Reading liberty in Tehran

Mass protests in Iran hint at a sharp shift against rule by clerics and for democratic freedoms. Such a possibility may add to similar moves against theocracy and religious divides in the Middle East. 

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File
In this official photo released Jan. 2, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in Tehran, Iran. New unrest in Iran over the past 10 days appears to be waning, but anger over the economy and the regime persists. The protests in dozens of towns and cities shows that a sector of the public was willing to openly call for the removal of Iran’s system of rule by clerics.

What drives many Middle East conflicts? Clashes over religion, of course, such as whether elite clerics should rule. Several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Tunisia, have lately tried to curb the power of religious authorities. Last year’s overthrow of Islamic State’s brief caliphate marked a major shift in thinking. Now the region’s mightiest theocracy, Iran, has seen a historic challenge after more than a week of mass protests against the Islamic Republic.

The protests began Dec. 28 in Mashhad, a Shiite pilgrimage city, and spread quickly to nearly 80 cities and towns. Unlike protests in 1999 and 2009, the largely leaderless crowds consisted mainly of jobless youths and hard-pressed workers. They expressed resentment at everything from a rise in the price of eggs to shrinking welfare subsidies to corruption.

Part of the fury was directed at a new budget that favors higher spending on the wealthy religious institutions of ruling clerics and on Iran’s military activities in nearby countries aimed at spreading Islamic “revolution.” The budget priorities only reinforce a popular belief that reigning clerics are enriching themselves and suppressing dissent.

Yet it is the protesters’ favorite slogans that hint at a possible historic transition in Iran. Thousands chanted, “We don’t want an Islamic Republic,” “Clerics! Get lost,” and “The people live in poverty, and the leader acts like a god.”

The latter is a reference to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the second supreme leader since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Like his predecessor, the late Ruhollah Khomeini, he claims power over the state based on a claim to being the most eminent living Islamic jurist, while allowing a semblance of democracy with rigged elections. Such religious doctrine is not a recipe for humility in governance or accountability to the people – which lies at the heart of the protesters’ demands.

Many revered Shiite clerics, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, argue against the Iranian model of clerics ruling over secular government, especially in a diverse society. Within Iran, leading voices often ask the regime to listen more to the people. Just two months before the protests, President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who wields little power, warned about popular distrust of the leading imam. “If the asset of trust gets destroyed, everything would be destroyed,” he said.

Nearly four decades of theocratic autocracy will be hard to shake in Iran. Yet 48 million of Iran’s 80 million people now have smartphones, giving them greater access to ideas. Not only can they quickly mobilize, more of them seek a government based on each person’s equality and an ability to reason together through peaceful persuasion rather than through the imposition of religion with state coercion.

In countries that cherish both social stability and freedom of conscience, inspiration comes not from one person but from the highest qualities of thought expressed through collaboration and the democratic process. Those who listen well and seek the highest truth can rule the best. Iran may now be on such a path. And as more Middle East countries haltingly embrace these concepts, the more the region will be at peace.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Reading liberty in Tehran
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today