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What would an Iranian secularism look like ?

Iranians are discussing many important and crucial things these days: things that the government might not be able to find an answer to in the foreseeable future.

Girls walking in front of walls of the former US embassy on Taleghani street, Tehran. Picture by Kamyar Adl / Flickr.com. Some rights reserved (CC BY 2.0).The Iranian government is not determined enough to implement change, nor does it have the authority and resources to embrace the reforms people are demanding. Meanwhile, in restaurants, coffee shops, streets, schools, newspapers and sometimes even on state TV, people are discussing and talking about reform.

People ask valid questions that rarely find viable answers by those who are supposed to find answers: will women, comprising half of Iran's population, be finally officially permitted to watch football matches live in stadiums? Will the debate on the necessity or appropriateness of "compulsory veil" come to an end, as there's no "solution" for what seems to be a "social dilemma" rather than a "problem" or as what some religious figures say, a "moral crisis" being injected from the overseas to pollute the pious minds? Will Iranian males, after graduating with their bachelors, refrain from harming themselves physically, i.e. pulling out their healthy teeth, or paying absence fines in order to avoid being enlisted for compulsory military service? Will Iranian sports be depoliticized with Iranian wrestlers, sportswomen, chess-players and other athletes stop losing international opportunities or being penalised due to their voluntary or involuntary decisions in refusing to face Israeli opponents?

Iran is an Islamic republic by definition but a theocracy in action

Iran is an Islamic republic by definition but a theocracy in action; Its constitution, drafted in 1979, has remained almost unchanged since; it is comparable to that of France, making it resistant to dialogue and improvement in many areas. When the angry Iranian protesters took to the streets to overthrow Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's monarchy, they were dreaming of such ideals as independence, freedom, self-determination and a better economy.

However, ideals are ideals.

What is the reality of the 21st century Iran? A society imbued with social divides, challenges, low self-esteem among the young population, life satisfaction figures that are a bit worrying, while youths and people in power are unable to understand or relate to one another. This doesn't mean that Iran is a failed state like Sudan or Syria. It means forty years after those ideals won hearts and minds, almost nothing has really changed.

The country's religious figures, government and even military officials talk about moral and ethical values that will guarantee the worldly and divine wellbeing of its people if they follow them closely. And there are hundreds of ways these values and principles can be interpreted and applied to different groups of people. Some find it useful to follow those guidelines while others less so. But "theocracy" seeks to make a monolithic society with a face that acts as a "role model", especially in the eyes of the Muslim world: a nation that is making progress economically and scientifically while preserving its traditions and virtues. This is where the clash between the state and the nation emerges.

Iranians, especially the youth, don't clearly understand the reasons these struggles are still going on three decades after the Islamic Revolution. The authorities, who are clearly convinced that there's nothing to threaten the national security or stability of the government, insist on imposing their preferred lifestyle and worldview on a population, which considers itself knowledgeable, self-sufficient and informed enough to act on their instincts, their own understanding of the world and preferences instead of what is dictated to them as right or wrong.

Iranians expect more concrete evidence of "reform" 

However, with President Rouhani in office, Iranians expect more concrete evidence of "reform" in the sense that their expectation of privacy, their right to make their life choices freely, and their right to live free from intimidation and interference is respected. The longstanding debate on "hijab" and other compulsory things, has exhausted the public opinion and people are looking forward to newer developments and sustainable solutions to the problems that are critical: will the nation's younger generation get the education that it deserves with the Ministry of Education making a sober decision to find a unified, integrated and viable approach to things for the primary school sitters or students attending secondary schools, whose arrangement and structure change almost every couple of years?

Will the brain drain become a thing of the past for a country in which the elites and exceptional talents are unanimous in thinking that "this country will not change for the better and we need to go". Will media, arts, cinema and sports be depoliticized with the government reducing its massive interventionist role in these areas while it doesn't apparently provide any measures to patronize cinema, theatre and music financially or logistically? Will the government give a clear response to the question that many Iranians are asking: "where is Iran's nuclear programme headed to?"

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, popularly known as the Iran deal, was negotiated between Iran and the six world powers and the European Union and endorsed by the United Nations to draw an end to a controversy that had already inflicted thousands of dollars of financial damage on Iran, claimed thousands of innocent lives and deprived the nation of the chance to enjoy connection with the global financing and banking system. When asking the government, Iranians were and are being told that the aim of this costly nuclear program and imploring the Russians to sustain it is to produce Nano-medicine and harness it for agricultural purposes.

Few wise Iranians understood and believed why manufacturing some medicine to treat cancer patients and improve agriculture should buy Iran this much animosity and hostility with the world. If these are benign goals, then the international community should be happy and ready to work with Iran on them. And if Iranian scientists are really intent on finding viable solutions to cure thousands of cancer patients suffering across this country or alleviate their pain, they can come up with realistic keys to achieve it, which is not necessarily nuclear technology or highly-enriched uranium.

Now, global political developments, the intransigence of the new US President Donald Trump who is intent on unilaterally de-certifying the deal and Iran's internal struggles, especially its clashes with its youths, which sends wrong signals to the international community and make the country's European partners more reluctant in engaging in better relations and more stress-free negotiations with Tehran on areas of mutual interest, economy, tourism and human rights highlight the urgent need for the authorities in Tehran to take a few points into consideration.

The Iranian version of secularism doesn't need to be prescribed by anybody

In every country, certain cultural and ideological rules and norms apply that are dominant and inviolable. Iran is one of those countries which sees its version of an Islamic republic an ideal mode of governance. When there are authors, intellectuals or university professors who talk about the need for Iran to give in to some extent of secularism, Shia clerics and religious authorities get together and embark on a debate about the west's cultural infiltration and the enemy's plans to undermine Iran's national security, unity and morality. The narrative of enemy and recounting the harms they've inflicted on us is something that most of the time creates unity in times of need. But can it play the same role indefinitely?

As an Iranian citizen, having lived the longest part of my life in this country and spent the rest traveling internationally as a journalist and reporter, I think the Iranian version of secularism doesn't need to be prescribed by anybody or be a very complicated replica of the French or British or American models. The Iranian version of secularism can be simpler, more straightforward and workable than many think. Iranian authorities should start following the path of "honesty is the best policy"; to tell people why certain things cannot be changed, why some changes take some time to happen, why some changes never happen, and if there's any public interest in the preclusion of some changes and reforms!

The Iranian government needs to start taking a more friendly and transparent approach to its citizens and people: to explain to them if the sustained imposition of certain social restrictions and the inability of its different departments to cap the extra-judicial role of clerics, military and non-related actors in civilian and daily matters is something institutional or something that benefits themselves. For instance, will all those Iranian males who spend 18 and 24 months in military service become better citizens or is it a matter of fulfilling budgetary and power goals?

Isn't it time for the Iranian government to focus on improving the value of the Iranian passport, the quality of life and social cohesion instead of fighting to demonstrate that the status quo is ideal, at any expense, whereas what is being seen on the streets and reflected in the realities of economy, foreign policy and the continued existence of social divisions shows otherwise?  

About the author

Kourosh Ziabari is studying International Multimedia Journalism at the University of Kent’s Centre for Journalism. He is a 2016–17 Chevening Scholar from Iran. He has won several awards at Iran’s National Press Festival. He is the recipient of a Senior Journalists Seminar 2015 fellowship from the East-West Center in Hawaii and covered the World Forum for Democracy 2016 in Strasbourg on a fellowship by the Council of Europe. Kouro​sh​ writes for Fair Observer and International Policy Digest on Iranian politics and culture​ and also contributes to the Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Follow him on Twitter: @KZiabari.


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