An ‘emerging secular, democratic consensus’ stares Iranian theocracy in the face

Special An ‘emerging secular, democratic consensus’ stares Iranian theocracy in the face
only 26 percent of Iranians with a university degree pray five times a day. (AFP)
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Updated 23 November 2022

An ‘emerging secular, democratic consensus’ stares Iranian theocracy in the face

An ‘emerging secular, democratic consensus’ stares Iranian theocracy in the face
  • Report by Tony Blair Institute for Global Change says ongoing protests reflect yearning for secularization of society
  • Expert says young people witnessing great changes taking place in the region want similar developments at home

LONDON: On Sept. 13, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, was arrested in Tehran for violating the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women. In the custody of the Gasht-e Ershad — the “Guidance Patrol,” or morality police — she suffered a catastrophic head injury and, after three days in a coma, died in hospital.

Her death was the trigger for hundreds of protests across the country, which have seen men and women take to the streets in vast numbers, with women openly shunning the obligatory wearing of the hijab and cutting their hair in public in a gesture of defiance.

Now a new report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change — TBI — backed by two consecutive polls of thousands of Iranians, has concluded that the widespread rejection of the hijab is nothing less than a symbol of a nationwide yearning for regime change.




Such is the “unprecedented secularization” sweeping Iran that the TBI concludes that “Iran’s society is no longer religious.” (AFP)

The current protests are “no flash-in-the-pan moment,” says Kasra Aarabi, co-author of the report and the Iran Program lead at TBI’s Extremism Policy Unit.

“The protests we are seeing now are unprecedented in their longevity, and in their size. But they are a continuation of the trend for unrest that emerged in 2017, since when we’ve seen Iranians consistently taking to the streets.”

Aarabi, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a native Farsi speaker, believes that the current unrest, some of the worst seen in Iran since the revolution in 1978 replaced the modernizing regime of the Shah, is a pivotal moment for Iran.

“This is the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic,” he said.

“It’s been clear for years that the Iranian people don’t want reform, they want regime change, the downfall of the Islamic Republic in its entirety and the creation of a secular democracy.”

Young people in Iran, he says, are witnessing the great changes taking place elsewhere in the region, from the bridge-building of the Abraham Accords to the great modernizing reforms in Saudi Arabia, “and they’re thinking, ‘Why can’t we have that?’”

The TBI report draws on two polls carried out among tens of thousands of Iranians, which demonstrate the extent to which Iran has become a secular society, despite more than 40 years of life under a hard-line Shiite theocracy.

Key findings include that men and women in Iran are almost equally opposed to the mandatory wearing of the hijab, rejected by 70 percent of men and 74 percent of women.

This opposition also spans what might otherwise be expected to be the divide between town and country, where people are traditionally considered to be more conservative in outlook.

Only 21 percent of urban Iranians believe in the practice, support that rises only to 28 percent among rural communities.

Predictably, rejection of the compulsory wearing of the hijab is strongest among younger people — 78 percent of respondents aged between 20 and 29 oppose it.

Yet the practice is also opposed by 68 percent of Iranians aged between 30 and 49, and 74 percent aged over 50 — the so-called revolution generation.

Only a small minority of Iranians support the practice — just 13 percent of women and 17 percent of men.

The hijab protests, says the TBI, are clearly about regime change: 84 percent of those who oppose the dress code also want to see an end to the Islamic Republic.

Furthermore, “the anti-regime protest movement in Iran is fundamentally secular,” said the report, adding that “76 percent of Iranians who want regime change, also consider religion unimportant in their lives.”




New report showes the widespread rejection of the hijab is nothing less than a symbol of a nationwide yearning for regime change. (AFP)

In fact, such is the “unprecedented secularization” sweeping Iran that the TBI concludes that “Iran’s society is no longer religious.”

Only a declining minority in the theocratic republic follows the Islamic obligation to pray five times a day, ranging from 33 percent of rural Iranians to only 26 percent of urbanites.

Analyzed in terms of education, only 26 percent of Iranians with a university degree pray five times a day, while the percentage for people with a high-school diploma or lower is little different, at 28 percent.

Although the report, “Protests and polling insights from the streets of Iran: How removal of the hijab became a symbol of regime change,” was published on Tuesday, it contains previously unpublished data from two surveys carried out in Iran in 2020 and 2022.

This, says the TBI, demonstrates that the issue of the hijab and the yearning for the secularization of Iranian society has been simmering for years.

“Today’s protests are the consequence of the huge gap between the regime and the people of Iran,” said Aarabi.

“Despite living under a hard-line Islamist theocracy, the Iranian people are the most secular in the Middle East. There has been a gradual process of secularization and liberalization that began in the early 1990s, which has reached unprecedented levels in the past five years.”

The new report draws on polls conducted in June 2020 and February 2022 by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran — GAMAAN — an independent, non-profit research foundation registered in the Netherlands.

Instead of conventional face-to-face or telephone-based polling methods, GAMAAN says it uses “digital tools and alternative methods to capture the real opinions of Iranians ... allowing Iranians to answer questions about sensitive subjects truthfully, without fearing for their safety.”

A survey conducted by GAMAAN in June 2020 polled 39,981 respondents on questions relating to religion. In February 2022, 16,850 Iranians responded to questions about political systems.

Analyzed by demographic breakdown, says the TBI, “the results reveal a steadily emerging consensus on the streets, which is anti-compulsory hijab and anti-regime at its core.”

Thousands of arrests have followed as the regime has clamped down on the protesters. Some have been charged with crimes punishable by death, such as “enmity against God” and “corruption on Earth.”

This month has seen at least five executions of protesters carried out and confirmed by the state, and unknown numbers of people, including children, have been killed in the protests.

The HRA News Agency, founded in 2005 to monitor human-rights abuses in Iran, says more than 400 protesters have been killed, and at least 17,250 people have been arrested.




“This is the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic,” says Kasra Aarabi, co-author of the report. (AFP)

Last week UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, reported that “since late September an estimated 50 children have reportedly lost their lives in the public unrest in Iran.”

The latest was a 10-year-old boy, Kian Pirfalak, one of several people shot dead in and around protests last Wednesday (Nov. 16). He was hit by gunfire and died as he and his father were driving home in the western Iranian city of Izeh.

The protests, widely covered in the West, gained an even higher profile this week when the Iranian football team pointedly refused to sing the national anthem before their opening World Cup match against England in Qatar.

Before the game, skipper Ehsan Hajjsafi said the team supported those who had died in the protests, adding “we have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy.”

The West, says the TBI’s Aarabi, had failed to recognize the transformation that has been taking place in Iranian society “because it was focused solely on viewing Iran, and the dissent in the country, through the lens of the 2015 nuclear agreement, and then Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement.

“But this dissent is not being driven by the nuclear deal, nor by the reimposition of sanctions. It’s being driven by life under a totalitarian, misogynistic, ideological regime, which has consistently prioritized the interests of its hard-line Islamist ideology over those of the Iranian people.”

Commenting on the report, Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister who founded his institute in 2016, said that “the people of Iran have shown extraordinary bravery and courage over the past two months. They should know they have the support of millions of people around the globe who admire the stand they have taken for freedom.

“I have always said, and I stand by this more so today, that the single most liberating event for the Middle East will come when the Iranian people finally have their freedom.

“For the ordinary people of Iran, the values that many may describe as ‘Western’ are in fact their own. Neither they nor their country should be defined by the Islamic Republic. As a great people, whose history and civilization are rich and varied, it is they and they alone who should define their own future.

“This is why I firmly believe it is in our interests today, in the West, to show our deep solidarity with the protesters risking their lives for what we so often take for granted.”

It was, he added, “time we in the West recalibrate our policy in a way that draws a clear distinction between the people of Iran and the Islamic Republic. Our efforts should serve the former.”


Family home of ‘heroine’ Iranian climber demolished amid hijab row

Family home of ‘heroine’ Iranian climber demolished amid hijab row
Updated 04 December 2022

Family home of ‘heroine’ Iranian climber demolished amid hijab row

Family home of ‘heroine’ Iranian climber demolished amid hijab row
  • Elnaz Rekabi’s house lacked permit, says state news agency
  • Athlete was ‘forced to apologize’ after contest abroad

LONDON: The home of the Iranian climber who competed abroad without wearing a headscarf has been demolished, according to reports.

Elnaz Rekabi flouted Iran’s mandatory dress code during a competition in South Korea, but claimed it had fallen off inadvertently.

She had been forced to apologize, according to the BBC.

Protesters across Iran have hailed Rekabi, who had been whisked back from South Korea and was met by dozens of cheering supporters at the airport.

Widespread protests have rocked Iran for months following the death of 22-year-old Kurd Mahsa Amini, who died on Sept. 16 after her arrest in Tehran for an alleged breach of the dress code.

A video purportedly showing the ruins of the Rekabi family house with sports medals on the ground started circulating this week and Davood, Rekabi’s brother, is seen crying in the clip.

Tasnim news agency confirmed that the house had been demolished, but said it was due to Rekabi’s family not having a valid permit for its construction, and that it had taken place before she had competed abroad.

It is not clear when the viral footage was shot.

In October, the US criticized the Iran regime’s treatment of Rekabi and warned that the “world was watching.”

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters: “The Iranian regime and its leaders have a long history of abusing the rights of women and violating their freedom of expression, including through threats, through intimidation and violence.”


Yemen foreign minister meets Italian counterpart

Yemen foreign minister meets Italian counterpart
Updated 04 December 2022

Yemen foreign minister meets Italian counterpart

Yemen foreign minister meets Italian counterpart

Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed bin Mubarak, met on Sunday with the Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Antonio Tijani, and discussed the political, security and humanitarian situation in Yemen.

Tijani affirmed Italy's support for efforts being made to resume negotiations to reach a peaceful resolution and end the conflict, stressing the importance of renewing and extending the armistice.

Mubarak thanked the Italian government for its firm and continuous political support of the Yemen’s internationally recognised government in its endeavor to establish peace, restore state institutions and end the Houthi coup, state news agency SABA reported.

Mubarak touched on the repeated Houthi attacks civilians, civilian infrastructure, and oil installations.

Mubarak also discussed his government’s decision to classify the Houthi militia as a terrorist organization, and called for support from the international community to implement that decision.

Mubarak spoke about the Houthi militia ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and their smuggling of Iranian weapons and drones.


Former British Daesh bride ‘will die without medical aid’ in Syrian camp, neurologist warns

Former British Daesh bride ‘will die without medical aid’ in Syrian camp, neurologist warns
Updated 04 December 2022

Former British Daesh bride ‘will die without medical aid’ in Syrian camp, neurologist warns

Former British Daesh bride ‘will die without medical aid’ in Syrian camp, neurologist warns
  • UK government inaction in Layla case amounts to ‘barbarism,’ says Dr. David Nicholl

LONDON: A former British Daesh bride detained in a prison camp in northeast Syria will die without medical intervention, with the UK government’s inaction amounting to “barbarism,” a neurologist told The Times.

The woman in her 40s, who is known by the pseudonym Layla, first traveled to Syria to join Daesh during the country’s conflict.

Following the collapse of the terror group and detainment of thousands of former fighters and their families, Layla — who is epileptic and partially paralyzed as a result of a shrapnel wound — has repeatedly appealed for medical aid through National Health Service consultant neurologist Dr. David Nicholl.

But despite his repeated warnings to the government that Layla will die without urgent medical aid, the government has yet to respond.

He first examined her via an online meeting late last year. Following another Zoom video call in November, Nicholl found that Layla’s condition had significantly worsened, with shrapnel in her neck having moved dangerously close to the aorta.

He said: “She’s ill and at risk of dying and needs to be got out of there and brought back immediately. It’s utterly inhumane.”

Layla, who has a university degree and held a high-level public sector job in the UK before traveling to Syria with her husband, suffered a stroke in 2019. “She has had life-changing neurological injuries as a consequence of her stroke,” Nicholl added.

“She does not speak Arabic so it is hard for her to understand the medical advice she is being given.

“It troubles me that my previous assessment has still not been acted on, the case for her urgent transfer still remains.

“Everything about this is a mess. Her son is also vulnerable and watching all this and is in a place where no child should be.”

Layla spoke to the Sunday Times in June, claiming: “I was never a threat.” She added: “Whatever people think I have done I am prepared to face trial. I made a mistake, why should my son pay?

“Life in the camp is really, really hard. It’s hard to walk on the stones with my crutches. I am embarrassed to have to ask for help for everything, and the tent is so hot and when it’s windy the whole tent moves.”

Human rights group Reprieve has also appealed to the UK government to act urgently and rescue Layla.

The organization sent a letter to Foreign Secretary James Cleverly that said: “Her condition has become critical and a local doctor told her that without urgent surgery, she will die. She requires immediate medical assistance that cannot be provided in northeast Syria.”

In response to the appeals, Cleverly told The Times: “I am not comfortable going into specific cases. They are difficult, they are sensitive, we do always look at the cases.”


Iran scraps morality police after months of deadly protests

Iran scraps morality police after months of deadly protests
Updated 04 December 2022

Iran scraps morality police after months of deadly protests

Iran scraps morality police after months of deadly protests
  • The morality police — known formally as the Gasht-e Ershad or “Guidance Patrol” — were established under hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

TEHRAN: Iran has scrapped its morality police after more than two months of protests triggered by the arrest of Mahsa Amini for allegedly violating the country’s strict female dress code, local media said Sunday.
Women-led protests, labelled “riots” by the authorities, have swept Iran since the 22-year-old Iranian of Kurdish origin died on September 16, three days after her arrest by the morality police in Tehran.
“Morality police have nothing to do with the judiciary” and have been abolished, Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.
His comment came at a religious conference where he responded to a participant who asked “why the morality police were being shut down,” the report said.
The morality police — known formally as the Gasht-e Ershad or “Guidance Patrol” — were established under hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to “spread the culture of modesty and hijab,” the mandatory female head covering.
The units began patrols in 2006.
The announcement of their abolition came a day after Montazeri said that “both parliament and the judiciary are working (on the issue)” of whether the law requiring women to cover their heads needs to be changed.
President Ebrahim Raisi said in televised comments Saturday that Iran’s republican and Islamic foundations were constitutionally entrenched “but there are methods of implementing the constitution that can be flexible.”
The hijab became mandatory four years after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the US-backed monarchy and established the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Morality police officers initially issued warnings before starting to crack down and arrest women 15 years ago.
The vice squads were usually made up of men in green uniforms and women clad in black chadors, garments that cover their heads and upper bodies.
The role of the units evolved, but has always been controversial even among candidates running for the presidency.
Clothing norms gradually changed, especially under former moderate president Hassan Rouhani, when it became commonplace to see women in tight jeans with loose, colorful headscarves.
But in July this year his successor, the ultra-conservative Raisi, called for the mobilization of “all state institutions to enforce the headscarf law.”
Raisi at the time charged that “the enemies of Iran and Islam have targeted the cultural and religious values of society by spreading corruption.”
In spite of this, many women continued to bend the rules, letting their headscarves slip onto their shoulders or wearing tight-fitting pants, especially in major cities and towns.
Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia also employed morality police to enforce female dress codes and other rules of behavior. Since 2016 the force there has been sidelined in a push by the Sunni Muslim kingdom to shake off its austere image.


State news: Iran executes 4 people it says spied for Israel

State news: Iran executes 4 people it says spied for Israel
Updated 04 December 2022

State news: Iran executes 4 people it says spied for Israel

State news: Iran executes 4 people it says spied for Israel
  • Executed prisoners identified as Hossein Ordoukhanzadeh, Shahin Imani Mahmoudabadi, Milad Ashrafi and Manouchehr Shahbandi

TEHRAN: Iranian authorities executed four people Sunday accused of working for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, the state-run IRNA news agency said.
IRNA said the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guard announced the arrests of a network of people linked to the Israeli agency. It said members stole and destroyed private and public property and kidnapped individuals and interrogated them.
The report said the alleged spies had weapons and received wages from Mossad in the form of cryptocurrency.
Israel and Iran are regional arch-enemies.
IRNA identified the executed prisoners as Hossein Ordoukhanzadeh, Shahin Imani Mahmoudabadi, Milad Ashrafi and Manouchehr Shahbandi.