Iran and its culture war

The current duel between Khomeinist mullahs and a new generation of Iranians is reminiscent of 19th-century Germany’s Kulturkampf.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers an address on Oct. 19, 2022. Source: Channel 1 (Iran) via MEMRI.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers an address on Oct. 19, 2022. Source: Channel 1 (Iran) via MEMRI.
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri

It was supposed to be a routine remake of scores of broadcasts offered by official Iranian TV every year. The formula is simple: A concert hall filled with a handpicked, carefully screened audience chanting “God is Great, Hail to Supreme Leader!” Then the “Supreme Leader” enters, accompanied by his military and clerical entourage, to sit on a high chair on an elevated platform, facing the audience below from a distance of 10 meters.

As the cameras roll, the Supreme Leader repeats his shopworn monologue about humbling the American “Great Satan” and wiping the “Zionist entity” from the face of the earth. He invites the young audience to prepare for martyrdom as a shortcut to heaven. At the end of the ceremony, everyone shouts “Hail to the Chief” while the “Supreme Leader” exits the stage with a triumphant smile.

However, this month’s episode of the 34-year-old soap opera didn’t go according to the script. To start with, the audience, consisting of young recruits for the Basij (mobilization) militia, a key Iranian security element, seemed hesitant to stand as the chief arrived and, even worse, stingy about shouting his adulation.

But worse was to come.

When the Supreme Leader developed an argument against consulting the people via a referendum, some in the young audience started to cackle and boo. Visibly taken by surprise, the chief mumbled, “We shouldn’t bang our heads against each other.” Then, as the booing continued, albeit in a muffled form, he announced that the session was over and hastily headed for the exit.

The amazing scene, broadcast live, was later removed from official websites, but not without marking a new phase in a clash between a new generation of Iranians and the gerontocracy headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Over 50 million of Iran’s population of 87 million had not been born when the mullahs seized power in 1979. A further 10 million were children or adolescents who feel alien in a world imagined by aging mullahs that seem to belong to another age, if not another planet.

The amazing extension of cyberspace to Iran has had two crucial effects.

It has ended the government’s monopoly on sources of information and opened a window to the outside world, which seems to live in another era. Both those facts operate against a system that, struck by ideological atrophy, has failed to develop any mechanism for reform.

Today, official Iranian TV is watched by less than 20 percent of Iranians, while foreign-based satellite TV stations, beaming from Britain and the United States, have secured audiences in virtually every corner of the country. Despite repeated efforts to shut the Internet, foreign based Persian-language TV stations claim audiences topping the million mark even for question-and-answer shows, with Iranians spending a fortune on phone bills to express their grievances on live TV.

But that is not all. Thanks to access to cyberspace, some Iranian influencers have secured huge audiences. Young girls with Twitter or Instagram accounts reach more people than does the Supreme Leader through his hugely costly official media.

Popular musicians attract much larger audiences than official reciters of the holy texts or preachers paid by the government. A simple song by the young pop star Sherwin Hajipour has morphed into an alternative national hymn, edging out the 44-year anthem composed in praise of Imam Khomeini. The popular poet-composer Shahin Najafi’s latest single, “Shah,” is reported to have sold more than a million copies in a few weeks.

The new image of Iran emerging in cyberspace finds echoes in real life. During the latest Iranian New Year holiday, in March, ancient Iranian sites such as Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid Empire, and Pasargadae, where Cyrus the Great is buried, topped the list of most visited places in the country. According to official figures from the Ministry of Guidance and Tourism, the mausoleums of poets, such as Sa’adi and Hafez, attracted more visitors than the Mausoleum of the 8th Imam in Mashhad.

Another new fad is for young Iranians to wear the latest global-style clothes and accoutrements, take selfies and post them on social media. The idea is to show that many young Iranians, if not a majority, reject the one-size-fits-all “Islamist” lifestyle that the regime has tried to impose for more than four decades. “We live in the 21st century,” a young girl from a small coastal town said in a recent live TV phone-in program. “All we ask is to let us decide for ourselves what we wear and how we live without harming anyone.”

International media have portrayed the current tension in Iranian society as a popular movement against the officially-imposed head-covering known as “hijab.” A closer look, however, shows that much more is at stake. With every day that passes, the number of women discarding the “hijab” grows, while the mullahs wonder what to do.

Since the protests started almost six months ago, at least 600 people have been killed by security forces and a further 22,000 arrested, according to official figures.

What is going on is a cultural war between one worldview, propagated by Khomeinist ideologues, and another, defended by champions of what is called Iranism.

For Khomeinists, Iran is just a part of a global entity with a mission to spread the “true message” to every corner of the world. Dr. Hassan Abbasi, a leading theorist of Khomeinism and known as “Kissinger of Islam,” says Iran’s manifest destiny is to turn the White House into a hussainiya (Shi’ite congregation hall), ending American global hegemony. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi talks of “burning Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground.”

To young Iranists, Iran is a reality that transcends the Islamic part of its complex identity. Iran is the whole, while Islam in its Khomeinist version only a part.

A series of opinion polls over the past three decades show that the American “Great Satan” is more popular in Iran than in France and Germany.

Suddenly all things Iranian are keenly appreciated. Classic literary texts are re-edited, reaching readerships seldom seen before. Traditional architecture, music, art and even cuisine are reasserting their presence as elements of the resurgent Iranian identity.

The current duel between Khomeinist mullahs and a new generation of Iranians reminds one of the Kulturkampf (Culture War) that Germany experienced in the 19th century when “re-becoming ourselves” meant upholding the German identity, while the Catholic Church preached communion through Christianity.

That war was won by Germanists. We shall see if Iranists win this one in Iran.

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of Iran’s Kayhan daily from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published 11 books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the chairman of Gatestone Europe.

This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and reprinted by the Gatestone Institute by kind permission of the author.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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