Two young Iranians, two disparate ideologies

Saleh loves jeans and parties. Hamed worries that his country is becoming morally bankrupt.

Toddlers at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Saleh and Hamed, are now university students in their 20s. They inhabit the same city, but live in different worlds.

Saleh, the son of a factory owner, comes from a privileged background. He is clean-shaven, wears blue jeans, a Timberland T-shirt, and wraparound sunglasses. He enjoys parties and Western pop, and watches Hollywood videos, but he also loves classical Persian music and poetry.

Hamed, who asked to go by a pseudonym, is the son of a Revolutionary Guards officer. He sports a beard and wears a long-sleeved black shirt and black trousers. He sees Western fashions and popular culture as an American-inspired threat to Iran's Islamic system that must be resisted.

Saleh is broadly representative of a majority of Iranians who support President Mohamad Khatami's drive to liberalize the Islamic system. It was people like Saleh that returned Mr. Khatami to power with nearly 77 percent of the vote earlier this month, hoping he'd transform Iran into a modern religious democracy.

Hamed reflects the less-compromising wing of the conservative minority, which is committed to old-style theocratic rule and is fighting to protect what they define as Islamic values.

Both were on the streets in the summer of 1999 during the biggest disturbances since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The riots erupted after police and Islamic vigilantes attacked Tehran University students protesting peacefully against the closure of a popular reformist newspaper.

Saleh, longing for greater political and personal freedom, was one of those who took to the streets in fury and frustration. Mobilized to help end the unrest were the baseej, an Islamic militia drawn mainly from devout poor families, whose members provided the teenage "human wave" volunteers of the Iran-Iraq war. Among them was Hamed.

Today the baseej are the enforcers of the old guard loyal to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

For Saleh and his friends, people like Hamed are brainwashed Islamic diehards who can't break free of the past. For Hamed, reformist students like Saleh are deluded and misguided.

"Freedom?" Saleh grimaces. "You know, we can't even have a party safely without these baseej bothering us. I respect those baseej who died defending Iran from Iraq, but not these ones today interfering in our lives."

Saleh is religious, but does not believe religion and politics mix. He has no desire to see the removal of Iran's Islamic system, provided it can be reformed to deliver greater freedoms. For that reason, he says he planned to vote for the reformist President Khatami on June 8. He believes Khatami's first four-year term was a disappointment because the president's hard-line opponents "did not give him the tools he needed" to run the country.

Saleh is sitting with his girlfriend and other friends in a plush cafe in the Golestan shopping center in a posh suburb of north Tehran. Such cafes are a new trend in Iran where young men and women test the freer social climate to date in public.

A sign on the cafe wall, near the obligatory portraits of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warns women to observe the strict Islamic dress code. Yet the cafe is dotted with women with sunglasses resting in strands of hair framed by colorful headscarves pushed well back from the face. Rather than a head-to-toe cloak, the trend in this and similar cafes is for women to wear calf-length coats in light material and trousers that stop a few inches above bare ankles. High-heeled sandals reveal brightly-painted toe nails.

Khatami has argued that young people need "legitimate" pleasures. We cannot, he once said, "ask them to go only to the mosque." With the minimum voting age set at 15 and more than half the 42 million electorate under 30, Iran's politicians can not afford to ignore the country's youth. Satisfying their demands within the confines of the Islamic system is the biggest challenge facing the Islamic Republic in the long term. Reformers like Khatami argue that the system must change, or it will alienate the young masses.

Since Khatami came to power four years ago, the baseej militia, which helps police ensure that public behavior conforms with Islamic strictures, have been far less instrusive. There have, however, been periodic, well-publicized crackdowns. More than 260 people were arrested in raids on parties in north Tehran last New Year's Eve. Most were charged with mingling with the opposite sex and drinking alcohol, while some women were accused of dressing inappropriately; several were subjected to humiliating virginity tests and flogged.

Hamed voluntarily goes on baseej patrols in northern Tehran to ensure that unmarried young people of the opposite sex are not dating in public or flouting the Islamic dress code.

"We don't arrest women we see dressed incorrectly. We try to reason with them first and explain what they are doing wrong," says Hamed. "But if they don't listen ... then we arrest them."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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