An ‘emerging secular, democratic consensus’ stares Iranian theocracy in the face

only 26 percent of Iranians with a university degree pray five times a day. (AFP)
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Updated 23 November 2022

An ‘emerging secular, democratic consensus’ stares Iranian theocracy in the face

  • Report by Tony Blair Institute for Global Change says ongoing protests reflect yearning for secularization of society
  • Expert says young people witnessing great changes taking place in the region want similar developments at home

LONDON: On Sept. 13, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, was arrested in Tehran for violating the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women. In the custody of the Gasht-e Ershad — the “Guidance Patrol,” or morality police — she suffered a catastrophic head injury and, after three days in a coma, died in hospital.

Her death was the trigger for hundreds of protests across the country, which have seen men and women take to the streets in vast numbers, with women openly shunning the obligatory wearing of the hijab and cutting their hair in public in a gesture of defiance.

Now a new report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change — TBI — backed by two consecutive polls of thousands of Iranians, has concluded that the widespread rejection of the hijab is nothing less than a symbol of a nationwide yearning for regime change.




Such is the “unprecedented secularization” sweeping Iran that the TBI concludes that “Iran’s society is no longer religious.” (AFP)

The current protests are “no flash-in-the-pan moment,” says Kasra Aarabi, co-author of the report and the Iran Program lead at TBI’s Extremism Policy Unit.

“The protests we are seeing now are unprecedented in their longevity, and in their size. But they are a continuation of the trend for unrest that emerged in 2017, since when we’ve seen Iranians consistently taking to the streets.”

Aarabi, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a native Farsi speaker, believes that the current unrest, some of the worst seen in Iran since the revolution in 1978 replaced the modernizing regime of the Shah, is a pivotal moment for Iran.

“This is the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic,” he said.

“It’s been clear for years that the Iranian people don’t want reform, they want regime change, the downfall of the Islamic Republic in its entirety and the creation of a secular democracy.”

Young people in Iran, he says, are witnessing the great changes taking place elsewhere in the region, from the bridge-building of the Abraham Accords to the great modernizing reforms in Saudi Arabia, “and they’re thinking, ‘Why can’t we have that?’”

The TBI report draws on two polls carried out among tens of thousands of Iranians, which demonstrate the extent to which Iran has become a secular society, despite more than 40 years of life under a hard-line Shiite theocracy.

Key findings include that men and women in Iran are almost equally opposed to the mandatory wearing of the hijab, rejected by 70 percent of men and 74 percent of women.

This opposition also spans what might otherwise be expected to be the divide between town and country, where people are traditionally considered to be more conservative in outlook.

Only 21 percent of urban Iranians believe in the practice, support that rises only to 28 percent among rural communities.

Predictably, rejection of the compulsory wearing of the hijab is strongest among younger people — 78 percent of respondents aged between 20 and 29 oppose it.

Yet the practice is also opposed by 68 percent of Iranians aged between 30 and 49, and 74 percent aged over 50 — the so-called revolution generation.

Only a small minority of Iranians support the practice — just 13 percent of women and 17 percent of men.

The hijab protests, says the TBI, are clearly about regime change: 84 percent of those who oppose the dress code also want to see an end to the Islamic Republic.

Furthermore, “the anti-regime protest movement in Iran is fundamentally secular,” said the report, adding that “76 percent of Iranians who want regime change, also consider religion unimportant in their lives.”




New report showes the widespread rejection of the hijab is nothing less than a symbol of a nationwide yearning for regime change. (AFP)

In fact, such is the “unprecedented secularization” sweeping Iran that the TBI concludes that “Iran’s society is no longer religious.”

Only a declining minority in the theocratic republic follows the Islamic obligation to pray five times a day, ranging from 33 percent of rural Iranians to only 26 percent of urbanites.

Analyzed in terms of education, only 26 percent of Iranians with a university degree pray five times a day, while the percentage for people with a high-school diploma or lower is little different, at 28 percent.

Although the report, “Protests and polling insights from the streets of Iran: How removal of the hijab became a symbol of regime change,” was published on Tuesday, it contains previously unpublished data from two surveys carried out in Iran in 2020 and 2022.

This, says the TBI, demonstrates that the issue of the hijab and the yearning for the secularization of Iranian society has been simmering for years.

“Today’s protests are the consequence of the huge gap between the regime and the people of Iran,” said Aarabi.

“Despite living under a hard-line Islamist theocracy, the Iranian people are the most secular in the Middle East. There has been a gradual process of secularization and liberalization that began in the early 1990s, which has reached unprecedented levels in the past five years.”

The new report draws on polls conducted in June 2020 and February 2022 by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran — GAMAAN — an independent, non-profit research foundation registered in the Netherlands.

Instead of conventional face-to-face or telephone-based polling methods, GAMAAN says it uses “digital tools and alternative methods to capture the real opinions of Iranians ... allowing Iranians to answer questions about sensitive subjects truthfully, without fearing for their safety.”

A survey conducted by GAMAAN in June 2020 polled 39,981 respondents on questions relating to religion. In February 2022, 16,850 Iranians responded to questions about political systems.

Analyzed by demographic breakdown, says the TBI, “the results reveal a steadily emerging consensus on the streets, which is anti-compulsory hijab and anti-regime at its core.”

Thousands of arrests have followed as the regime has clamped down on the protesters. Some have been charged with crimes punishable by death, such as “enmity against God” and “corruption on Earth.”

This month has seen at least five executions of protesters carried out and confirmed by the state, and unknown numbers of people, including children, have been killed in the protests.

The HRA News Agency, founded in 2005 to monitor human-rights abuses in Iran, says more than 400 protesters have been killed, and at least 17,250 people have been arrested.




“This is the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic,” says Kasra Aarabi, co-author of the report. (AFP)

Last week UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, reported that “since late September an estimated 50 children have reportedly lost their lives in the public unrest in Iran.”

The latest was a 10-year-old boy, Kian Pirfalak, one of several people shot dead in and around protests last Wednesday (Nov. 16). He was hit by gunfire and died as he and his father were driving home in the western Iranian city of Izeh.

The protests, widely covered in the West, gained an even higher profile this week when the Iranian football team pointedly refused to sing the national anthem before their opening World Cup match against England in Qatar.

Before the game, skipper Ehsan Hajjsafi said the team supported those who had died in the protests, adding “we have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy.”

The West, says the TBI’s Aarabi, had failed to recognize the transformation that has been taking place in Iranian society “because it was focused solely on viewing Iran, and the dissent in the country, through the lens of the 2015 nuclear agreement, and then Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement.

“But this dissent is not being driven by the nuclear deal, nor by the reimposition of sanctions. It’s being driven by life under a totalitarian, misogynistic, ideological regime, which has consistently prioritized the interests of its hard-line Islamist ideology over those of the Iranian people.”

Commenting on the report, Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister who founded his institute in 2016, said that “the people of Iran have shown extraordinary bravery and courage over the past two months. They should know they have the support of millions of people around the globe who admire the stand they have taken for freedom.

“I have always said, and I stand by this more so today, that the single most liberating event for the Middle East will come when the Iranian people finally have their freedom.

“For the ordinary people of Iran, the values that many may describe as ‘Western’ are in fact their own. Neither they nor their country should be defined by the Islamic Republic. As a great people, whose history and civilization are rich and varied, it is they and they alone who should define their own future.

“This is why I firmly believe it is in our interests today, in the West, to show our deep solidarity with the protesters risking their lives for what we so often take for granted.”

It was, he added, “time we in the West recalibrate our policy in a way that draws a clear distinction between the people of Iran and the Islamic Republic. Our efforts should serve the former.”


Italian far-right activists held for assault on Morocco soccer fans

Updated 07 December 2022

Italian far-right activists held for assault on Morocco soccer fans

  • The supporters were revelling in the centre of the northern Italian city on Tuesday evening after Morocco's victory over Spain
  • Fans were attacked by a group of men dressed in black with their faces covered, police said

ROME: Italian police said on Wednesday they had detained 13 far-right activists in Verona for an assault on Moroccan soccer fans who were celebrating their historic qualification for the World Cup quarter-finals.
The supporters were revelling in the center of the northern Italian city on Tuesday evening after Morocco’s victory over Spain when they were attacked by a group of men dressed in black with their faces covered, the police said in a statement.
Those held “were identified by investigators as militants of far-right groups in the city,” it said.
Morocco’s World Cup progress has seen vibrant celebrations by its supporters in cities with large Moroccan immigrant populations around the world, which have sometimes turned violent.
Their victory over Belgium in the group stage sparked riots in Brussels, and on Tuesday evening video footage showed fans lighting flares and throwing furniture and other objects in the center of Milan.
Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant League party, tweeted the images of the Milan episodes, saying he hoped those responsible would be identified and made to pay for the damage to property.
He did not comment on the incidents in Verona.


US to ban Sudan officials who hold up post-coup transition

Updated 07 December 2022

US to ban Sudan officials who hold up post-coup transition

  • The ban would also apply to immediate family members of any current or former officials targeted
  • The State Department did not list who would be affected

WASHINGTON: The United States said Wednesday it would bar visas to any current or former Sudanese officials who hold up a transition to democracy, hoping to boost a tentative deal between the military and civilians.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced US support for the initial agreement announced Monday, which some pro-democracy protesters see as falling short on specifics and timelines.
“Recognizing the fragility of democratic transitions, the United States will hold to account spoilers — whether military or political actors — who attempt to undermine or delay democratic progress,” Blinken said in a statement.
The ban would also apply to immediate family members of any current or former officials targeted. The State Department did not list who would be affected.
“We once again call on Sudan’s military leaders to cede power to civilians, respect human rights and end violence against protesters,” Blinken said.
“At the same time, we urge representatives of Sudan’s civilian leaders to negotiate in good faith and place the national interest first.”
Longtime dictator Omar Al-Bashir was ousted in April 2019 following massive youth-led protests but the army chief, Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, in October last year derailed the transition by carrying out a military coup.
The United States following the coup suspended $700 million in aid that was meant to help Sudan cope economically as it moves toward democracy.
The latest US step is an expansion of visa restrictions imposed during the first stage of Sudan’s democratic transition.

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Turkish missiles used in Syria include Europe-produced parts

Updated 06 December 2022

Turkish missiles used in Syria include Europe-produced parts

  • An analysis of the components of the wreckage found that the missiles were manufactured by Roketsan, a Turkish defense manufacturer
  • The missiles included components made by US, Chinese and European companies

BEIRUT: Commercial brakes produced by a Dutch company to be used in ambulances in Turkiye instead ended up in missiles used by Turkiye in attacks in northeastern Syria, a report released Tuesday said.
Between September 2021 and June 2022, field investigators with London-based Conflict Armament Research analyzed the remnants of 17 air-to-surface missiles used in strikes in northeast Syria, the report said. An analysis of the components of the wreckage found that the missiles were manufactured by Roketsan, a Turkish defense manufacturer.
The missiles included components made by US, Chinese and European companies, among them electromagnetic brakes with “markings and characteristics consistent with production by (Netherlands-based company) Kendrion NV,” the report said.
Representatives of Kendrion told researchers that the company had agreed in 2018 to supply 20-25,000 brakes to a Turkish company called FEMSAN, with the stated purpose of using them on blood analysis machines fitted to ambulances, the report said. After being notified that the brakes were being used in military applications, Kendrion said it had cut off its business relationship with the Turkish company, the report noted.
FEMSAN did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while representatives of Roketsan could not be reached for comment.
The research was carried out before the most recent round of Turkish airstrikes in northeast Syria, launched last month in response to a deadly Nov. 13 bombing in Istanbul that Ankara blames on Kurdish groups based in Syria — an allegation that the groups deny. Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also threatened a ground incursion.
The report did not allege that the sellers of the components used in the missiles had violated any laws, noting that “while the EU has had an arms embargo related to Syria itself since 2011, (Turkiye) has never been subject to sanctions at the multilateral level.”
It added that the case “highlights both the critical importance and the relative complexity of commercial due diligence for material of these types” which “may serve multiple purposes, some of which the manufacturer may not even be aware, and which may be extremely sensitive.”


Al Jazeera files lawsuit against Israeli forces at ICC over killing of Shireen Abu Akleh

Updated 06 December 2022

Al Jazeera files lawsuit against Israeli forces at ICC over killing of Shireen Abu Akleh

  • Case follows an investigation into journalist’s killing by news network’s legal team
  • Israeli Prime Minister says that no one would be allowed to question Israeli soldiers

DUBAI: Al Jazeera on Tuesday said it has filed a lawsuit at the International Criminal Court against Israeli forces over the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot during an Israeli raid in the West Bank in May.

The lawsuit follows an investigation by the television news network’s legal team, Al Jazeera said on Twitter.

The ICC must identify the individuals who were directly involved in Abu Akleh’s killing, Al Jazeera lawyer Rodney Dixon KC told a news conference in The Hague on Tuesday.

“The rulings of the International Criminal Court stipulate that those responsible be investigated and held accountable. Otherwise, they bear the same responsibility as if they were the ones who opened fire,” Dixon said.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said on Tuesday that no one would question Israeli soldiers.

“No one will interrogate IDF soldiers and no one will preach to us about morals of combat, certainly not the Al Jazeera network,” Lapid said.


Iran sentences five to death over killing of Basij paramilitary

Updated 06 December 2022

Iran sentences five to death over killing of Basij paramilitary

  • Another 11 people, including 3 children, were handed lengthy jail terms

TEHRAN: Iran has sentenced to death five people over the killing of a member of the Basij paramilitary force during nationwide protests, the judiciary said Tuesday.
Another 11 people, including three children, were handed lengthy jail terms over the death of Ruhollah Ajamian, judiciary spokesman Massoud Setayeshi told a news conference, adding the sentences could be appealed.
A group of 15 people had been charged with “corruption on earth” over the death of Ajamian on November 3 in Karaj, a city west of Tehran, the judiciary’s Mizan Online website reported last week.
Prosecutors said Ajamian, 27, was stripped naked and killed by a group of mourners who had been paying tribute to a slain protester, Hadis Najafi, during ceremonies marking 40 days since her death.
Najafi was killed during unrest that has gripped Iran since the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian of Kurdish origin, after her arrest for an alleged breach of the country’s dress code for women.
Initially, on November 12, Mizan Online announced charges for 11 people over Ajamian’s killing, including a woman but as the trial opened, it said 15 defendants in the case had been charged.
An Iranian general said on Monday that more than 300 people have been killed in the unrest, including dozens of members of the security forces.
Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands have been arrested, including 40 foreigners and prominent actors, journalists and lawyers.
The latest court rulings bring to 11 the number of people sentenced to death in Iran over the violence sparked by Amini’s death.

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