Absent Religious Liberty, No End in Sight for Iran's Protests

Iran’s brutal crackdown against protesters left at least 50 activists dead and landed nearly 4,000 in prison

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

Iran’s brutal crackdown against protesters left at least 50 activists dead and landed nearly 4,000 in prison, and it initially appeared to quell the demonstrations somewhat.

But a closer look at the root causes of the dissent suggests that systemic frustration with Iran’s ruling Mullahs won’t disappear. Indeed, it will probably re-emerge stronger than ever.

The key issues driving the protests: Unemployment, heavy-handed religious persecution, a weak economy, and frustration with Iran’s sectarian leadership. Those issues won’t go away anytime soon.

Angry uprisings flared up in 80 cities across Iran since late December, until being violently shut down by the Revolutionary Guards.

The protests have deeply shaken the religious elite who rule Iran. They’ve also exposed the state’s systemic dysfunction, as well as widespread rage and resentment among Iran’s populace — most notably among the poor and disadvantaged.

Voice of America reported, “The initial spark for the protests was a sudden jump in food prices. It is believed that hardline opponents of [President] Rouhani instigated the first demonstrations in the conservative city of Mashhad in eastern Iran, trying to direct public anger at the president. But as protests spread from town to town, the backlash turned against the entire ruling class.”

So, what do Iran’s angry, courageous, and mostly-young protestors really want?

#1. They want their fair share of Iran’s economy.

Countless Iranians struggle to cover their basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, and transportation. They were promised relief from economic sanctions once the JCPOA was signed. Yet, despite billions of dollars delivered to Iran, their pockets went from empty to inside-out when a new budget increased funding to the military and the mullahs, and cut down subsidies to the poor. The Independent reported, “A 50 percent increase in the price of fuel was announced in the budget in December. Egg and poultry prices recently rose by 40 percent.”

Iranians started looking more closely at how the government spends money; their scrutiny exposed a thinly-veiled secret: the Iranian mullahcracy is exceedingly corrupt.

#2. They want freedom from strict Sharia law.

The Shiite Islamic religious “Revolution,” launched in 1979 by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, established a form of rule by religious jurists. Islamist clerics, from the Supreme Leader on down, control Iran’s population with an iron fist, demanding strict obedience to Sharia law. They appoint religious police to confront, arrest, and imprison those who fail to keep the rules.

Hassan Rouhani may be Iran’s president, but he and other political leaders are, in essence, nothing more than window dressing for the religious authorities. And every Iranian is subject to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s hardcore decrees.

#3. They want Iran’s military adventurism to stop.

Another weighty burden to the Iranian people is the state’s ongoing campaign to “Export the Revolution,” which has caused death and destruction for decades. It has also cost the Iranian people untold billions of their own hard-earned cash.

Angry protestors chanted, “Leave Syria, think about us!” and “Death to Hezbollah!” As they struggle to put bread on the table, they loathe Iran’s “revolutionary” campaigns in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and beyond.

ABC News reported, “…demonstrators have also voiced opposition to the government's policy of sending young Iranians to fight and die in Syria and spending billions of dollars on the military when they say the priority should be working to provide jobs in Iran and control the rising cost of living.”

#4. They want a secular state, not a theocracy.

All theocratic Muslim states are ruled by Sharia, the body of Islamic law that includes both religious and civil obligations. Iran is notoriously intolerant of other religions, or of Muslims who are not sufficiently devout in the eyes of the religious police.

Women’s attire is emblematic of the Sharia. And during the protests, the world watched in amazement as a brave Iranian woman removed her white hijab and waved it silently above the crowd, her long black hair fully uncovered, flowing across her shoulders. The crowd chanted “Death to the Dictator!” and “We don’t want an Islamic Republic!”

#5. They want religious freedom.

Like most dictatorships, Iran permits some government-approved religions to function. But the regime brutally abuses other faith groups, such as Baha’is and Evangelical Christians. Worst of all is the state’s lethal response to converts from Islam to Christianity — a capital “crime.”

A recent report explains, “Leading Iranian officials allege, without any substantiation, that Christian converts are part of a foreign inspired ‘soft war’ against the state. Hojjat Al-Islam Abbas Kaebi, a member of the influential Assembly of Experts, in October 2010 claimed, “… the Zionists and Westerners have targeted [through Christian converts] our society’s identity and people’s religion.”

Converts themselves offer a far different explanation. An Iranian man who was once imprisoned for his faith explained to me that “Shi’a Islam is a depressing and joyless spirit” in the country, while Christianity offers “happiness and peace of mind.” An ex-Muslim woman recently told me that for her, Christianity embodies love, a quality she found virtually absent in Islam.

Interestingly, Christian conversions are on the upswing. Less than a year ago, Fox News reported, “Despite the crackdown, there is now a growing movement of Christians in the Islamic Republic. Groups like Open Doors USA estimate around 450,000 practicing Christians in the country, while other estimates record more than 1 million Christians in Iran.”

Iran’s activists are demanding a country that offers them fair economic opportunities, relief from Sharia enforcement, no more military adventurism, a secular state, and religious freedom.

Even now, Iran’s foundations are shaking. When will the walls come tumbling down?