Over the weekend thousands of Iranian students continued their protests to demand political reform. Their voices were raised in support of Hashem Aghajari, the college professor who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy. But the student movement is broader than dissent over one injustice.
What is it that the protesters are saying? The original ideals of the 1979 Iranian Revolution were democracy and social justice, coupled with a respect for the nation’s distinct cultural identity. At the time, even the clergy emphasized the necessity of democratic rights and tolerance. These ideals were codified in the country’s constitution. Article 56 explicitly states that God made man “master of his own social destiny,” and that “no one can deprive man of this divine right, nor subordinate it to the vested interests of a particular individual or group.” Unfortunately, these founding ideals have been violated repeatedly. The proud traditions and norms of Iran are what the students seek to revitalize. Theirs is not a counterrevolution but a completion of the present one. The issue of free and critical expression is, of course, crucial for students and professors. In the past two years, 83 reformist publications have been shut down by the conservative judiciary. Internet cafes are monitored; television is censored. These trends are not new. It was student protests against the closure of a reformist newspaper in 1999 that caused religious conservatives in the government to unleash paramilitary units on our campuses, killing one and injuring countless others. The death sentence recently placed on Mr. Aghajari shows the danger posed to universities as sanctuaries for open debate.
But there is far more at stake than the academy. At issue is the status of accountability and democracy for society as a whole. A minority of unelected religious conservatives claim to speak for public opinion, yet they arrest the very pollsters who dare to demonstrate otherwise. The issue facing the Iranian people is whether they have the right to discuss religious reform and the question of “Islamic Protestantism” or any other politically sensitive matter without the slander of apostasy and the threat of death or imprisonment. It is telling that the student protesters are as diverse as they are committed. Many are secular, but just as many are highly devout Muslims. They all share the same desire for political and civil rights.
Students are suppressed by a governing system that has made everything political, from hem lines to hijabs, from the Koran to the curriculum. Many have grown frustrated that reformist promises from President Mohammad Khatami remain out of reach even as reformism is now discussed at kitchen tables everywhere. Still, time is on the protesters’ side. With 65 percent of the national population under the age of 30, the question of reform is not whether it will come, but how soon.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration’s posture toward Iran has not been helpful. President Bush’s harsh comment that Iran is part of the ”axis of evil“ has allowed Iran’s conservatives to claim they are defenders of the republic while they tighten the reins on the reformist majority. Now with the threat of war against Iraq coming to our borders, the conservatives have been conveniently handed another excuse to crack down on dissent and democratization.