'Azadi' Is More Than Just a Word For Iran's Students [Excerpt]
July 08, 2004
The Wall Street Journal
When Iranian students took to the streets a year ago, it seemed a far cry from the uprising in July 1999 that quickly spread across the country and lead the world to believe the days of the Islamic Republic might be numbered. All they wanted, this time, was to protest against the regime's intent to privatize university studies and charge tuition. But at night, paramilitary forces of the Basij and the Ansar-e-Hezbollah stormed into the dormitories just as in 1999, attacking students in their beds with baseball bats and razor blades, throwing books and computers out of the window and wrestling drivers out of their cars who had honked in support of the demonstrators. In the following days, protests resumed on a larger scale, demanding regime change, democracy and the resignation of the Iranian president Muhammad Khatami.
Now that scenario looked familiar indeed. Angry young men, waving the blood-stained shirt of a fellow student, could not but remind TV audiences around the globe of the Islamic Revolution itself, which had also started on campus. "The revolution seemed to have gone back to its origin," wrote Islam scholar Navid Kermani, "the language of protest: emotionality, public grief for the victims in rituals deriving from the folklore of Shiite martyrdom, all that was exactly the same as in the days when the Shah was toppled."
With one crucial difference, however. Back then, students enthusiastically believed in leftist, Islamist or leftist-Islamist programs. Fierce ideological battles were waged. Later, many of them had even volunteered for the war against Iraq, only to return to a country that was becoming less and less interested in their holy war or their holy texts. "More than my secular students," reported Azar Nafisi, author of the bestselling memoir "Reading Lolita in Tehran," "it was this group that craved the banned Western videos and satellite dishes; they craved also to read works of Western literature, along with the heretical modern and classical Persian poets and writers."
Today's children of the revolution are even more modest in their demands. These days, unrest is about wearing lipstick, about not being flogged for a strand of hair or trendy sunglasses. A teenage friend of Mrs. Nafisi's daughter once was arrested by the virtue police when she and a couple of friends had lemonade on a porch in a private home, and had to undergo three "virginity exams" in different hospitals all night until being finally released in the morning. Reclaiming privacy from the political sphere -- an impulse that would have been condemned as bourgeois decadence in 1979 -- is a central issue for Iranians, 70% of whom are under 30.
Judging from the books that are in vogue on campuses today, the craving for privacy has affected religious beliefs as well. It is high time for an Islamist Reformation. There is even a Martin Luther at hand: Hashem Aghajari, who was a lecturer at the University of Hamedan and an active member of the Reformist Islamic Revolution's Mujahedeen Organization, was arrested in August 2002 and sentenced to death because he had argued that it was counter to the nature of Islam to have a mediating echelon of clerics that had placed itself between God and the believers.
Mr. Aghajari argued that these clerics blocked the people's access to the Quran and to understanding it, and preventing them from developing independent thought. "In Islam, we never had a class of clergy," he said. "The relationship between the clergy and the people should be like the relationship between teacher and pupil; not between leader and follower; the people are not monkeys who merely imitate. A cleric is not a divine being." When Mr. Aghajari went on to criticize their use of luxury cars, the inequality of women, or nonbelievers, his fate was sealed. Recently the death penalty against him has been lifted, but he is sure to spend the next decades in jail. After the students' desperate calls to the inept reformist president: "Khatami, Khatami, where are you?" have died down, it is Mr. Aghajari on whose behalf they are willing to march again.
It has often been argued that Iran is to the West what Poland was during the Cold War. It is one of the most pluralist, most organized, and most pro-American societies in the region. Unfortunately, Europe seems to repeat the mistakes that have been made with regard to the Eastern Bloc during the 1970s. Not one prominent European politician has spoken up for people like Mr. Aghajari and U.S. President George W. Bush was the only head of a Western government to defend the student uprising last year.
All France, Britain and Germany are doing is to hint at the possibility of economic sanctions to pressure Iran on the nuclear front. The mullahs aren't impressed: Two weeks ago they declared their determination to develop a nuclear defense.
Iran's liberation will have to come from within, yes. Still, the West can do more than just looking on in bewilderment. The Nobel Peace Prize for Iranian human-rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi is a case in point. Ms. Ebadi is a Muslim who explicitly says she believes Islam and democracy can and must go together; who was jailed after she had defended students of the 1999 riot in court, and who celebrated the prize as one given to all Iranians who believe in change. As soon as we understand that they are "neither with us, nor with the terrorists," we have found an invaluable ally in the war on terror: the freedom loving, Muslim people of Iran.
For these young, angry, restless, sexually frustrated and jobless people, there is one magic word: "azadi." It means "freedom," and it is still very much associated with the United States. It went nearly unnoticed in the West that on September 11, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to express their solidarity with the American victims, chanting "Death to the Taliban, whether in Kabul or Tehran," while being attacked by Hezbollahi thugs.
Thanks for the great pictures and an awesome job on air!