Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Children of the revolution

Nasrin Alavim, The Guardian:

This week, many Iranian families are likely to be preoccupied with their stressed-out teenagers as they sit the nationwide university entrance exams. According to official figures 1.7 million will be taking the exams this year - the great majority of high school graduates, urban, rural, rich and poor.

Those who lived through the Iranian revolution of 1979 are now in a minority. Iran has one of the most youthful and educated populations in the Middle East. In response to the Islamic republic's slogan "higher education for the masses", universities have been built all over Iran. The younger generation has been completely transformed through the policies of free education and national literacy campaigns. Some 70% are under 30, and for this age group literacy rates are well over 90, even in rural areas. Notably last year more than 65% of those entering university were women.

During the "glory days" of 1979, Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, became a member of the nation's largest national student union, Tahkim Vahdat, and strutted his revolutionary stuff around campus. The organisation was formed after a decree by Ayatollah Khomeini urging the expulsion of liberal and leftwing student groups from campuses, but things have moved on: a quarter of a century later, Tahkim Vahdat is one of the most vocal critics of the regime. But the authorities have always fought back to crush protests. In June 2003, which saw 10 days of students protests, Iranian government officials admitted to having arrested 4,000 people.


This heavy-handed approach was put on view on June 12 at a protest rally organised by women's groups calling for greater legal rights. According to an announcement by Iran's judiciary, 70 people (42 women and 28 men) were arrested. Although most have now been released, Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoini, head of the Alumni Association of Iran, a former student leader and member of parliament, remains in detention.

These women activists had publicised and organised their action in advance on the internet and it is online that others today protest the arrest of political activists.

In his blog, an Iranian journalist tells us about his editor's refusal to publish anything about the arrest of Mousavi Khoini. "He's in prison, and the news in the bin!" In the last 10 years, more than 100 media publications, including 41 dailies, have been closed down. Yet today, with hundreds of thousands of Iranian weblogs, there is an alternative media that for the moment defies control.

Ali Afshari , the elected ex-head of Tahkim Vahdat, writes in his blog about Mousavi Khoini's imperishable commitment to a civil society and the defence of the victims of human rights abuses he championed throughout his years in parliament, adding that "no matter who was arrested, he was one of the people who would offer help and struggle for their release" irrespective of the dangers to himself or their political ideology, or whether they were "famous or unknown, student or worker".

A journalist blogger writes of his gratitude to Mousavi Khoini for travelling to visit his parents outside Tehran to offer them hope and assistance on the two occasions that he (as a student activist) was arrested. Another blogger describes an incident outside Tehran University when Mousavi Khoini was beaten as he came to the defence of a student protestor. And yet another student describes the then MP's patience and civility as he was kept waiting in one of the busy thoroughfares of Tehran after coming to give his support to a project helping homeless people.

Only time will tell whether Iranian blogs are merely a place for the beleaguered to blow off steam or a modern-day Gutenberg press that would usher in the age of democracy. Yet within this cyber-sanctuary bloggers are able instantly to put up a site campaigning for his release, and with their writing offer us a glimpse of what is sometimes simmering below the surface.

Ahmad Shirzad a former representative of Iran's parliament describes in his blog Mousavi Khoini's tireless efforts to highlight the plight of political prisoners; and that he would teasingly tell him: "Your name should be registered among the greatest of explorers ... for every other week you discover a previously undisclosed detention centre."

In 2004, in parliamentary elections that paved the way to the victory of Ahmadinejad, an unelected constitutional body had barred 3,600 candidates from standing. Among this number, along with 87 other elected MPs, was Mousavi Khoini. On March 7 2004, he said in a speech broadcast on the radio throughout Iran:"We have witnessed a parliamentary coup ... no longer will there be letters of protest, or voices that reveal the forbidden truth concerning those that have been terrorised, or voices that highlight the killings of freethinkers or the onslaught of the army against the students or the solitary confinement of students, journalists and political activists."

The new hardline parliamentarians, he said, "will do as the regime commands and say what the regime likes to hear. Let's not forget that in the last year of his rule, Saddam had elections when more than 98% voted for his regime, but such endorsements did not strengthen in any way the legitimacy or the validity of his regime: nothing but genuine reform from within will keep this regime alive."

Since Ahmadinejad's election, we are witnessing policies similar to those adopted during the early days of the revolution. In a strategy student activists are calling a "second cultural revolution", the president has tried to place ideological allies throughout Iran's' universities by sacking or forcing academic staff into early retirement, while growing numbers of student activists have been summoned to court, expelled or arrested. Student publications have been closed down, long-established student groups banned and election results nullified.

But these plans are not working out. Tahkim, which has now become a pro-democracy student union group, gained its legitimacy through free elections and the vote of the student population. They were able to dominate student life after the revolution because Iranian youth, like most of the country at the time, believed in Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic utopia.

In November students protested at Tehran University against the inauguration of Ayatollah Ameed-Zanjani, the first cleric appointed as chancellor of Iran's oldest university. During the confrontation, his turban was knocked off his head.

Yet what is happening in Iran is more significant than the toppling of turbans and more sustainable in the long run than the mere overthrow of dictators: we are witnessing the easy part.

The reality the authorities must face is that a quarter of century after the revolution no hardline Islamic student group is (or has been) able to gain control of any Iranian campus in the land through elections. Today a generational change ecologically threatens the survival of radicals. And while the gap between the rulers and the ruled widens, fanatics have raised the volume of their hardline rhetoric as they desperately try to reassert Iran's radical credentials.