Tourist & Resident Guide to Iran

Monday, December 17, 2007

Basij Week in Iran

Basij Week Tehran

This poster is publicising Basij Week which I think has just ended. You may have heard something about the Basij in the news where you are. Human Rights Watch calls them a "parallel organisation" which pretty well sums up their relationship with the government - they're not under direct control but they provide a loyal pillar of support for it in times of need.

In the past this has involved getting heavy with student protests and enforcing codes of conduct and dress in public places. I remember last year seeing a run-in between a group of Basijis and some young men out for a walk in the mountains. The boys were wearing tight clothes and "fashionable" beards that the Basijis found objectionable and they tried to "arrest" them. I didn't stay to find out what happened.

(NB. The Basij are not responsible for the current minor crackdown on "un-Islamic" dress which is going on around Tehran. Those guys are from Ershad (The Council for Islamic Guidance) which is a full government body. Ershad patrols get real police cars and have much more convincing uniforms.)

One way in which the Basiji make themselves conspicuous is on big group outings. I occasionally see them on the way to or from the mountains near wear I live. Here's a clandestine shot of some women Basiji's taken from inside a bus.

Basij Week Tehran

They were part of a coachload of female members all-wearing white and blue checked scarves which signify their support for the Palestinians. At the head of the procession there will often be a standard-bearer carrying a green flag addressing Imam Hossein - the most important of the Shia martyrs. Male groups often chant military-style marching slogans. This all harks back to the time when Basij members provided much of the raw manpower required to kick the Iraqis out of cities like Khorramshahr - a name which still evokes bitter yet proud memories of a time when Iran really was united against a common enemy.

The Basij are still a major part of Iranian society, but I can't help but think they're becoming more and more anachronistic as the Iraq war recedes further into the past. Though scars are still fresh for veterans and especially the families of the shohada (martyrs), it's getting harder now to convince Iranians that they are still at war.
Basij Week Tehran
Iranian government PR is something of a one-trick pony. Replay footage of the Iran-Iraq war and try to make it feel current by blurring it into recent images of dying Gazans. All the patriotically-inspiring if broadcast at half time during international football matches. But the war footage is looking more and more dated now and superimposing Ayatollah Khamenei over pictures of volunteers who never came back just doesn't ring true. The Palestinian conflict is just too far away to evoke the same power of conviction.

With 50% of Iranians just too young to really remember the war, what the Iranian government needs now is a cause. A truly Iranian sacrifice to once again give the Basij a feeling that their world view - a country under threat and therefore in need of repressive conservatism - is correct. And just the possibility (let's not even consider the actuality) of an attack by the U.S. on Iranian soil is just the ticket.

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