Iran Today: Part Four, The Morals Police
02/09/06 12:00AM By Steve Zind
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(Host) Many people in Iran disapprove of their president's harsh rhetoric directed at Israel and the west.
However, his comments are a hit with young conservative Iranians, many of whom belong to a volunteer para-military group called the Basij
As tensions rise between Iran and the west, the Islamic government is using the Basij to whip up nationalistic sentiments. There's also talk of giving them more powers - a prospect that has many Iranians uneasy.
Recently VRP's Steve Zind traveled to Iran. Today in our "Iran Today" series he examines the history and role of the Basij.
(Sounds of Friday prayers)
(Zind) Friday prayers in Tehran are a mixture of piety and politics. Worshippers are bussed in for the ceremony, which takes place on a covered soccer field on the campus of the Tehran University. Many of the people are older. There's not much evidence of Iran's youthful majority. Women are hidden from view behind a screen. In a cordoned off area in front sit influential mullahs and government officials. Several thousand men fill the soccer field. They move together rising and kneeling to perform the rituals of their prayers.
Each week a top religious leader speaks at Tehran's Friday prayers, like Ayotollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of Iran's powerful Council of Guardians.
(Jannati addresses crowd)
(Zind) Addressing the crowd on this particular Friday, Jannati talks about the legion of young men from poor, religious families who make up the volunteer, quasi-military force called the Basij.
(Translator) "Today the Basiji culture has an overwhelming presence in our society, both within and outside our military. People are pursuing the Basjii way of life."
(Zind) The Basij came to prominence during the eight year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Tens of thousands of young Basijis died in human waves that rushed Iraqi tanks and artillery.
After the war, the organization became a kind of morals police.
Members prowled the streets on motorbikes, admonishing women about their dress, confiscating music, and breaking up parties.
Sometimes they took people away, holding them briefly as prisoners.
Many young people in this park in north Tehran have a story about a run-in with the Basij.
(Man in park speaks)
(Zind) This man says he was playing his guitar in the park when a Basiji took it from him and broke it.
(Zind) That prompts a women to tell a joke about the Basiji who falls in love and listens to a blank tape all night- a reference to the Basij disapproval of music.
Another woman says Basijis are unsupervised vigilantes.
(Woman in park)
(Translator) "Basij is in my opinion an undefined force without a clear mandate or legal authority It is an obstructive force with respect to people's exercise of freedom And I don't think it operates on any legal basis or has any popular base."
(Zind) The Basij is not an official part of the government, but Basijis do answers to a branch of the Iranian military known as the Revolutionary Guard.
William Beeman is a Professor of Anthropology at Brown University and author of "The Great Satan versus the Mad Mullahs, how the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other." Beeman says young men from poorer families join the Basij to improve their social standing.
(Beeman) "Being a member of the Basij, especially if you're a pious Muslim young person is a way of getting a sense that you have a little bit of power and a little bit of authority and a kind of importance. In Iran there is a strong drive to demonstrate one's status and one's importance within society, so naturally young people who don't have other advantages would be drawn to this as a way to establish themselves."
(Zind) Beeman says Basiji's are idealist and uncompromising, much like young people everywhere.
The Basij role as morals police has diminished in recent years as dress codes and the norms of public behavior have relaxed.
The election last year of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who's allied himself with the organization, has increased their standing.
(Translator) "We witnessed that someone came out on top in these elections, who was actually claiming to be a Basiji. He was probably the only candidate who supported the Basij during the campaigns, and had the courage to use Basiji slogans in a society where everyone thought people were against the Basij."
(Zind) This is Bashir Biazar. He heads a student Basij at a Tehran university. He says Basij is as much a state of mind as an organization.
(Translator) "Meaning that whoever is committed to the principles set forth by Islam, revolution and the Supreme Leader, has got Basiji ideology, regardless of being or not being a member of Basij."
(Zind) In recent years the Basij has downplayed its role as morals police and emphasized education - especially in science and technology.
The soft spoken Biazar is one of the new faces of the organization. He blends in with the rest of the sharply dressed young people in a north Tehran park.
The efforts to reshape the image of the Basij into a kinder and gentler one may be paying off. This man's opinion of the Basij has softened.
(Man in park)
(Translator) "Nowadays, they have pretty much given up on violence and I have the feeling that they are trying to sort of attract young people with novel ideologies."
(Zind) Another man doesn't think the organization has changed
(Man in park)
(Translator) "... I don't agree with their (the Basij) views. Their views are obsolete. They belong to 1,400 years ago. They don't move forward with the present time."
(Zind) Iranians say younger Basij are still harassing people about their dress and behavior, but not to the degree they once did.
There's concern Ahmadinejad may try to use the Basij more forcefully as morals police.
However, Brown Professor William Beeman says it will be difficult for the Basij to roll back the social freedoms that Iranians gained over nearly a decade of gradual reforms under former President Mohammad Khatami.
(Beeman) "The reform movement under President Khatami has gone so far that I think Mr. Ahmadinejad understands that he would not be able to do anything in this area without a significant public outcry."
(Zind) The Basij has another role in Iran. The government uses the group as a mouthpiece for hardline foreign policy.
(Sounds of a demonstration)
(Zind) This government organized demonstration marched to several western embassies in Tehran. A group of Basij led the way, followed by a pickup truck equipped with loudspeakers. Behind the truck came a group of young women clad in black chadors. They carried signs declaring Iran's right to develop nuclear energy. Led by a man standing in the pick-up truck, they chant "Death to America" and England and denounced those countries that are demanding a halt to Iran's nuclear program.
(More demonstration sounds)
(Zind) There may be a million members of the Basij.
They're a force that stands ready to answer the government's call, whether it's providing a check on demands for more freedom in Iran or mobilizing in the face of an outside threat as tensions rise between Iran and the west.
For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Steve Zind.
Note: Tomorrow, in the conclusion to our "Iran Today" series, Steve Zind examines the tension between Iran's government and the country's journalists and bloggers.