Free thinking in unfree Iran

A new wave of protests against a theocratic regime reflect demands for equality and secular rule.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gestures during the 33rd anniversary of the death of the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Tehran, June 4.

Since early May, ongoing protests in Iran have reached unprecedented levels, not only in number of places but types of demonstrators. Teachers, retirees, civil servants, rural poor people, even cell-phone sellers in the bazaars have either gone on strike or taken to the streets – despite brutal repression by the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

The protests were sparked by sudden cuts in food subsidies. Yet they are driven by an acute downturn in the economy. Corruption, drought, and Western sanctions have all taken a toll. As the protests have gone on, they have turned political, marked by two common chants: “Clerics! Get lost.” and “We don’t want an Islamic republic.” 

That message reflects a growing desire among more Iranians for equality as citizens and for secular rule. Increasingly, Iranians reject life under a theocracy trying to create an Islamic civilization across the Middle East. Another protest chant calls for an end to government spending on militant groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Gaza. 

More than half of Iranians now live below the poverty line. According to a 2020 poll, 68% believe that religious prescriptions should be excluded from legislation. Only a third identify as Shiite Muslim while nearly half say they have transitioned from being religious to nonreligious. An estimated 150,000-180,000 educated Iranians leave the country every year. 

The gap between the ruling mullahs and the people has never been wider. The same can be said about Iran’s influence over nearby Iraq and Lebanon. Recent elections in both countries reflect popular demands to end the use of religion in politics. 

That same 2020 poll found more than half of parents want their children to learn about different religions. For a regime trying to impose its theology both at home and abroad, that sort of interest in equality is difficult to suppress. The protests may be quelled. A popular revolution in free thinking will go on.

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