The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman arrested in Tehran for improperly wearing a hijab, who subsequently died in police custody on September 16, 2022, triggered an unprecedented wave of protests against the Islamic Republic and its Islamist ideology. Chanting "women, life, and freedom," women across Iran are, as I write this, taking off their hijabs and burning their scarves, even in small and traditionally conservative towns. While the outcome of these protests is not clear, one thing is apparent: Forty-three years after the rise of Islamism in Iran, the Iranian people are defeating the ideology of the Khomeinist regime.
Islamism as a political discourse dominated the Muslim world in the 1970s. The creation of Israel and the subsequent defeats of the Arab armies throughout the 1950s and 1960s humiliated Muslims, who blamed their elites and the ideologies that dominated the Islamic world in the 20th century—such as socialism, nationalism, and especially secularism—for the loss of Muslims’ dignity. As a result, they embraced Islamism as the solution to all their problems. Rejecting the idea of Islam as merely a personal religion, they transformed Islam into an ideology, claiming that the faith offers a plan for all aspects of human life, both public and private. Islamism as a political discourse has re-centered Islam as the primary point in Muslim-majority societies and as an alternative to modernity, which is tarred as a Western imperialist phenomenon.
Throughout the 20th century, different Islamist groups were formed throughout the Islamic world. Despite differences between various Islamist groups, they have several common characteristics, including belief in creating an Islamic state, emphasis on the enforcement of shari’ah law, antisemitism, the aspiration for religious purity,1 and hostility to fun.2
While Islamists have a long history in Sunni countries, with the Muslim Brotherhood existing since 1928, Iranian Shi’a Islamists (Khomeinists) were the first group anywhere in the world to form an Islamic government after overthrowing the Pahlavi monarchy in alliance with other political groups in 1979. As this essay will show, while the Khomeinists initially enjoyed broad popular support, their regime soon proved ideologically bankrupt and has struggled to gain legitimacy in recent years. The 2022-23 protest sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini represents the ultimate ideological death of Khomeinism.
Khomeinism and Khomeinists
1979 was the year that changed the Islamic world, the beginning of a “black wave” in which Islamism spread across the Islamic world from North Africa to Southeast Asia.3 Islamism became the zeitgeist of the Muslim world, a third path separate from Marxism and liberalism.
Like other Islamist groups, Khomeinists aimed to train a new Islamic man (“Homo Islamicus”),4 transform Iranian society, and create an Islamic utopia. Since its inception, the Khomeinist regime started Islamizing Iran by force to de-secularize and de-westernize the country, which they believed was Gharbzadeh or "Westoxified." Coined by Iranian intellectuals under the Pahlavi monarchy, “Westoxification” (Gharbzadegi) was perceived as a “disease” that made society into a rootless cultural society via imitation of the West and superficial modernization. Khomeini believed Islamization was the antidote to Westoxification. Islamization followed soon after the 1979 revolution and happened across all political, legal, social, cultural, and economic spheres of Iranian society.
In the political sphere, for example, Khomeini presented the idea of Velayet-e Faqih (“guardianship of the jurist”) as the best and most legitimate form of government in which a Shi’a ulama (clergy) run the state. For Khomeini, the government ought to be placed under the supervision of the clergy, as they were, in this telling, the historical defenders of not only the Islamic faith but also Iranian identity and independence from Western powers.5 Khomeinism as an ideology managed to enshrine itself in the postrevolutionary constitution, approved in 1980, through the incorporation of Velayet-e Faqih.
Supervised by Islamic jurists, the Islamic Republic began several waves of assertive Islamization of society, enforcing Islamic shari’ah (particularly the Twelver Imami version) across society, removing all symbols and elements of Western culture (de-Westernization), and replacing secular aspects of society with Islamic ones (e.g., replacing social sciences textbooks with Islamic ones or promoting gender segregation in public spaces). One aspect of Islamization involved increasing the visibility of Islam in society, including, for example, building mosques and religious associations throughout the country. As a result, the number of mosques increased from 2,000 in 1979 to 80,000 by 2015.6
One of the main principles of Islamizing society and fighting westernization has been implementing the Islamic principle of Amr be Maruf va Nahy az Monkar (“commanding the right and forbidding the wrong”).7 Based on this principle, Muslims are supposed to encourage righteous behavior and discourage non-Islamic behaviors. Enforcing an Islamic dress code and public gender segregation are examples of implementing Amr be Maruf va Nahy az Monkar, i.e., moral policing of society.
The regime created several organizations to police society and implement Islamic shari’ah, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the civil militia known as Basij, and the Islamic Revolutionary Committees (Komiteh-ye Enqelab-e Eslami), which were established in neighborhoods and cities around mosques to patrol society and ensure people follow Islamic behavioral codes.
In addition to moral policing, Khomeinism had several core tenets: support for Islamists globally, anti-Americanism, and anti-Zionism. Supporting international Islamist movements is rooted in the Islamist rejection of the modern nation-state as a Western phenomenon. Instead, Khomeinists endorse the Imam and ummah (Muslim community) as the only correct political form. The Khomeinists’ victory therefore became a source of direct and indirect support and inspiration for Islamist movements across the broader region, from Hamas to Hezbollah. Supporting Islamist movements became an essential project of the Khomeinists, who sought to export the revolution to aid the oppressed around the globe.
Like other Islamists, Khomeinists believe that Islam is a global religion and that ethnic and national divisions among Muslims are artificial and result from a Western plot to divide and subjugate Muslims. Khomeinists pushed the idea of the imperative of exporting revolution and supported Islamic movements to pave the way for the formation of an ummah for all Muslims. These ideas were embodied in the 1980 constitution of the Islamic Republic, which underlines that Iran’s “Supreme Leader” retains the leadership of Iran and the Islamic ummah.
The Islamic Republic's central institution for supporting Islamic movements and exporting the revolution is the Islamic revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Guard is not a conventional military force but works as the army of the regime's Supreme Leader, the “Imam of the Ummah.” The IRGC has, from its inception, recruited, trained, and mobilized Muslims worldwide and helped in their fight against different allegedly non-Islamic political regimes.8 The IRGC helped establish several Shi’a militant groups across the Middle East, including Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Badr Corps in the early 1980s, and it has also strongly supported some Sunni Islamist groups, notably Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), because of their shared strategic interest in the destruction of Israel and enmity toward America.
According to the Islamic Republic’s constitution, the regime should support any just struggle of the oppressed (mustazafun) against the oppressors (mustakbirun), especially against the hegemonistic superpowers such as the United States. For Khomeini and his followers, the United States is more than a superpower. It is the manifestation of Satan’s evil and the ultimate target of Islamists' hatred and resentment.
Islamist anti-Americanism has its roots in Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian scholar who was the first to declare the United States as the manifestation of an ignorant society in the mid-20th century.9 Anti-Americanism expanded through the Islamic world in the 1970s when the United States supported dictators across the Middle East, including Mohammad Reza Shah, who was brought back to power in 1953 after escaping the country as the result of a power struggle with nationalist prime minster Mohmmad Mosaddeq. With the support of the US and British intelligence agencies, Mosaddeq was removed and the shah was re-installed, contributing to lingering resentment among Iranians against the United States.
In the Islamist view, the United States is also to blame for international support for Israel, which the regime deems a “cancerous regime” that has occupied Palestine. That is why, immediately after coming to power, Khomeinists handed over custody of the Israeli embassy in Tehran to representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and established a new holiday on the last Friday of Ramadhan, now christened al-Quds Day. On this holiday, the Khomeinists encourage all Muslims worldwide to show their solidarity with the Palestinians’ struggle to free Palestine in line with “the rights of the Palestinian people.”10
Also, US support for the modernization of the Islamic world, such as support for the Shah’s modernization agenda in the 1960s and 1970s known as the “White Revolution,” has been perceived as cultural imperialism, a form of forced Westernization and secularization of the Islamic world that has created resentment among Islamists. “Death to America” quickly became one of the main slogans of Khomeinists in the early days of the regime, and anti-Americanism and hostility toward the United States remain at the crux of the Islamic Republic’s worldview.
Khomeinism after Khomeini
The death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 was not the end of Khomeinism as a political ideology since his successor, Hojatoleslam Seyyed Ali Khamenei, was a dedicated Khomeinist. Khamenei had served as Iran’s president under Khomeini from 1981 to 1988 and had been a radical Islamist long before that. Indeed, in the 1970s, he translated Sayyid Qutb’s books into Farsi.
In his early political manifesto, Khamenei outlined five necessary stages for the completion of the Islamic Revolution:
1) The Islamic Revolution
2) The creation of an Islamic regime
3) The establishment of an Islamic government
4) The Islamization of society
5) And, finally, the creation of an Islamic utopia or civilization11
Khamenei believed upon taking office that the first and second stages had been completed under Khomeini and that the regime would still need to complete the creation of an Islamic state and society on the path toward realizing an Islamic utopia. That is why Khamenei has pushed for re-Islamizing society while simultaneously exporting the revolution by supporting Islamist movements worldwide. For Khamenei, Islamizing society is the state's responsibility: The state must send people to heaven, even by force.
Two rounds of Islamization of society began under Khamenei's leadership, the first from 2005 to 2011, which was intended to revert to the “original” principles of the Islamic Revolution after several years of experimenting with reform, and the second from 2021 to the present, which has been a response to grassroots anti-Islamist dissidence that grew in the 2010s. This “re-Islamization” has included purging the state bureaucracy and educational institutions of non-conformists and dissidents of the regime and facilitating the recruitment of Islamists into the state bureaucracy.
Khamenei has also continually pushed for reinforcing “chastity and modesty” and the Islamic code of behavior in society through morality policing. Since 1990, Iran’s National Police has been responsible for moral policing and enforcing Islamic laws. With the supreme leader's support, Morality Security Police (Police-e Amniyat-e Akhlaghi) and their operation unit Guidance Patrols (Gashte Ershad) were shaped to control society. As religious police, the Morality Police work by patrolling society and arresting people who violate the Islamic code of behaviors, a series of laws and regulations put on the books by the regime since 1980. These violations include inappropriate dressing or eating during the fasting month.
Anti-Americanism has become even more prominent under Khamenei’s rule. Khamenei sees the United States as the main enemy of the Islamic Republic that is trying to undermine the regime and corrupt the Islamic world. Khamenei believes the United States has started a “cultural invasion” against the Islamic world, and especially Iran, to corrupt Muslims through the propagation of Western culture. For Khamenei, the United States is the embodiment of evil, literally representing an evil front (jebeh-e batel) that stands against the good front (jebeh-e hagh) represented by the Islamic Republic. In the last 32 years of his leadership, Khamenei actively blocked any normalization of Iran's relationship with the United States and attempted to thwart any meaningful contact between Iranian and US administrations. With regards to the latter, he publicly criticized Iranian president Hassan Rouhani for speaking by phone with President Barack Obama after signing the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 and actively worked against any further extension of the relationship.
Like his predecessor, Khamenei has mainly relied on Islamic movements and Shi’a militia across the Muslim world to challenge the influence of the United States. Support of Islamic movements has, in fact, intensified under Khamenei's leadership. He created a new branch of the IRGC, the Quds Force, to export the revolution and organize Muslims, mainly Shi’a, as the soldiers of the “Imam of the Ummah.” The IRGC Quds Force has established many groups, such as the Afghan Fatemiyoun, Pakistani Zainabiyoun, Iraqi al-Hashd al-Sha’abi, various Syrian Shi’a militias, a Bahraini militia group, and Azerbaijani militiamen. It also strongly supports Sunni Islamist groups, including Hamas and PIJ.
Like his mentor, Khamenei sees fighting against Israel as a Muslim duty, claiming that eliminating Israel is “the only solution to the root of this crisis, which is the Zionist regime imposed on the region.”12
The Beginnings of Islamism’s Decline (1979-2009)
While in 1979, most Iranians supported the Islamic Republic and its Islamization agenda, they gradually became disillusioned with Islamism as an ideology. As a charismatic leader with strong religious credentials, Khomeini came to power with the massive support of Iranians, who rooted for him and his plan for creating a pious society. During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, millions of Iranians believed Khomeini and followed him blindly. They were deployed en masse on Khomeini’s orders to the frontlines, where hundreds of thousands were killed or, as the Khomeinists claimed, martyred. Ayatollah Khomeini praised martyrdom as a glorious path for Muslims to fight against enemies and “satanic forces.”
However, Khomeinism gradually lost its appeal to Iranians, especially after the increasing political and social repression of the late-1980s. After Khomeini died in 1989, the Islamic Republic lost its charismatic leadership. A small group of clerics and the IRGC began running the country along with Khamenei, using coercion as the primary tool to maintain power.
From the early 1990s onward, Iranians started questioning the regime’s competency and legitimacy. Although there were a few small protests in the 1990s, they were mainly driven by rural migrants and slum dwellers who settled in the outskirts of cities and demanded amenities such as clean water and electricity in their settlements.
Popular disillusionment resulting from the Islamists’ incompetence in running the state led to the emergence of a post-Islamist tendency in society. Post-Islamism, Asef Bayat has argued, was a condition, and later a project “where, following a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy, symbols, and sources of legitimacy of Islamism get exhausted, even among its once-ardent supporters.” As Muslims, post-Islamists are worried about Islamist incompetence and have tried to re-secularize Islam.
In the Iranian case, the reformists were seen as post-Islamists. Iranian reformists were able to mobilize people to take power in the 1997 presidential election in which Seyyed Mohammad Khatami won office. With the support of a broad segment of Iranians, they also won various city council elections in 1999 as well as the sixth parliamentary election in 2000. While elections in post-revolutionary Iran have not been fair or free since the Guardian Council (a body consisting of 12 members who are controlled ultimately by the supreme leader) vets all candidates, elections were more competitive from 1997 into the 2000s because of Khamenei's weakness. As a mid-ranking clergy without charisma and the strong popular support enjoyed by his predecessor, Khamenei has been unable to impose his will completely in the 2000s. This helped Iranian reformists (i.e., post-Islamists) compete and win power between 1997 and 2005. During this era of reform, there was a discursive competition between Islamists, represented by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and post-Islamism, represented by President Khatami. Post-Islamists promised to provide a new formula to solve the contradiction between Islamic sharia and personal freedom.
While people voted for reformists out of frustration with Islamists, the reformist governments also proved to be less competent than people hoped. The incompetency of the reformists and the continuous pressure they faced from hardliners led many in the Iranian middle class grow disillusioned with reformism by the mid-2000s. Nonetheless, in the early 2000s, middle-class Iranians continued to the Islamic Republic’s suppression of independent political policies. The 1999 and 2003 student protests were examples of this. In these protests, numerous students, who could be understood as visible manifestations of the modern middle class, demanded more rights and political liberties.
The most critical protest would not come until 2009, however. The Green Movement, driven by middle-class Iranians frustrated with the regime, took to the streets that year after the disputed presidential election of 2009 in which hardliner Mahmood Ahmadinejad won a second term. The Green Movement consisted mainly of urbanites and spread mainly through Iran’s big cities. It was primarily a nonviolent movement with political demands. Despite the mass participation of Iranians in the Green Movement, the competition between Iranian Islamists and post-Islamists was apparent at the time. An analysis of the protesters' slogans reveals that the most popular and critical slogans of the movement were still Islamic and religious, the religious call “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) being chanted alongside “Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein” (referring to the reformist leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi).
The Triumph of Post-Islamism (2018-Present)
While the 2015 Iran nuclear deal provided a period of recovery for the Iranian economy, mismanagement, corruption, and incompetence in the regime produced an overall decline in Iran’s economy throughout the 2010s, pushing much of the middle class to a lower standard of living. Political repression, social and cultural repression, and environmental degradation (e.g., water scarcity and air pollution) all intensified in tandem throughout the 2010s. Ayatollah Khamenei’s anti-Americanism and the IRGC’s interventions in the Middle East evaporated hope for normalizing relations between the Islamic Republic, a revolutionary regime, and much of the rest of the world. As a result, Iranians became more critical of the entire regime. The number of labor protests began increasing rapidly starting in 2013. For example, about 400 labor protests occurred in 2015, spiking to 900 in 2017.13
While in the 1990s and early 2000s, most people supported reformist politicians and hoped to restructure the system, in the late 2010s, regime change became the main objective of the Iranian people. This started to become apparent in the demonstrations of December 2017–January 2018, known as the Dey protests (Dey being the name of the tenth month in the Persian calendar). This round of protests spread to 88 Iranian cities, some of which had never before experienced protests. Unlike the 2009 Green Movement, which was rooted in middle-class calls for political liberalization, the Dey protests were driven mainly by the “middle-class poor,” i.e., young, educated people calling for social justice.
The Dey protests differed not only in terms of the social composition of protesters but also in their view toward Islamists (also referred to as hardliners) and post-Islamists (a.k.a. reformists). In addition to their slogans calling out the regime for inflation and embezzlement, one of the main slogans of the protesters was “Reformists, hardliners, it is over for all of you,” which showed their disillusionment with Islamists and post-Islamists alike. This chant expressed skepticism of the supposed duality of the hardliner-reformist dynamic, instead grouping them as two sides of the same coin.
While the Dey protests ended in early 2018, President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May of that year and the subsequent imposition of crippling sanctions on the Iranian regime worsened the economic situation in the country. This contributed to another round of protests in 2019. Following the Islamic Republic's decision to cut energy subsidies and enact a 300% rise in gas prices, protesters took to the streets in November 2019, marking the beginning of what became known as the Abadan protests. These involved Iranians who were disillusioned with Islamists and reformists alike. Most importantly, the Abadan protests marked the clear beginning of calls for regime change from the Iranian public. Slogans chanted during the 2019 protests were more radical and secular compared to 2009: “Death to the Islamic Republic!” “Death to the dictator!” and “No reforms, no referendum, just strikes and revolution!” were heard frequently. Another slogan that became very popular at that time was “Bless Reza Shah’s soul,” which referred to the late Reza Shah Pahlavi and his efforts to suppress the clergy during his reign (1926–1941).
Invoking Reza Shah was in line with the rising hostility of Iranians toward the clerical establishment and any symbols of “official religion.” During the 2019 protests, several mosques, seminary schools, and the offices of high-ranking clergy were burnt. This resentment toward the clergy was not new, but it erupted into popular protests and physical violence against the clergy in 2019. Even in rural areas, the clergy began to lose legitimacy. For example, after a labor protest broke out in Ahwaz, the capital of Khuzestan Province, during the wider Abadan movement in November 2019, several clerics attempted to take over the protests by asking the protesters to pray behind them. However, protesters refused and laughed at the clerics instead.
The other notable aspect of the Abadan protests was that they spread to small cities and rural areas. In almost 100 cities, people protested in defiance of the regime and were brutally suppressed by the security forces. In the span of just a few days, 1,500 were killed throughout the country.14
Grievances Come to the Fore: Iran's 2022-23 Protests
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic offered a break to the Islamic Republic: Despite massive economic, political, social, and cultural grievances, people could not find an opportunity to protest the regime due to the government’s COVID-19 measures and popular fears of contacting the virus. This changed in September 2022 with the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, who was arrested for wearing a hijab improperly (it did not completely cover her hair) and subsequently died in police custody. Popular fits of anger erupted, and protests spread throughout the country. Almost 135 cities have seen protests to date,15 including in places that had never seen any demonstrations before, notably including the city of Khomein, which is the birthplace of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Despite massive repression, Iran’s protests have continued for nearly six months. At least 20,000 people have been arrested, 10,000 have been injured, and 500 have been killed.16 Many people have been arrested, tortured, and raped by government agents for demanding their fundamental rights.
While the trigger of the 2022 protests was the death of a Kurdish Iranian girl, there are deeply rooted, structural reasons behind the massive protests, which are explained in the main anthem of the protest, known as Barey (which translates to “for” or “because”). Sung by young Iranian artist Shervin Hajipour, the song is a compilation of people's tweets about why they opposed the regime:
For dancing in the streets
For the fear when kissing
For my sister, your sister, our sisters
For changing rusted minds
For the shame of poverty
For yearning for a normal life
For those kids who survive by searching through dumpsters for their dreams
For this imposed economy
For this polluted air
For Valiasr Street and its worn-out trees17
For Piruz18 and his possible extinction
For dogs, innocent but banned
For non-stop crying
For never experiencing this moment19
For smiling faces
For students, for their future
For this forced “Heaven”
For imprisoned elites
For Afghan children
For all these countless “for”s
For all these meaningless chants20
For the collapse of these flimsy houses
For the feeling of serenity and peace
For the sun after a long night
For anti-anxiety pills and insomnia
For men, homeland, development
For girls wishing to be boys
For women, life, freedom
Seeing how popular this song has become, it shows that Iranians have different political, social, cultural, and even environmental grievances. As a theocratic police state, the Islamic Republic is one of the most closed political regimes in the world, relying heavily on coercion. The Iranian economy suffers from structural problems and this situation has worsened in the last decade: For example, in 2022, the inflation rate exceeded 50%, while food prices saw a 70% rise.22 The dollar-to-rial exchange rate increased from 300,000 in 2021 to 440,000 at the end of December 2022. According to an Iranian government economist, in the 2010s, the size of the poor population of Iran doubled in three years, and official reports say that more than 75% of the population cannot live without state subsidies.23 This long-running inflation and prolonged economic instability are accompanied by rising unemployment which, according to the official statistics, is about 12%. According to other studies, in urban areas, only 55% of men and only 10% of women in are employed.24
Social and cultural restrictions have accompanied political repression and economic stagnation. The Islamic Republic, as a proto-totalitarian regime, has tried to control the private and public life of Iranians. With moral policing, gender segregation, and restrictions on clothing, the Islamic Republic has created a stagnant society, which many Iranians resent. As a result, the Iranian people are losing hope for a better future. In 2019, more than 60% of respondents to a survey stated that they have no hope that the situation will improve in the future. Another common response among those surveyed was that “there is no hope in the fight against corruption."25
IRAN'S 2022 PROTESTS: THE END OF ISLAMISM?
While the 2022-23 protests are not a new phenomenon, since Iranians have continuously protested the Islamic Republic since the turn of the millennium, they differ notably from previous rounds of demonstrations. These protests cut across Iranian society, uniting people from different strata and varying ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and generational backgrounds in opposition to the Islamic Republic. This contrasts with the 1999 student protests, the 2009 middle-class Green Movement, or the 2019 lower-middle-class movement. For the first time, we see a strong presence of high schoolers, primarily schoolgirls, who have defied and protested against the Islamic Republic and its totalitarian Islamist ideology. For this reason, many Iranians suspect that the regime is behind the poisoning of more than (to date) 700 schoolgirls since February 2023 as a means of punishing them for their outspoken role in the Mahsa Amini protests.
In terms of goals, while the previous rounds of protest were mainly in demand for some political reform and economic relief, 2022-23 is a political revolution against the entire regime, which calls for dismantling the theocratic police state and replacing it with a more liberal and representative system.
The 2022-23 protests can also be seen as a social revolution in terms of the protesters’ demand for the replacement of a religious and patriarchal social order with an equal social order. The main slogan of the protest, “Women, Life, Freedom,” reflects a new paradigm in the Iranian popular consciousness.26 Emphasizing life versus death, this slogan goes against one of the central pillars of Khomeinism: Khomeinists idealize the idea of death (particularly martyrdom in the path of God) as liberation from an unjust world.27
The hypocrisy of the regime's elites (the regime’s rhetoric of Islamic morality and purity stands in strong contrast to the elites’ corruption) has made Iranians cynical of Islamism and Islam. The regime's mismanagement of economic matters, its pervasive corruption, and its general incompetency have worsened Iranian socio-economic conditions and exacerbated environmental degradation, while the regime’s continuous brutal suppression of dissent has made it clear that Islamism is worse than the Pahlavi monarchy it replaced.
The result has been the deep secularization of Iranian society and the rejection of Islamism. The sociologist José Casanova has elaborated on three different connotations of secularization: the decline of religious beliefs and practices, the privatization of religion, and the separation of church from state and social institutions. While the Islamic Republic is a theocratic regime in which the mosque and state are inseparable, Iranians have increased their resentment of the clergy, resulting in popular and grassroots secularization rather than official secularization. More so than in the 2019 protests, religious symbols such as mosques have been burned in protest of the Islamist regime in 2022 and 2023. One popular act of defiance in these protests has been to toss clergies' turbans from their heads.
Each year, the number of people who attend government-sponsored religious ceremonies like the Friday prayer ceremony steadily diminishes. The same stands for the people's respect for the clergy as a Shi’a source of emulation (the highest Shi’a authority). Iranian society has witnessed a fundamental decrease in religiosity, such as praying, fasting, and paying zakat (religiously obligatory charity). According to a new study by GAMAAN and the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, mass secularization cuts across Iran’s rural-urban divide: “Only 26 percent [sic] of urban Iranians pray five times daily while 33 percent of rural Iranians follow the same Islamic prescription. Similarly, only 28 percent of rural Iranians and 21 percent of urban Iranians believe in wearing the hijab.”28
According to a separate 2020 survey, in a country that is officially 99.5% Muslim, only 40% of respondents identified themselves as such.29 Even people who identify as religious have developed a personal interpretation of religion, meaning that they do not need to follow the clergy to be Muslim. As Hossein Godazgar has written, some Iranians are moving from an institutionalized, political Islam toward a “profoundly 'fragmented,” “subjectivized” and “individualized Islam” or “spiritualism,” in which the clergy becomes “irrelevant to people's religiosity.”30
While the regime promotes jurisprudence-based Islam as the only proper form of religion, the increasing popularity of mystic Shi'ism such as Shi’a Sufism has led to oppression from Shi’a authorities. In addition, there are several studies of Iranians converting to other branches of Islam, such as Sunni Islam and even other religions like Christianity.31 For example, while official statistics say that only a few thousand practicing Zoroastrians live in Iran, 8% of Iranians identified themselves as Zoroastrians in the aforementioned 2020 poll.32
What Iran is witnessing now is a grassroots secularization among 82 million Iranians, especially the youth. Twenty-three-year-old protestor Majidreza Rahnavard's dying wishes before being executed reflect this bottom-up secularization. He said: “Don't cry, don't read the Qur’an, don't pray… Be joyful. Play happy music.”33 The separation between a reactionary theocratic regime and a tech-savvy, young, and educated society has so widened that people are sacrificing their lives to overthrow the government.
The 2022-23 Iran protests are against everything Islamism stands for, such as hostility to the West, fun, and democracy. Almost all the protesters’ slogans are chanted against the dictatorship, the Khomeinists, and their ideology. The 2022-23 protests are a social and political revolt against the Islamic Republic and its Islamist ideology. Iranians are presenting a new paradigm of replacing a death-ordinated religion centered with one that values life, individualism, and liberty.
The secularization of protest is accompanied by two other issues worth discussing. One is the rejection of supporting Islamic movements around the globe, the other is a rejection of the regime’s anti-Americanism.
“Not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran!” started as a marginal slogan in 2009 and became very popular among Iranians opposing the regime in the late 2010s. From the average Iranian point of view, supporting Islamist movements worldwide not only wastes Iranian money but also blocks the normalization of relationships with other counties.
Another slogan frequently chanted since 2017 onward has been: "Our enemy is right here; they lie when they say it's the United States.” This slogan was heard for the first time in 2017 among farmers in Isfahan province who were criticizing the regime's incompetent water administration policies. Despite 43 years of continuously injecting anti-Americanism into Iranian minds, Iranian society has become one of the most pro-American societies in the Middle East. The rejection of anti-Americanism by ordinary Iranians goes back to the early 2000s. Several polls from that time depicted a general desire to have a normal relationship with the United States. For example, according to a 2001 survey, 75% of Iranians favored reopening official contacts with America. Another study in 2009 showed that Americans are more widely liked in Iran than elsewhere in the Middle East, and that almost two-thirds of Iranians support restoring diplomatic ties with the United States.34
While the future of this round of protests is not completely clear, the message of these protests is: Islamism has been defeated in Iran, even though Islamists still control the state and society through naked force. The question is when Iranians can put the genie of Islamism back in its lamp. Although it is not a 100% guarantee that the next regime will be democratic, we can be sure that the next regime will be secular, thanks to widespread resentment of Islamism.