Iran’s culture wars

Reuters

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gestures as he speaks to workers in Tehran, Iran April 26.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution was a deeply ideological movement. Its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, sought not only to uproot Iran’s 2,000-year-old monarchy, but also change the religious, economic and political culture within Iran. For Iran’s leaders the cultural revolution is ongoing. Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader, addressed the current state of the cultural revolution in a December speech to the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution. Many of the points he addresses suggest that the Iranian regime remains deeply insecure about the lack of attractiveness that the regime’s ideology holds for the majority of the Iranian public.

Khamenei’s speech is an impassioned plea for the regime’s politicians—all of whom were vetted on the basis of their fealty to revolutionary values by the unelected Guardian Council—to be more active in guiding the public to embrace revolutionary values. At one point Khamenei likens the role of the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution to removing weeds from a garden so that flowers can thrive. Such an analogy, of course, should worry Iranian civil society, especially those who have criticized the regime’s practice of detention without charge and imprisonment of leaders and intellectuals for political crimes.

Khamenei also addresses the growing tendency of ordinary Iranians, many of whom are religiously conservative, to differentiate between state religion and personal practice. This suggests Khamenei is not simply worried about how young, more secular Iranians view the Islamic Republic, but also the loyalty of religious Iranians who might accept the widespread perception that many senior Iranian clerics are corrupt.

Khamenei also suggests a major initiative is needed to reform education. While he does not condemn foreign language instruction, he suggests that many of the textbooks used to teach English—the most popular foreign language studied in Iran—promote Western culture and so should be rewritten, and continues to suggest a major revision of school texts might be necessary in order to protect revolutionary values against pernicious Western influence.

The entire speech, peppered as well with Khamenei’s references to President Hassan Rouhani’s agreement on the issue, suggests that hope for substantive reform both inside and outside Iran might be somewhat misplaced. 

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  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.


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