behruz, a 29-year-old former journalist who spends his days receiving guests at his remote homestead, he emphasized that the crackdowns on political dissent has gone beyond the realm of reasonable state action. When I asked about his studies, Behruz answered, “The only fruitful University in Iran is Evin University (Evin Prison located in Northwestern Tehran). Unfortunately, though, Evin [has] atypical admission standards.”

Evin University as it is popularly known functions today as a political prison for intellectuals and other dissidents. Behruz recounted that Evin Prison became the de facto home for political prisoners “under the late (Shah’s) rule, but got exploited after the 1979 revolution” he concluded.

The discussion on Evin was only the start of a chat that would soon be dominated by discussion of Ruhollah Khomeini, the country’s former Supreme Leader. Behruz’s wife, Fatima, interrupted us when she heard Khomeini’s name. “Our state is nothing like our [true] religion, nor are Khomeini or [his successor] Khamenei.” Behruz picked up her words and explained the following. Claiming to possess esoteric knowledge, Khomeini together with Ali Shariati, a scholar from Paris’s Sorbonne University, propagated the doctrine of the Veleyat e-Faqih. This doctrine foresees the establishment of a clerical-led government, that claims to effectuate equality and justice. An idea that, in fact, contradicts the apolitical nature of Twelver Shiism.

The origin of this apolitical stance traces back to Muhammed Mehdi, the last of infallible spiritual leaders or imams who Shiites believe succeeded the Prophet Mohammed (contrary to followers of the predominant Sunni Islam). Muhammed Mehdi is believed to be in occultation. Rather than erecting a clerical polity, Twelver Shiites are promised that nothing but the Mehdi’s reemergence along with Jesus will take away the injustice and inequality that they consider inherent to life on earth. Until that day, Twelver Shiites generally believe they have to accept the earthly inequalities. For this reason, Twelver Shiism is often described as a fundamentally politically quietist religion. However, benefiting from the harsh socio-political shambles of the Shah’s corrupt regime, Khomeini’s doctrine attracted many of the Iranians who for years had carried the burden of the country’s elite.

Though Khomeini’s doctrine has lost much of its initial support, his political activist approach to religion still resonates through the voice boxes of Iran’s current leaders. On March 6th, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid tribute to Hugo Chavez by stating that Chavez had fallen “martyr” and that he will “come again along with Jesus Christ and Imam Mehdi to redeem mankind.”

Yet no Persian Spring

Through my journey throughout Iran, a multitude of astounding features and surprising sights contradicted the conservative, hardline Islamic society we often hear mentioned in Western media. Ultimately, as Iranians view their limited hopes for the future caused by the rising tensions due to the regime’s nuclear ambitions, a visibly faltering Iranian Rial and upcoming unfree elections in June, one might forecast the occurrence of a Persian uprising. Yet, when asking Iranians about revolutionary changes, the idea gets rejected on the basis that gradual reformist changes (like those formerly initiated by Khatami) are needed rather than fast, uncoordinated endeavors. The painful memory to the bloody Green Movement uprisings in which more than three million people took part almost four years ago, together with the failed precedents in the Arab world seemed to have deforested the Iranians of their revolutionary plans for the near future.

Yet, with reformist-minded candidates like Rafsanjani barred from running in the election, hopes for incremental change might languish, and so it is still half-heartedly waiting for the eventual outcome of this critical political moment.