On June 18, as Iranians headed out to vote in their presidential election, the ballot – unlike in India – did not have NOTA (None Of The Above). 52% i.e. a majority, did not vote. Since Iran’s Supreme Leader called voting a religious duty, should this also be seen to mean that a majority in the Islamic republic are also rejecting religion with their electoral absenteeism?
On a podcast by The Conversation, Pooyan Tamimi Arab - assistant professor of religious studies at Utrecht University who has conducted multiple surveys to gauze attitudes of Iranian citizens – said, “Religion plays an important role in a theocracy but political theocracy (in Iran) has led to massive secularization. This is the miracle of the Islamic republic. Secularization to this extent would never have been possible under a secular regime actually.”
A religious government turning people more secular than a secular government would have? That’s the stuff of nightmares for every right-wing government in the world, including the BJP/RSS one in India.
Iran and India not only share a relationship going back five thousand years, political developments in the last five decades have shown similarities. After a mostly peaceful movement fuelled by mass support and anger over the corruption and repression by the Pahlavi dynasty, Iran ousted the last king and voted in a national referendum to become an Islamic republic on 1 April 1979 and to formulate and approve a new theocratic-republican constitution by which Ayatollah Khomeini, one of the leaders of the movement usurped all others to become the first Supreme Leader in December 1979.
Right from its inception, the Islamic republic began imprisoning opponents – including those who actually initiated and sustained the movement for years: the communists and student movements. Brutal repression was capped by regular executions of political opponents with the worst one being in 1988. The Islamic Republic of Iran has had economic progress in its 42-year history but it has operated on various levels of oppression and intolerance of its masses ever since.
The RSS+BJP’s agenda of turning India into a Hindu nation isn’t different from Iran’s in the late 70s and 80s. Unlike in Iran though, they haven’t been able to do it with one stroke and have had to improvise. Even the oppression and imprisonment of political and social opponents, of journalists and judges, students and teachers vary in India by mainly one factor: the state-sanctioned lynching of opponents has not begun.. yet.
Iran should be a cautionary tale to the Sangh Parivar. Religion can have a place in the governing of a nation as the US and some European nations show, but excessive theocratization cannot be done without irrevocably damaging a people who will eventually begin rejecting it the moment it stops serving their utilitarian needs.
Extreme adherence to any ideology turns people blind. Instead of seeing what is, ideologues desperately try to prevent others from seeing any other truth but theirs. In the short run, it can work wonders like it has for PM Narendra Modi. But it will run its course eventually.
Iran has had three waves of COVID19 with over 80,000 officially dead, the unofficial tool many times that number. Yet Iran’s anti-science, Islamic government has underplayed the pandemic to devastating consequences. The ‘Supreme Leader’ in all his wisdom, has refused to take vaccines from the USA. In November 2019 they quelled mass protests by shooting down, according to a Reuters calculation, over 1500 people and in January 2020 a Ukrainian plane killing all 176 onboard.
Though Iran never had ‘elections’ in the sense a democracy like India does where literally anyone above a certain age has a shot at the nation’s highest seat of power, they still gave a semblance of choice to the people. Citizens could vote and elect one from the lot selected by its Guardian Council.
However, this year the ‘election’ was literally rigged in favour of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi. Over 600 candidates – including 40 women – were rejected in favour of six little-known contenders to stand opposite Raisi. The problem with Raisi is not just that he is ultraconservative but he was one of the four in the prosecution committee responsible for the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
In Iran today not only is there no political freedom, but even the lives of people are in terrible shape. Suicide and homicide rates are up, families are struggling, lifesaving medicines non-existent due to sanctions, and women, minorities, LGBTQ+ among others, literally have no rights with 5000 gays having been executed since the revolution.
Yet Iran sees itself as the Shia hope of the region and supports proxy wars against the proxy wars set up Sunni Wahabi Saudi Arabia and Zionist Israel, both of whom are out to get Iran.
Hence, instead of choosing between a rock and a hard place in a pre-rigged ‘election’, Iran’s majority chose to make their presence felt in the ballot by their absence. From 73% voter turnout in the last election of 2017, it fell to 48% on June 18th – the lowest ever.
The survey done by Poonam Tamimi quoted above and Ammar Maleki, assistant professor in public law and governance at Tilburg University shows that a majority of Iran’s population no longer support an Islamic theocracy with only 22% wanting the present Islamic republic to continue. 31% wanted a secular republic, 16% a secular constitutional monarchy, and 31% say they do not have enough knowledge to make a decision.
The BJP+RSS is walking a similar path as Iran’s clerics. Science, secularism and liberalism are being side-lined for religious mumbo-jumbo harming the masses. Right now dissidents are merely being imprisoned, but could a slaughter – literal, political or social – like in Iran, ever be ruled out in any place where ideology takes precedence over common sense and national interest?
Iran also shows it can’t last forever. Like termites eating out the strongest structures from within, excessive adherence to an ideology of any kind hollows out individuals and nation-states.
On top of all that is a world that is increasingly becoming more and more scientific. No nation that abandons science at the altar of a religion or ideology, can hope to do well for its people or even keep pace with the rest of the world.
It is not in the nature of theocracies to back down from their beliefs. The rulers of Iran will continue to claim success till the very end, just like BJP+RSS will in India. The only problem is that the ones who’ll become collateral damage to India’s theocratic experiment, just like in Iran, will be its weakest citizens.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)
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