Since the middle of the summer of 2001, Tehran had witnessed a baffling revival in the practice of public flogging, a form of punishment prescribed by Islamic sharia (criminal law) but abandoned by the Islamic Republic for over two decades. In the parks and squares of the capital, young people found guilty of petty social offenses like drinking alcohol, attending parties, and selling pornography were being rounded up every few days and lashed before crowds in busy squares.
The Tehran police released a statement meant to explain: “Regarding the spread of decadent Western culture in the society, police have seriously risen up against the propagators of corruption.” The corruption described included: shop owners selling pets such as dogs and monkeys; clothes bearing pictures of Western movie and rock stars; coffee shops serving women dressed immodestly and wearing heavy makeup; malls playing “illegal” music; and shops that displayed women’s underwear or nude mannequins in their windows.
The head of the judiciary declared “an all-out fight against social vices” and said “the people” had thanked the judiciary for carrying out the punishments. Both the police and the judiciary were run by hard-liners, while the Interior Ministry, which was loyal to President Khatami, publicly opposed the floggings. The standoff illustrated how the Islamic Republic worked, or more aptly, did not work: one powerful semi-official body implementing a policy that another sphere of government opposed and tried to obstruct.
Privately, reformists said Islamic criminal law, with its seventh-century origins and arcane punishments such as stoning and lashings, should be abolished. But discarding Islamic law would definitively secularize Iran. What sort of Islamic Republic, after all, could be run without Islamic legal codes? How else could Shiite clerics justify their divine right to govern without religious law?
The hard-liners were anticipating the upcoming presidential election and feared massive voter turnout, which would bolster Khatami—the bee in their turban—with a second popular mandate to carry forward reform. Somewhere in some dusty, dirty-carpeted room in Qom, some wily hard-liner understood the psychology of electoral politics. Television attack ads—or in this case, public floggings—disgusted voters enough to keep them at home. Khatami’s opponents staged such spectacles to discourage fence sitters, already unsure whether to support a maimed-duck president, from voting.
In the weeks that followed, the lashings sparked an open debate about the role Islamic law should play in modern society—a crucial and thorny question many Muslim societies are facing today. On many important issues in Islamic law—like stoning as punishment for adultery, or the killing of apostates, or a woman’s blood money equaling half a man’s—the Koran is largely silent. Historical records of the Prophet Mohammad’s teachings, called hadith, offer some guidance, but because they are open to interpretation, the calculations depend on the philosophical and moral worldview of clerics. A skillful cleric can convincingly argue that a given punishment, like stoning, should be abolished, or upheld. Purely in theological terms, it can be argued either way.
The progressive clerics in the reform movement searched for a way out of the impasse. They argued that since Islam is silent about 95 percent of the matters people face in daily life, people should be free to determine their own behavior, adjusting to the changing times. But the hard-liners interpreted this domain of the 95 percent as their own, a chance to shape society in their own image, by prescribing rules by fatwa. This debate, obscure as it may sound, was the basis for the political battle over the Islamic Republic’s soul, if not the role of Islam itself in modern life: In the realm of the Koran’s silence, are people free, or subject to the fatwa of clerics?
While the debate was significant—unique in a region that as a rule stifled candid talk on sensitive religious issues—it couldn’t have mattered less to ordinary Iranians. They were light years ahead of such conversations (the need for secularism being as obvious to them as the blue of the sky), and it only irritated them to watch the country’s rulers engage in esoteric theological bickering.
Young people were busy launching weblogs (by 2003, Iran ranked number three in the world in number of weblogs); intellectuals were writing innovative, sparkling satire, graphic designers were creating websites for the West. Their interest was turning intensely outward, to the world of ideas outside, and they didn’t have the patience for this conversation among men of religion.
Although the reform movement had a far more intimate sense of people’s actual desires than the conservative clergy, its leaders were still disconnected. They made the same miscalculation that the conservatives had, and it was ultimately this that cost them people’s support. They assumed people would always back them, simply because there was no better alternative. In a competition between violent, fundamentalist ayatollahs, and religious-minded moderates, surely the Iranian people would choose the latter. For a couple of years this logic held, but as the regime stayed the same, and as it became more and more apparent that official change would be slow and undetectable, the distinction between religious conservatives and religious moderates (both functionaries of a dinosaur regime) ceased to matter at all.
They’re all the same, complained student activists who had once passionately delineated their difference. In the end, reformists and conservatives had more in common politically with each other than with ordinary Iranians. The gulf between a mullah and an Iranian civilian was far wider than between a mullah and a reformist.
That much became clear when I began reading the daily newspapers in earnest. Each day I had to skim at least ten, because the political cliques that lined the spectrum from hard-Iine to reformist each had their own mouthpiece. They included the Super-fundamentalist But Non-Violent Clerics of Qom; the Pragmatic Anti-U.S., Pro-Europe Technocrat Hard-liners; the Fascist Anti-Western Hard-liners Prone to Assassinations; the Classical Anti-Western, Pacifist Clerics; and the Society of Combative Clerics, not to be confused with the Society of Clerical Combatants.
These factions had risen up together through the ranks of the Revolution, studied together at the feet of the Ayatollah Khomeini, ordered executions and then dined on chelo-kabob. They were the architects of this system, and now they were bickering over its structure and its spoils. “Reformist” and “conservative” were the labels they used when fighting amongst themselves—and though they fought each other like cats, they still considered themselves khodi (insiders) and everyone else gheir-khodi (outsiders).