Why the West keeps getting it so wrong on Iran

Students protest at the University of Tehran (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps it has been the holiday season, but the coverage of events in Iran this past week in the media has been a little muted, especially when compared to the hysteria surrounding the so-called Arab Spring which was more of a media event than any radical social change. No screaming headlines today for the nine people reported to have died overnight, making a total of over 20 deaths now reported in the past week. Less muted is social media, which is filled with numerous feeds of camera movie clips of protests and violence.

The protests started on Thursday 28 December in the city of Mashhad, ignited by price rises and charges of corruption. This has turned into broader anti-government sentiment, which President Hassan Rouhani accepted as an “opportunity” for people to raise their concerns, but should not be a threat to stability and he vowed to crack down on “lawbreakers.” The powerful Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), whose mission is to preserve the Islamic system, has warned protesters they will deal with the protests ruthlessly if this political unrest continues.

In the social media feeds, women are a visible symbol of change. In 1979 their dress was transformed from 1970s chic to being told they must cover their heads and dress modestly. For the unwary, a sign at Imam Khomeini International Airport reminds visitors and citizens alike “Respected Ladies: Please Observe Islamic Dress Code.” Officially, this means either a full-length chador or a headscarf, trousers and manteaux covering the woman. Women have been publicly removing their headscarves and in many social media clips shown to be at the centre of protest.

International governmental responses have been similarly muted, though President Trump, never one for being muted, did ratchet it up as usual, tweeting “Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!”

It is always easy to scream for change, which usually means people wanting what they want rather than what the people need. Change was what Iran got with the 1979 revolution that changed the religious dynamics in the region. This was not just a domestic revolution, it was a watershed moment that introduced a new form of Islamic theocracy and statism to the modern world. Change for critics means either reversing or transforming this revolution. However, perhaps there is another way to approach this.

What is difficult to discern is whether the protest and the visibility of women is a temporary blip in social relations, like the Arab Spring, or signs of a paradigmatic shift in the country, like the 1979 revolution itself. Foreign observers are no doubt looking for signs of the latter and hoping that this will be the case. However, observers interpreting current events as a purely economic or sociological change without understanding the religious dynamics will get it all wrong again, as they did with the Arab Spring, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen; the list is growing.

The religious illiteracy of social scientists and the elite of the political class has been part of the missteps made in foreign policy since World War Two, especially in recent decades. Middle East relations were seen through the lens of a Cold War dichotomy of religious America versus godless communism, the nearest anyone got to a theological interpretation. In truth Stalin for one had little real interest in the region, yet it was this proxy war of wills that has created many of the problems experienced in the region today.

How the West reacts to the current unrest is an opportunity to show more nuance in interpreting the religious significance of these protests, and not see it as Islamism versus secularism or democracy. Understandably, there is always a sense of foreboding when unrest erupts in Islamic countries, but perhaps we should be encouraging societies like Iran to be better Islamic countries, rather than trying to mould them into our own secular image. That’s why the revolution started in the first place, with the Shah of Persia seen as a puppet of the West.

We should not be scared by a better Islam, by which I do not mean the shallow cries of “reformation.” I mean a more enlightened secularism. Muslims around the world see how Christianity has been severely weakened in the West and many do not want to see their faith undermined in the same way. Iran, and neighbouring Saudi, show signs of a change in the balance of Islam in societies, and if both become better societies then it will be a result of how they engage secular changes rather than how they enforce religious norms. There is some maturity in this, and commentators and political actors in the west ought to learn some of the same maturity as well.

The reasons for Western distance from events in Iran just now may be a little unclear, but it is a good thing that Western commentators are not getting whipped up into hysteria. Perhaps they have been stung by the deflated outcome of the Arab Spring media bubble that makes them more reticent of being wrong again. Whatever the reason, there is a need to have some distance right now.