by Ramin Mazaheri
In this 11-part series, which began as a response to the World Socialist Web Site’s 3-part series against my views of Iran and also Iranian Islamic Socialism in general, I have included a 4-part sub-series on the Basij: I think that the total ignorance of the Basij demands it amid the crumbling JCPOA pact on Iran’s nuclear energy program and the increased worries of war.
The previous three parts have laid out the structural, ideological-political and (very minor) security aspects of the Basij; given the only comparison of this mass organisation I can find – the Chinese Communist Party; and now this final part will discuss the domestic cultural, economic and social aspects of the Basij.
In any objective analysis, there is no doubt that the Basij is rebalancing the social and economic power in Iran in favour of the lower classes. One’s view of this may be “positive” or “negative”, either “right” or “left”, but it does not change the fact of “rebalancing”.
Perhaps, as a leftist, I am predisposed to always see things in terms of class.The reader will have to judge this for his or herself if my analysis here is correct. I have been emphatic that this sub-series on the Basij is simply to objectively inform and neither to condone nor promote.
I have relied, but certainly not solely, on the only book available in the West on the Basij, Captive Society: The Basij Militia and Social Control in Iran, it is a book about the Basij and it is also a book against the Basij, as the title indicates. It is useful because – the author’s obvious personal bias (and thus proof of “poor scholarship”) aside – it is a huge data dump on the Basij.
What Golkar makes clear, with plenty of statistics and research on the Basij from inside of Iran, is that the Basij mainly come from lower and middle class families, and that the majority do not have a college education. This verifies the common assumption among Iranians, which Golkar acknowledges:
“As of the social origins of Basij forces, there is a general view that they come from the poorest and most marginalised groups of society”. Elsewhere: “In fact, Iran’s ‘oppressed’ appear to be the major source of recruits for the Basij.”
In 2003 more than half of Basij summer camp members came from a family with a minimum of 6 members (including parents and quite possibly grandparents); 76% of their parents did not graduate from high school; many have been recent movers from country to town; these are all likely indicators of a lower economic status.
Golkar provides no shortage of statistics which prove: the main source of Basij recruits are people who need government welfare programs.
Indeed, the full Farsi title of the Basij uses the term “oppressed”, which in Iran refers to the exploited and underprivileged classes who suffered under the aristocrats and monarchy. To use a common theme of mine, 1979 was a “Trash Revolution”, or to use an Iranian term which means the same thing: “A Revolution of the Barefooted”. Modern history is clear: Trash Revolutions are the best ones. Many Basiji are Iranian Trash, and Trash everywhere is denigrated by their nation’s rich, technocrats, their so-called “Talented 10th Percent”, and their fake-leftists. It is inherently reactionary to judge someone’s merit by their completed level of education, their parents or their neighbourhood.
So we are finally at the end of replacing the usual & wrong definition of the Basij – the idea that it is a military-minded militia is nonsense and propaganda: The Basij is a group which serves as a government-supported welfare and affirmative action program, with the majority of its members hailing from the lower classes, in return for supporting and propagating the ideals of the 1979 Revolution and Iranian constitution.
Poor people are the backbone of the Basij & the government supports the Basij, so do the math…
I remind the reader that Iran’s middle class was 5% in 1976, but it is now well-over 30%. In the previous article I posited a unique thesis: the 2009 unrest was actually a good thing because it, 1) heralded the permanence of this new middle class, and 2) showed that the lower classes will not tolerate discussing changes to the political trajectory of Iran until they reach the same level of moderate prosperity. I will explain this analysis in detail later in this article, but I bring it up because the Basij is clearly playing a major role in reshaping Iran’s class structure.
Obviously, over a timeframe where the Western middle class has been gutted, the Islamic Republic of Iran has undeniably lifted over 20 million people out of the lower class. All will agree that this is the primary goal of socialism – government concern goes towards the poorest members of society first.
However, we should see – from a class analysis – why support for the Basij is less often found in the middle and upper classes: they simply do not “need” what the Basij offers its members.
Indeed, from a class analysis, the upper and middle class may even feel the Basij threatens their gains, or from increasing their gains further.
In the previous part I described the educational and cultural training sessions for Basiji, and also how they are divided into “Resistance Bases” where members can focus on a broad range of activities for the social, personal and neighborhood improvement. What I did not mention is that how all these activities necessarily require government subsidisation of the following: classrooms, educational materials, paying salaries, recreational facilities, camps (sports, religious, language, cultural), the chance to visit religious sites (travel expenses), entertainment clubs, and much else.
These are obviously especially prized by the lower classes who cannot afford them as much as Iran’s middle class. Thus, at the lowest grassroots level, the Basij clearly provides something to those without much means. The importance of this cannot be under-estimated, even if middle- and upper-class citizens can take such expenditures for granted.
The government also does a LOT of “affirmative action” programs for the Basij; given that the Basij are mostly from the lower class, this logically has an undeniable impact on the class structure of Iran. We must remember that this is not the open class warfare of “open socialism” because it is granting priorities based on Basij membership, not based on class. The effect is the same, but the intent is different. Iran is not an openly socialist government, of course, but that does not mean there is “no socialism”.
For example, according to Iranian law, 40% of undergraduate and 20% of post-graduate university admissions are reserved for Active-level Basij members – this is obviously of huge importance for poor people trying to advance their socioeconomic station. Western affirmative action is mainly based on race or ethnicity, and sometimes class as well – regardless, such policies have declined precipitously in the last two decades.
No group joins the Basij more than students – children and teenagers (age 11-18) make up 30%. Golkar relates how for poorer students the Basij is clearly a way to advance and succeed:
“Being a Basij gives students special privileges, allowing them to enroll in schools that are often the best public schools available in their city….” They also get discounts on text books and prep courses.
The Basij is more popular among rural students, as half of rural students are in the Basij. As is common worldwide, rural areas are more likely to be poorer than urban areas.
One-third of university students are Basij, showing that the Basij-prioritisation programs are being applied almost fully. We can objectively see how the Basij are getting “smarter”, and this makes their ascent and permanence even more likely in any objective analysis.
Western journalists love to talk about the youthful demographics of Iran’s population, and they love to talk to Iranian youth…but almost only from the upper class. This is primarily because mainstream Western (and thus capitalist) publications are only interested in supporting the rich, comprador & bourgeois classes in foreign nations. So Iran is not alone – read about any primarily-youthful non-Western nation in a Western media, from Cambodia to Caracas, and you invariably find it is the upper-class who is quoted, with the accompanying photos just as invariably being of pretty young women. But IRI-supporting Basiji youth are a huge counterweight inside Iran to this oft-quoted upper-class, and play a very important role. Of course, Western journalists systematically ignore or self-censor Basij students out of their stories, but by ignoring the Basij non-Iranians have received a fundamentally unbalanced picture of Iranian youth.
For employment in the public sector Active-level Basij members also get a priority, which is – in effect – another affirmative action program. In 2003, 65% of government employees were Basiji.
From an objective view, this makes sense: the only requirement to support the Basij is to support the 1979 Revolution and thus the government, so it is natural that Iran wants civil servants who are the most committed and supportive. This is also exactly what China does, and I detailed the similarities between the Chinese Communist Party and the Basij in the 4th part of this series, Parallels between Iran’s Basij and the Chinese Communist Party. The Basij is essentially the CCP plus a far, far more moderate form of the Red Guards (disbanded 1968).
I think a major problem with Golkar is that he seems to rather obviously want anti-government (anti-Revolution) citizens to be promoted in government; but what government hires and then promotes citizens who are open political dissidents? In my effort to provide the first objective analysis of the Basij in the West, I make no judgment here – I just think Golkar is asking for the very unlikely, if not the impossible; on a theoretical level, every government primarily exist to protect themselves…but the good ones include their People (and many governments do not).
In multiple 5-year plans all firms, factories and pubic companies have been ordered to allocate 1-2% of their profit to development of the Basij. There are also tax breaks for donations to the Basij.
Working-class Basij have a very compelling reasons for joining – it’s another state-protected resource to defend their job and their working conditions in solidarity with their colleagues. In the previous part I described how, by law, every company over 30 employees must have a Basil; how the Basij essentially serves as a “union”; that the Workers’ Basij has 1 million members, or 1/7th of the working class; and that there are Basijs (“Basijes”? Nobody has cared or dared to write about the Basij in English so that may be the first time Basij has even been pluralised in English journalism, LOL. I’m sure the Associated Press will take note and update their 2018 stylebook accordingly….) in over 20 branches in seemingly all major sectors of society.
There are undeniable, direct economic benefits one gets for joining and being active with the Basij, and these will be discussed later: what I have listed are ways in which the poorest levels of society are uplifted if they join the Basij.
Some things are abundantly clear: the Basiji is primarily staffed and supported by the lower classes; the government is using the Basij as a way to uplift the lives of the lower classes; political ideology plays a part, and that is opposed by many in Iran who feel that not being a Basiji should not exclude them from the same government aid. I imagine many in China feel the same about the Chinese Communist Party – however, the big difference is that the Basij is open to all as it is a genuine mass-membership organization and that all that is stopping them from getting Active-level benefits is the willingness to donate their time for free.
Women like and participate in the Basij more than men
Being a mass membership organization, women obviously must have a huge role.
The Basij is – I would say – an essentially feminine organisation: After all, the Basij is primarily a social group, and women are undoubtedly more socially-oriented than men, in general. It is also idealistic, and thus quite romantic. For most it is Islamic faith-based (though open to non-Muslims), and women make up the backbone of every faith, after all.
Furthermore, the Basij is akin to the Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in that it can act as a neighbourhood watch; neighbourhood watches are mostly gossip and not physical confrontation, and women like to gossip more than men, generally. Even furthermore, telling people “not to do this little thing” and to “do that little thing” – in a “mother hen” aspect I describe later – is also more anathema to men, who generally prize personal latitude and freedoms more than women.
Add in the social welfare aspects, and it’s little wonder that, “For example, they (women) participate more frequently in Basij maneuvers then do their male counterparts.”
Polls also show women have a higher opinion of the Basij and welcome the prospect of membership more than men.
This probably blows Western people’s minds: “Women like the Basij? I thought they were being forced into straightjackets from which they had to somehow cook lavish meals and impeccably clean the house?”
In fact, what seems objectively clear is that joining the Basij is liberating and not restrictive for women:
“Equally important to these social activities, being a Basiji provides women, especially those who come from conservative families, with opportunities for social mobility. In addition to finding a better job and earning a higher salary, these opportunities include the chance to marry well and forge a space in society independent of their families.”
By law, Basiji women have priority in section for government or semi-government jobs – again, de-facto (or ideological) affirmative action. For example, they get licenses to start nurseries easier, a major source of female employment. They certainly can expand their social network out from the usual (quite extended) social network in Iran – the family.
Non-Iranians have a deranged view of Iran when it comes to women – mainly because they think Iranian women hate modern Iranian culture, that Iranian culture was made entirely without their input, and that all Iranian women find it repressive. Iranian men can back me up on this: If repression exists, it is women who are the-equal-if-not-better agents of repression in the home and neighbourhood! This is acknowledged by Golkar, who I’m sure knows exactly what I mean:
”Generally, women are seen as agents of social change, but their roles as agents of political order are rarely studied.”
Of course, Western women are paragons of progressive virtue and could never even subconsciously act as agents of a reactionary-imperialist-racist political order. That’s why Iran should scrap the Revolution and emulate the West, right? Yes…quite.
So…when there was a recent 1 million-signature campaign to decrease societal discrimination against women, Basiji women – while of course not opposing such a campaign – concurrently initiated a 4.5-million-signature campaign to protect the hijab law and other things we Iranian men get ALL the blame for, LOL.
Basij women study Iranian revolutionary and philosopher Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari’s book Women’s Rights in Islam, and it is significant that in the long-ago, bourgeois revolutions of the US and France there were NO women’s rights components, whereas in Iran women’s rights books are foundational texts.
In Islam, as should be well-known, men and women are equal, but have different rights and duties.
It is my humble opinion that Western women perceive “modernity” to mean that they have only “rights” and not “duties”. Men, however, still have “duties”, mainly because they are falsely assumed to have always had “rights”; such an analysis of Western men is faulty because it is fundamentally based on gender instead of class.
This idea of men and women being equal but different is perhaps typically Asian, as it is the exact same philosophy behind yin and yang: neither is superior to the other; both have attributes and strengths the others have less of; it is all a question of time and place as regards to what is the appropriate strength to apply.
Golkar, like many men and women in the West, but unlike in the Muslim world, appears to believe that Islam and feminism are incompatible:
“By increasing the quality of the education, ability, and socioeconomic position of the female Basiji, the regime ultimately weakens its foundations, influencing its traditional religious interpretation of the role of women.”
Well, many will view that sentence as nonsense in many ways – Islam in 2018 is not the result of women being uneducated – but when it comes to Iran and women no view is too outlandish. Golkar quotes Golnaz Esfandiari, a journalist with Radio Free Europe, which is a 100% anti-Iranian propaganda tool of the US, just as BBC Persian is from England.
“The ‘Basij Babies’ program suggests that some in the IRI believe that children should be indoctrinated not only at elementary schools but even before that – as soon as they are born, in order to prevent them from turning into potential critics or independent individuals who want to decide about the way they live and do not base their decisions on the rules set by the Iranian establishment.”
Obviously, it is scientifically impossible to indoctrinate a baby…the idea itself is absurd. A baby has no capacity for political thought, and have been scientifically proven to be stupider than dogs until at least two years old.
Such wild hyperbole, with logic and common sense totally thrown out the window, is expected from Radio Free Europe but not from academics.
However, Golkar’s book proves that he is not an objective academic just as Esfandiari is not an objective journalist – both have an agenda, and in their apparent zeal for counter-revolution they fatally assume that all readers are dumb enough to swallow whatever they say, and thus they invent or reprint such nonsense.
The Basij Babies program is, of course, a place for like-minded mothers in the neighbourhood to congregate, and where mothers can find other local like-minded mothers for day care. Maybe they put “cute” Basij uniforms on their babies, as women often like to do with children, but it is certain the baby would not perceive themselves as being any ideologically different than if he or she was wearing a potato sack…because babies cannot have ideologies. (Perhaps that is why everyone likes babies?)
Furthermore, all elementary schools worldwide have elements of social & ideological-political indoctrination, and to deny that is to show either naiveté or immaturity. It is also impossible to prevent…unless you can get kids to stop asking questions.
Both Golkar and Esfandiari (who also writes for the popular American magazine The Atlantic) illustrate that the only way for an Iranian – or anyone covering Iran – to be successful in the West is to be not just anti-Iran, but to be willing to wildly exaggerate or invent the most heinous accusations about Iran they can think of. I include Esfandiari’s quote not because we learned anything about the Basij, but because it shows how Golkar is repeatedly willing to offer the unsympathetic view of the Basij without ever even discussing the sympathetic view. That is unbalanced scholarship. I have already noted that Marxism nor other typically-leftist ideas are ever broached in this work of political science, which also makes it bad, unbalanced scholarship.
How does the Basij have the economic power to provide welfare programs and jobs?
Perhaps a tough question is: why are these welfare programs only open to the Basij, and not everyone? Quite a fair question….
We must remember that the Basij began as a fighting force: 2 million Basiji fought in the Iran-Iraq War (75% of Iranian fighters, with 550,000 of them students), and, like the G.I. Bill for the US in World War II, there was a tremendous political and democratic consensus that these veterans deserved priority in the postwar era to reintegrate them into society.
In part 2 – How Iran got economically socialist, and then Islamic socialist – I explained the nonsense behind the WSWS’s indignant-yet-uninformed statement regarding the recipients of the “huge sums paid over to the Shia religious establishment” – the bonyads or state charity cooperatives. Just as Iran took 10-15% of the economy from the capitalists and monarchy and gave it to charity, so they used the same resources to create the the Basij Cooperative Foundation (BCF), which is the huge entity which oversees all Basij operations, veterans included.
The BCF has over 1,400 companies and firms as of 2007. During the postwar “privatisation” process many state-owned companies were assigned to them, and they were also given priority in buying stocks of state-owned companies. In a common refrain I make whenever trying to talk Iranian economics with Westerners: state-affiliated organisations buying state assets is not “privatisation” in the way the West means it whatsoever. This was explained in detail in Part 3 of this series – What privatisation in Iran? or Definitely not THAT privatisation – and the bonyads, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij have been the biggest recipients of these intra-government economic transfers. Economically, the Basij are present in a significant way in many key sectors, but they are the least influential of what I call the “1B Sector” (1 being Public, 2 being Private), behind the bonyads and the Revolutionary Guards.
So, for example, when in 2004 and 2005 some Iranian state companies saw their shares privatised, many of the shares were bought by the Iranian Investment Company, which is owned by the Mehr Finance and Credit Institution, which is merely the new name of the Interest-Free Financial Institution of the Basij…so we should see that privatisation is not at all what you thought previously.
Furthermore, not only are these shares not foreign owned, they are not even privately owned! Mehr Bank is the “biggest private bank” in Iran…and yet is owned by the Basij Cooperative Foundation, which primarily exists not to make money but to care for Basij members and activities, adding yet another layer of “this is not Western-capitalist privatisation at all”.
What is exceptionally unique is how anti-capitalist their directive and practices are in all their ventures: Banking (interest-free and low-fee loans to members), construction (“In fact, the IRI has used the CBO (Construction Basij Organisation) as part of its economic populist policies.”), real estate (where they provide low-cost housing), medical industry (“…the IRI pays 80 percent of members’ medical and health care expenses”), retail via the Consumer Goods Provision Institution of the Basij (“With hundreds of stores and hypermarket chains, this institution is primarily responsible for providing cheap goods for Basij members.), telecommunications (free internet access for members) – the list goes on and on.
“Although the Basij commanders have garnered financial privileges by controlling companies, it seems that the economic activities of the Basij are less profit-centered and more oriented towards populism.” Considering just how opposed Golkar is to the Basij, we can fairly imagine this to be quite an understatement.
But make no mistake: this is the exact same statement made by any Western capitalism-oriented analyst when it comes to viewing the BCF, the bonyads, the companies of the Revolutionary Guards…or the companies of the Chinese Communist Party, for that matter. None are designed to be efficient, in something which deranges a Western stockholder, but are all basically cooperatives designed to fuel employment, distribute wages, create cheap goods and reduce the ability of foreigners to destabilise the domestic economy.
This is probably all quite surprising to Westerners but, as this series (and many other articles of mine have proven) – the West does not understand these economic practices of Iran which are obviously socialist in nature. Perhaps the mind-meld Westerners needing order to understand the Iranian is economy is this: The Iranian economy is state-owned, therefore it is natural that the Basij run a part of the economy.
“Together, all these institutions, including the BCF and its 1,400 clusters, provide many employment opportunities for the Basij….The Basij enterprises are owned, operated and staffed by Basij members…. In fact, the economic activities of the Basij create jobs for both active members and their dependents.”
That is why the BCF is a cooperative, and not capitalist. If cooperatives are not “socialist” enough for Western leftists, I guess I should just give up!
“With all the financial assistance provided by the BCF, it seems strange that more people do not want to join the Basij.”
That statement has never been made about any capitalist corporation. Keep that in mind the next time you read about Iranian “privatisation” – the large majority of it is going to places like the Basij. Of course Iran isn’t privatising more than 1/3rd of any company, nor privatising any key industrial sector, and it’s absolutely fair to say that Iran’s economy is 100% controlled (not owned) by the state & that the only pure or Western-style capitalism in Iran is in the Black Market sector (10-15% of the economy). All of those statements have been proven in the previous parts of this series.
But this does return us to the first question I posed in this section: Why is the Basij getting priority instead of all citizens? The answers to that, and the justness of those answers, I leave up to the reader, but we can get into a fair and common public discussion….
Why do people join the Basij? It’s complicated
We have answered the “Who”, “How”, “When” and “What” regarding the Basij, but “Why” has been left for the end.
“The primary function of the BCF in the Iranian economy is to provide for the welfare of the Basiji in different ways. Because materialistic motivations are the main incentive for joining the Basij, the BCF is responsible for overseeing and meeting the material needs of its membership.”
Golkar claims “materialistic motivations” are the main incentive, and not just here but throughout his book. Objectively, this is clearly the most cynical analysis possible, and it essentially calls all Basiji hypocrites and opportunists.
Objectively, I will add: it is also quite often true, and no Iranian would deny it, nor do many Basiji.
This reality does enrage some people about the hypocrisy of such Basiji. It does for some Iranians, especially as Basiji may often claim – on an individual basis – to be morally superior to non-Basiji: they often give the impression of being more revolutionary, more religious, more moral, more societally-involved, less selfish, etc.
However, I am not enraged. This does not make me unobjective about the Basij, and I am happy to explain why: It’s better than Western neoliberal capitalism, at least!
I’d rather have the BCF in charge of a company than some self-interested CEO, right? Iranians all know that Basiji are those who need government welfare more than others – I say: let them take it, because many of them give something back to society; some gave all during the war.
And what’s wrong with the government “buying off” their citizens? That’s what they are supposed to do – not just keep our taxes and the People’s resources for themselves and the 1%!
These things the Basij get – a reduction in military service, discounts for some goods, the chance to visit religious sites, a membership card which they can produce to not get hassled by other Basiji, educational materials, etc. – these are often only highly valued by those with little. Maybe some poor Basiji – many of whom are religious – will sell their soul for them…but I doubt it. Many are clearly in a position of social & economic weakness, so I am not about to begrudge them some advantages. At 40 I’m so old and boring that I don’t get hassled much by society anymore (something all young men experience) nor can I serve in the military, anyway.
Golkar never makes such defences or rationalisations; never focuses on the class redistribution aspects; never even broaches the idea that many Basiji are sincere – he focuses only on the most cynical rendering possible after he divides the Basij into three groups: the true-believers, the opportunists and the thugs.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume they are evenly divided (which Golkar does not assume): Even if we use Golkar’s clearly-biased arrangement (2 out of 3 groups are objectively “bad”), 1/3rd of Basiji sincerely joining for ideology still likely makes a minimum of 3-4 million people, and that is a very formidable group to deal with for foreign invasion, which is my main point to impart to Westerners in this series. I am not here to defend or condemn the Basij, just to examine them objectively. But the idea that 33% of Basiji – and thus 5% of all Iran, at a minimum – are “thugs” seems like very unscholarly reasoning, to me. I would not call one of out every 20 French people I have met here a “thug”, and Iranians are – to my perceptions – far more mellow.
“It is widely accepted that for many people, the most important motive for joining the Basji during the first decade after the Revolution was their belief in the IRI and its leader, Ayatollah Khomenei.”
Golkar desperately and repeatedly urges readers to believe that after the war dissatisfaction and alienation became so rampant that these motivations disappeared, and disappeared completely.
That seems highly unlikely. How many people joined because they were true revolutionaries, i.e. “their belief in the IRI”? How many people joined the Basij because their father, brother, cousin or friend was killed or hurt? Given Trump’s JCPOA pullout as simply the latest in an unbroken policy of aggression, how many join the Basij because they perceive Iran as being under attack, still?
Golkar cites a study of Basij members which said that 66% of their friends joined the Basij for reasons other than ideology, while 97% of Basiji self-reported that ideology was in fact the main reason.
I must first LOL, because this is all very Iranian…”your revolutionary outlook is not as good as mine, your Ramadan month is not as pure as mine, my family suffered more during the war than yours, your family prospered more under the shah,” etc. Basiji or not Basiji – Iranians are just as difficult as anyone else!
But reality is never black-and-white: for Iranians to say 66% of their fellow Basiji are all hypocrites and opportunists is likely a mixture of over-condemnation, arrogance and misunderstanding. I do not doubt that material reasons are a major consideration – and I do not think that is incorrect – but I think it’s unfair to say that Basiji are all selling their soul completely to join and get benefits.
I also think that this number is likely inflated by the fact that the largest group in the Basij are the youth, and that it is simply not “cool” to admit that you love your country, the establishment, your neighborhood, God, etc. What I mean is: I think young Basiji don’t talk about these “sensitive” things that much among themselves – they, being young, talk mostly to show off. This would naturally lead to them saying things like “Oh I just joined for such and such materialistic reason – please don’t consider me uncool”, and then actually being believed by their peers. Such an explanation is not hard to believe, nor master psychology – it sprouts from a sympathetic view of a Basiji’s common humanity, which Golkar does not have.
As Golkar asked – why isn’t everyone joining?
Golkar may just be an economist-type – the “dismal science” – who sees everything in cost-benefit equations, but I remind the reader that joining the Basij means you must have some ideological – and thus moral – reasons for joining. Indeed, how could one tolerate hanging around Basiji on a regular & weekly basis if there wasn’t a kinship? It’s like a Republican hanging out at the local Democrat center, or a boss hanging out at the local union hall – that never happens (though it should).
Because Golkar is clearly campaigning against the Basij, he cannot accept the obvious reality that one can be in the Basij and yet also be partially upset with the government.
Do Americans in the army or the Republican Party all adore their Republican president? Of course not. Are they willing to scrap their entire system and start over – not any I have ever met.
I know people who are Basiji and who are in it only for some material benefits, they say…but I have never met any Basiji who wants to smash the Iranian system and replace it with something else, i.e. they all support the government on a fundamental level, no matter how much they may complain about it.
I work for the Iranian government – do I agree with every thing they do? Of course not – I’m a human being.
(I am not even an “apologist”, as the World Socialist Web Site accused me of being, because I do not defend policies which I do not agree with; the explanation of policies is not a defense. Doing exactly that is a huge part of what is called “journalism”.
Indeed, a smart journalist once told me: “If you support 50% of your media’s editorial policies, consider yourself lucky.” Promoting someone else’s ideas – that’s the gig in paid journalism, and that “someone else” runs from the CEO to the man on the street, both of whom are equally likely to say something quite smart or quite stupid.
Giving a balanced justification of policies one may or may not agree with is paid journalism, and there is no shame in this socially-useful act; what you are reading now is exactly that, minus the paying part. What Golkar has done is to write unbalanced, biased scholarship to advance his personal ideas and interests.)
So it is in fact normal for someone to join the Basij, accept the materialistic and social positives, and yet still be unhappy with parts of the government – what government is perfect? But this does not mean that they want to subvert the Islamic Revolution or that, under threat of invasion, they will not fight to defend their home.
That idea essentially undermines Golkar’s thesis: That all Basiji are being socially controlled. People are not as stupid as he may believe – Basiji are getting something out of what they volunteer to do, no? Are all Chinese Communist Party members rabid communists? At the lower levels no, but you can bet at the top they are. It’s the same as the Basij.
The most interesting poll Golkar relays is one which said that 75% of Basiji said the opportunity to give public service was a factor influencing their decision to join: truly, it’s always this mix of selfishness and selflessness in politics.
As a journalist I can say with some experience that: Politics cannot be absolutist or else it ceases to work. Philosophers can be absolutist, however. Factions of interest and principle exist not just in political bodies but in individual bodies. It is humanly impossible to always act in perpetual & total alignment with one’s stated principles, and thus in all revolutionary societies the issue of “hypocrisy” and “opportunism” comes up often. This issue does not in capitalist societies, because they profess no actual beliefs which are not explicitly cynical and assume everyone is only looking out for themselves.
Maybe eternal accusations of “hypocrisy” and “opportunism” is the price of living & participating in a revolutionary society? That question leads us to the next section….
Why is there internal opposition to the Basij?
Because membership in the Basij clearly has a lot of privileges.
Iran’s government may run what I call “Iranian Islamic Socialism”, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t Iranians who disagree with that philosophy; who favor a Western model for Iran; and who dislike the “inefficiencies” of Basiji businesses they must put up with.
Basiji are performing public works they consider to be good for free and they often come from a poor background, but they are indeed being compensated. That compensation can be financial, or in affirmative actions program, and also in social status and power.
I think it is mostly the last one – “power” – and the domestic policing of the Basij which rubs many the wrong way.
However, I must stress: The Basij’s role and presence has drastically, drastically declined from the 1990s heyday, when they came back from the front and were obviously far more severe. But things change, and faster than we often realise. No Iranian would deny that in many parts of cities in 2018 you hardly ever see a Basij – it is mainly in poorer areas to prevent drugs, fighting, ensure security, etc. The Basij have basically become computer geeks – their main task seems to be policing the internet. Only around religious holidays are you likely to see Basij on the streets.
Keeping in mind the new reality, let’s examine the Basij history as a whole:
“Informers” or “revolutionaries” – it really depends on your view. Somebody who knows of a Pahlavi loyalist or an MKO/MEK member – should they be questioned by the government or roam free? The Basij uncovered the Nojeh Coup Attempt in 1980 by Pahlavi loyalists – imagine if that had succeeded? Certainly, the Revolution decided that the Basij-worldview was essentially democratically correct, so “informers” is rather harsh, no? The Basij are not there just to harass and annoy people into following the law – they are there to challenge counter-revolutionary forces. To counter-revolutionaries, this certainly makes them internal spies.
However, the Revolution and the war was long ago for many (but certainly not to all). The government is aware that the People resist giving the Basij the powers they had during wartime, thus they are now limited to acting as neighbourhood watches in their security role. Therefore, the Basij do not operate above the law. When the police are not present, or to prevent the disappearance of evidence, only in such cases can Basij get involved and then they have to send a report to the judicial authorities.
They have also been specifically denied the powers to meddle in citizens’ personal lives. Many Basiji wanted this right – they were democratically, officially and publicly denied it. However, it doesn’t mean that this doesn’t happen occasionally – I must be objective here. Certainly, it is naive to believe that some Basiji are not corrupted by power and break the laws they are supposed to be such exemplary followers of. The Basij is a mass-membership organisation and the People are not always consistent.
The Basij also do not do what they are told to do – the most obvious of this is their refusal to take down the innumerable TV satellite dishes. These are banned by law, but many of the People want them, and “the People” include millions of Basiji. Some satellites do get destroyed – it all depends on a neighbourhood’s sentiment.
Let’s get real: In all neighbourhood watches there is, shall we say, an “informal democratic consensus” which reigns about what is tolerated and what is not, and which varies from region to region.
As I mentioned, the Basij is an essentially feminine organisation in that it fundamentally social, but they also all play “mother hen” to everybody in a very typical and annoying Iranian fashion. Scratch your head just once in Iran and a female relative is already out the door to get you the proper shampoo for an itchy scalp! One sneeze means they are begging you not to leave the house for three days! Of course, Basiji can fairly point out to me that the chicks survive mainly because of Mother Hen and Father Rooster…. The Basij checkpoints are not there to offer you shampoo, but they will cut your down to size if you mess with them, and they might even cut your hair! That is no joke….
“Basij membership also offers a sense of empowerment to marginalised strata within Iran society,” and this creates conflict.
In a major failure and major proof his biased scholarship, Golkar doesn’t give an everyday anecdote about the Basij – certainly none about Basiji helping a family member or improving the community. Golkar does relate a good anecdote which illustrates the cultural class warfare part of the Basij, which is also undeniable. Golkar relates his following interview with a young male Basiji relating a checkpoint story:
“It was just to have fun to tease a rich sousol (effeminate) kid of north Tehran. With some of my other Basiji friends, we jumped in a car an drove to Sharake Gharb or Miydan Mohseni, we put a stop checkpoint sign up, and annoyed ‘rich kids’ in their kharji (foreign) cars, and if one had a beautiful girl in his car, we teased him even more. Sometimes, if we didn’t like one, we cut his hair to belittle him before the girl.
This is obviously unacceptable and juvenile behaviour, and which can lead to permanent resentments or even other anti-social practices. On the other hand, it is also reminiscent of Cultural Revolution as practiced in China.
The reader can decide for themselves if this is acceptable collateral damage for empowering a marginalised strata of society or not. I am merely objectively presenting both sides and am staying out of it: I work in TV and thus cannot have long hair.
For many Iranians the Basij are enforcing the Cultural Revolution…every day. “Revolution every day” – is that what revolution truly is? Is that good? The reader must decide that for themselves.
However – knowing Iran – it’s not as if this “mother hen” mentality and neighbourhood self-policing wouldn’t exist without the Basij, and didn’t exist in spades before the Basij. This is something – that Iranians are moral and annoying, and annoyingly moral – which no non-Iranian can really understand. Non-Iranians unfairly pin all the blame for “moral and annoying, and annoyingly moral” on the 1979 Islamic Revolution as if it was all something created by Imam Khomeini himself!
The Basij, I am saying, have not created something totally foreign to Iran. During Ramadan this year in Paris I saw a young Muslim guy standing next to his hijab-wearing sister (I assume) and smoking! In the daytime! Let me tell you, I almost went up to him and I almost said, “Brother I don’t think you should be doing”…but I didn’t…because I’m not in the Basij, LOL!
But the Basij step up their patrols during religious holidays like Ramadan, so when one is already tired and doing the best they can to be a good Muslim, such Basjii interference can be met with a cheery, “I wish it was Ramadan year round!” or, “Give me a break and mind your own business!” This judgment must be left up to the reader, yet again.
Golkar points out that more than 80% of new police in 2008 were drawn from the Basij. I am not surprised. In China all police are Communist Party members. Frankly, I think both Basij and CCP membership for cops is far better than France, where 60% of the police force voted for the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, and it was likely not for her economic stance but because she would certainly have given them even more freedom to bust Muslim and Black heads. Cops are cops around the world, but I do not see the French police as struggling to be righteous, pure, religious, revolutionary or caring about the emancipation of anything but their early pensions – at least the Basij and CCP pay lip service to such ideas at a bare minimum. Readers must judge for themselves, however.
The Basij, the Green Movement and the unrest of 2009
The Basij’s role in the unrest of 2009 was undeniable, and I’m not really going to get into it here other than stating this totally ignored reality, which Golkar relates:
“In fact, the Basij response to the Green Movement is the most illustrative example of the Basij’s control over civil riots, which continues to this day. Although the government effectively crushed the Green Movement, it was widely rumored that many Ashura (male) and Al-Zahra (female) battalion members (which have no serious security role) refused to participate in suppressing the dissidents, especially during the first months of the crisis. Likely, many did not participate because they had joined the Basij for materialistic or opportunistic reasons rather than out of ideological devotion.”
While his last claim is possible, the Basij voting record indicates that, undoubtedly, not only are many Basiji not about to get violent, but also that many Basiji actually supported the Green Movement. The Basiji are clearly on both sides of the political spectrum, but the idea that there could be “Green Movement-supporting Basiji” is a possibility which Golkar cannot permit to exist, even thought it is part of reality. I know Basiji who supported it!
So, yes, many Basiji did not fight in 2009. The vast majority are not “fighters” or in security at all, after all; the vast majority are teenagers and women. And many were siding with the protesters; indeed, I’m sure many were protesting! Because the voting patterns of the Basij are, as I showed in the previous part of this series, all over Iran’s political map, there is absolutely no legitimate reason to believe they ALL supported Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
This is the type of “nuance” about Iran which is not nuance at all, but which is never reported.
The irony is that Western leftists will openly admire the Committees to Defend the Revolution (who would certainly get physically involved were Cuba ever to actually have protests) or even the Chavista brigades, yet the Basjii who opposed the Green Movement – which most leftists, including the World Socialist Web Site, agree was a mostly upper-middle class phenomenon – receive none of this support but only scorn, fear and condemnation.
I realize that people are not made aware of the leftist aspects of Iran, its economy, or the Basij, but I chalk this up to the intense hatred of religion by Western leftists. I also chalk it up to the fact that Western leftists do not see Iran as the obvious leftist success it is, and thus cannot see that many people are willing to fight to preserve it. These are all objective realities, to me.
Thus I am not making a value judgment on the Basij in 2009 nor will I – this series is simply to discuss the Basij as it objectively exists. Want to protest for a long time in Iran? Then you may eventually have to deal with the Basij. Most of them are students and women, but a small portion of them are trained to deal with external threats, and what they perceive to be internal threats. A larger part of them are people who are not inclined to violence, but who will do so when pushed to a certain point.
People have, I believe, a fundamentally biased and incorrect view of the 2009 protests because they take an ideological approach – “for” or “against” the government – instead of the far simpler “class” approach. Of course, Western capitalist media never takes a class approach and, being ordered to completely oppose Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, they can only present coverage of Iran with the angle of, “How can this lead to the downfall of the Iranian political structure?”
People fundamentally fail to see what 2009 really meant: In my view, the 2009 protests showed emphatically that the middle-class in Iran (which used to be so tiny) had arrived and would not be pushed around, and it also showed that the larger lower class in Iran would not allow a counter-revolution. To me, these are both positive things, and these problems can be smoothed by greater class awareness in Iran. It is unfortunate that people were killed, to say the least, but Iran is by no means unusual in this, to also say the least.
Golkar acts as if there are 2009-sized protests thrice a month in Iran when there certainly are not. That was an exceptionally tense time, and most certainly the worst time for Iran as a whole since the war. I had a ticket to return to Iran but Air France refused to fly there – I cannot relate to you the anguish I felt every morning as I started up my computer to find out the latest news; I also cannot imagine how much worse it was for expat Iranians in 1980. Golkar may want there to be 2009-sized protests on regular basis, but he hasn’t gotten them.
The recent economic protests are not at all as large, nor as culturally-revealing, nor as structurally significant as the 2009 protests – they are primarily the result of foreign economic war designed to punish Iran’s revolutionary choice.
Conclusion : Is the goal to change Iran to ‘Basijistan’?
“At one pole, a small group of people have positive attitudes toward the IRI, join the Basij, and internalize their Basij mentality. At the other pole, a majority of people share a negative attitude toward the IRI and reject the Basij and its culture.”
The only undoubtedly true statement in there is that a majority of people indeed do not join the Basij: 13-30% of the entire country has (and that includes the children, who are not eligible to join) and that is a huge, huge amount.
I include Golkar’s quote to set up the following sentence, which follows the above and which also terminates his preface (and thus primes the reader to swallow Golkar’s forthcoming analysis of the Basij along with his data).
“The result has been a widening gap between the Basiji and the non-Basiji, which has led to the increasing alienation of Basiji members from society.”
This exemplifies the height of intelligence about the Basij in the West, and it is a very low peak they have attained; it is their desire to depict Iran as “Basij versus non-Basij”. Black versus white; oppressed Iranian women versus horrible Iranian men; enlightened liberal Greens versus troglodyte Basiji conservatives.
But the objective reality is: Just from the low estimate of their sheer numbers, at 10 million strong – how can the Basij be alienated from society? Can 1 out of 7 citizens in a society be alienated from society? Sure, the Blacks in the US are a similar number and they are alienated and live in a world apart, but there is no modern Jim Crow in Iran for Basiji.
Furthermore, Golkar only looks at 10 million members (high estimate, 25 million) – the Basiji have spouses, and I’m sure they must bless their involvement and thus are likely sympathetic. The Basiji have family members – let’s conservatively estimate that half their family members are sympathetic. The Basiji have friends – let’s conservatively estimate that half their friends are sympathetic. What we now have is a nation of 10 million Basij members….but also a nation of 50% Basij sympathisers as well, right? Fifty percent could be a low estimate! If the government reaches its goal of half of Iran being formal Basij members…when you add in the Basij sympathisers, or Basij “tolerators”, it’s impossible for the Basiji to be alienated from society because they are society.
That is a drastic statement, filled with class, cultural and political implications, but that is where I must conclude this sub-series on the Basij.
There are people who will never join and who will never support the Basiji…but it appears likelier that it is they who become alienated from society, and not the other way around. Golkar has it backward: It is the anti-Basij Golkars who are more likely to become alienated and flee, as he appears to have done. I say this purely based on simple, objective logic, math and common sense.
And I think, to show my objectivity, a fair point to make is: If the Basij keeps expanding, is it no longer “Iran” but “Basijistan”?
LOL, that is hyperbole, but the point should be made because it shows how the Basij is no “militia” of religious fanatics but a huge phenomenon and a mass-membership organisation drawn from all levels & present in all sectors of society. I have illustrated its massive cultural, political, economic and class effects, and also shown how deeply rooted these have become. Iran has changed a great, great, great deal in 40 years…but I would say it is still “Iran”. I would also, again, look to China in order to predict the Basij’s trajectory: once the Chinese Communist Party had proven its worth to domestic society, it began changing from a mass-membership organisation to one that is now harder to get into than the Ivy League in the American university system.
From any objective analysis the Basij exists mainly to preserve the Islamic Republic of Iran…which is a modern, democratic nation whose People support in a massive democratic fashion the system of governance they recently created.
So the question becomes: Is the government & society wrong to support an organisation dedicated to supporting the ideals of the Revolution (which created the government)? This is essentially the ongoing question inside Iran about the Basij.
I return to a previous point from Part 4: If there is something fundamentally misguided about the Basij, then the Chinese Communist Party must share much of the same traits. Because both groups are so representative of all levels of their respective societies, if there is something wrong with either group then there must be something wrong with the Iranian and Chinese Peoples themselves.
I find that very hard to accept.
I may be a leftist, but I am not a mindless populist or class-worshipper: But unlike, for example, the German Nazi Party, neither Iran nor China tolerates imperialism or racism, much less promote or ally with it, and I am unfamiliar with any enduring or whole-hearted effort at socioeconomic redistribution led by Western fascists. But the time for explaining the Basij is done – I hope it was informative.
Even though as an Iranian I am well-qualified to judge the Iranian case, I leave the question of the Basij’s democratic and ideological legitimacy up to the reader – I must remain neutral if this to achieve journalistic scholarship, as I intended.
I will only note that a government earns legitimacy based on the quality of its policies towards its People, and also towards the world at-large — at least now some of Iran’s policies towards the Basij have been described and can be examined & judged.
My whole point with this sub-series was, simply: The Basij IS. You deal with it.
This is the 7th article in an 11-part series which explains the economics, history, religion and culture of Iran’s Revolutionary Shi’ism, which produced modern Iranian Islamic Socialism.
Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hope you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
Iran’s Basij: Restructuring society and/or class warfare
‘Cultural’ & ‘Permanent Revolution’ in Revolutionary Shi’ism & Iranian Islamic Socialism
‘Martyrdom and Martyrdom’ & martyrdom, and the Basij
‘The Death of Yazdgerd’: The greatest political movie ever explains Iran’s revolution (available with English subtitles for free on Youtube here)
Iran détente after Trump’s JCPOA pull out? We can wait 2 more years, or 6, or…
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.