The ongoing conflict between Iran’s rulers and the Iranian public is the result of a head-on collision between two contradictory forces. In recent years, public attitudes in Iran have become more liberal. At the same time, power has shifted from conservative pragmatism toward a much more militant fundamentalism. The call by the most important group of Iran’s clerics for the election results to be thrown out is but the latest sign of the fight back of both the reformist and pragmatic conservative factions.
Thirty years after the Islamic revolution, Iranians are growing demonstrably less religious and more liberal. Two face-to-face surveys of more than 2,500 Iranian adults, conducted in 2000 and 2005, clearly show the trend. The percentage of those who “strongly agree” that democracy is the best form of government increased from 20% to 31%.
Similarly, on a number of questions concerning gender equality – including political leadership, equal access to higher education, and wifely obedience – the numbers continued a downward trend. Those who considered love as the basis for marriage increased from 49% to 69%, while those who depended on parental approval fell from 41% to 24%. In 2005, a much higher percentage than in 2000 defined themselves as “Iranian, above all” rather than “Muslim, above all.”
This trend is not hard to understand. The imposition of a monolithic religious discourse on society has made liberal values attractive to Iranians. But, while this was reflected in reformist trends in the country’s wider political life, a movement toward militant fundamentalism took shape within the regime’s power structure. Reform-minded politicians were partly to blame for this change. Far from opposing absolutist power as an impediment to religious democracy, they tried to persuade the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, of the value of reform.