This new year is pregnant with hope for the people of Iran. As popular discontent grows within the Islamic Republic, many commentators are claiming that the unrest today ranks second only to the failed 2009 Green Movement, when masses protested publicly the rigged national elections that secured a second, disastrous presidential term for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The commentators are wrong. This is bigger than 2009.
The nascent revolution of 2009 was fomented by widely held perceptions that the presidential election was fraudulent, as reflected in the ubiquitously chanted motto, “Where is my vote?”. The driving engine was political, based on displeasure with the government’s handling of the economy, repression of dissidents, and the clownish behavior of its president on the international stage. The fact that the protests began Tehran, the seat of government, supports this analysis.
But today, things are different. This brewing revolution had its start in Mashhad, one of the two holiest sites in Iran (the other being the city of Qom), before spreading in less than a week to over forty other cities across the country. The initial trigger was economic – in a country with over 12% unemployment, where the average Iranian is 15% poorer than ten years ago, while inflation hovers around 10%, it doesn’t take much to anger people when the cost of eggs and other staples rise 40% overnight. But the economic unease quickly shifted into politics. Why is the government spending scarce resources to underwrite militaristic activities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen when things are so dire at home? (Witness the popular chant, “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my soul for Iran!”) Why has government aid been so lacking to survivors of the massive 7.3 earthquake that hit the western region of Kermanshah on November 12th, killing some 630 people – the deadliest temblor of 2017 worldwide? Why has the leadership in Tehran been so ineffective in dealing with the longstanding economic malaise of the country? Why is there so much corruption in what is supposed to be the most perfect Islamic government in the world?
It didn’t take long for the protests to morph from economic gripes to political condemnations. Chants of “Death to Rouhani” (the president of Iran) accompanied expressions of exasperation over repressions of basic freedoms – of dress, of speech, of travel, of religion or the lack of it.
The national leadership responded to this at first with the velvet glove approach. The police chief of Tehran declared that women would no longer be arrested for appearing in public without head coverings. President Rouhani acknowledged that the government needed to improve its record on the economy, and that citizens had the “absolute freedom” to protest, as long as they were not a threat to the security of the nation…. The Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) sought to absolve the Iranian people of responsibility for this civil strife by declaring it to be the work of “foreign agents” and Sunni insurgents, who are ever eager to destroy the wonderful Islamic Republic of Iran.
But as protests spread to more than one hundred thousand across the country, and the chants of “Down with the Dictator,” “Death to Khamenei,” “We don’t want an Islamic Republic,” “Clerics, shame on you, let go of our country” began to ring out en masse, the charade of foreign incitement could no longer be sustained. The velvet glove came off, exposing an iron fist. Hundreds of anti-government leaders have been arrested, violence is being applied in increasing measure to disperse “illegal gatherings of protesters,” access to social media apps such as Instagram and Telegram (by which protesters spread word of their events) have been (“temporarily”) suspended by the authorities, schools and trains were shut down last Sunday (to prevent large-scale crowds from gathering), the various military and volunteer vigilante organizations have been mobilized for readiness, and government threats have grown in magnitude against all who take part in these protests. While leading clerics and public officials are publicly playing down the significance of this unrest, privately there is evidence that they are terrified of the breadth and depth of the anti-government animus seething among everyday citizens.
What is so different now from the state of affairs in 2009? During the Green Revolution, no one spoke of overthrowing the Islamic Republic, only of demanding honestly elected leaders. The theocratic mullahtocracy was never in serious question, because it was unthinkable that Islam could be the cause of the malady infecting the whole country. Now, however, thirty-eight years after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, people on the street have suffered long enough under the all-pervasive, never-ending demands of religious law, policed by heavy-handed zealots with divine authority. As they weigh the rule of the ayatollahs, they see hopelessness in the eyes of their friends and family. People who can’t flee the country find escape from oppression and dreariness in drugs (estimates indicate up to 40% of the population is addicted to opiates easily accessible from Afghanistan next door). The joylessness and drudgery of Islam (Ayatollah Khomeini once said famously, “There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious.”) has stifled the soul of Iran. Hatred for its international enemies (once Iraq and Israel and the Great Satan, otherwise known in the world as the USA) continues with one changed protagonist (it’s now Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Great Satan). The regime is better known for what it stands against than what it is for. The constant grasping for more power, the rattling of sabers, the promotion of sectarian supremacy – all this leaves many Iranian people declaring, “If this is what Islam leads to (and why would I doubt that since the ayatollahs know Islam the best), I want nothing more to do with Islam.”
I believe that the unrest of today in Iran has much more to do with a spiritual rejection of Islam than with economic hardship or political dissatisfaction. And because of that, what is happening now among the Persian people is of much greater and enduring importance than the Green Movement of 2009. This cry for freedom is a convulsion of the collective soul of Iran.
How can I make such a brash claim?
Less than two months ago, I was part of a group on a “fact-finding” mission to discover what is going on within the explosive house-church movement in Iran, which stands as the fastest growing Christian missions effort (about 20% annually, by conservative estimates) in any country in the world. How could this be happening in a country so dominated by Islamic power? The Iranian house church leadership gave us their estimate that up to 80% of the Iranian people are fed up, not just with the Islamic Republic and its mullahs, but with Islam itself. Perhaps the fastest growing population among former Iranian Muslims is the atheist segment (“If Islam is not the true religion, then no religion can be true”), but the second largest segment is that of the Christian convert (those who are attracted to a God of love, grace and mercy found through Jesus Christ, and who are ready to give up a god of threat and demand and hate for infidels). Former missionaries to Iran (who were expelled by 1980 under Khomeini’s direction) estimated at that time there were perhaps 500 Muslim converts to Christ in all of Iran. Best estimates today (some 37 years later) put that number at around 4 million. And the house church movement keeps expanding like wildfire. With a total population of under 80 million, Iran can’t help but be impacted spiritually by such sweeping changes in the hearts of its people. The Shiite theocracy of Iran is on its last legs, if this spiritual tectonic shift is truly happening.
You won’t hear much about this in mainstream media analysis because the secular media is completely blind to spiritual factors as a force for change in the world. But those who have spent any significant time in a religiously dominated culture will know better, and will understand what I am saying.
The times are pregnant with hope for the Iranian people. What’s happening today is not “the strongest popular protest since the Green Movement of 2009.” It is the strongest cry for freedom and light since the enslavement of Khomeini brought darkness and chains in 1979!
May God prevent the abortion of this burgeoning life in the womb of the people of Persia, defeating the theocratic doctors of death and replacing them with those who publish peace and bring good news, who will nurture the rich Persian culture as it gains its feet once again of the road of freedom and hope. May 2018 be the year of Iran’s new birth!