The central fact of Iran, and the key to understanding the turmoil now rocking that country, is that roughly 60 percent of the population consists of young people, according to a recent article in Haaretz, who were not alive during the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Most totalitarian regimes restrict what their citizens read, see on television and the Internet, what music they listen to, what opinions they express, and what kind of say (if any) they have in their government. The Islamic Republic goes much further, by restricting what their people wear (particularly women) and how they behave. This last is especially galling to Iran’s young people, who like most young people everywhere chaff at authority that tells them what to do.
Normal relations between young men and young women have to be carried out clandestinely. Iran’s morality police take a dim view to any kind of public displays of affection. And that is just between opposite sexes. Gay Iranians are subject to the death penalty if found out.
Iran is an overwhelmingly Shia Muslim country, according to the CIA World Fact Book. There are religious minorities, including some Sunnis, Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, and Baha’is. Each of these minorities are discriminated against to various degrees, with Jews being barely tolerated and Baha’is subject to the death penalty for practicing their religion considered illegitimate by the Islamic rulers of Iran.
What changes might happen in Iranian society as a result of the current uprising is a matter of speculation. If the uprising is suppressed, one can look to even more repression as the Islamic rulers crack down.
If the uprising succeeds, all depends on what success looks like. A more moderate regime under Mir Hossein Mousavi might mean a small loosening of Iran’s sharia-type laws, with the sexes being more allowed to mingle openly and with minority religions perhaps more tolerated. Mir Hossein Mousavi is said to be in favor of more democracy in Iran, presumably meaning more freedom of expression and more freedom to access the culture of the West.
If the uprising goes all the way, sweeping away not only the current regime but the Islamic Republic itself, the possibilities of social change are endless. Social behavior and minority religious practices were well tolerated under the rule of the Shah and would likely be so again under any potential Republic (no Islamic qualifier.)
On the other hand, that kind of liberalization will likely cause a backlash among Iran’s more religious people. The sight of men and women, most of the latter unveiled or even wearing western clothing, might incite the kind of violence that has been prevalent in other Middle Eastern countries with Islamic populations and secular governments.
In any event, Iran is facing more change than it has in the last 30 years or was imagined even a few weeks ago.
Sources Iran youth bring promise of change to Islamic regime, Zvi Bar’el, Haaretz, June 18th, 2009
World Fact Book – Iran, Central Intelligence Agency