Sunday, November 6, 2011
Post #50 - The Youth Wave
There are nearly 75 million Iranians. Only 58% of them have Persian as their first language, with Turkish and other Turkic languages being spoken by about a quarter of the population, Kurdish by 5%, and the remainder speaking tribal languages (Lor, Baluchi, Bakhtiari, Talesh and Qashqai) or Arabic (the mother tongue for only 2% of Iranians, though all Muslims know some Arabic). Some 89% are Shi'ite, 10% Sunni, and the rest a mix of Zoroastrian, Christian and Baha'i. The Revolution of 1979 ended over 2500 years of nearly continuous monarchical rule, but it introduced a form of government that was new to Iran only in degree. Periodically, throughout its history, Iran has had an ascendancy of clerical influence, whether Zoroastrian or Muslim.
Two-thirds of Iranians today live in urban centers, but its network of rural villages, and its long mountain ranges and vast stretches of sparsely-populated arid land are important elements of Iranian national culture as well. Many Iranians are still nomadic, following their herds to high meadows in the summer and down to the fertile plains in the winter. Many Iranians, whether highly-educated or illiterate, can recite poetry till the sheep come home (there are not many cows in Iran).
(Speaking of sheep...strangely, my time in Iran as a young man also drew me closer to the Middle Eastern world of the incarnate Jesus. I remember walking, on a late-fall afternoon in 1968, past one of the many narrow sheep caves dug into the hillsides of my little Iranian town. It was a place where livestock were put to be fed, and to sleep when the temperatures dropped (to 25 below the winter I spent there). Suddenly, I realized that just such a cave was the kind of place that would have held the manger where Our Lord was born. It was the humblest accommodation one could imagine for a young couple about to become a family. If something happened in that sort of place, only the shepherds abiding in the field would be likely to know about it – or perhaps magi – those Zoroastrian wise men who came, from what is now Iran, for the first Christmas.)
Some Iranians are conservative and monkish clerics who spend their days in prayer and discussion of finer points of theology, much like scholars of the Hebrew Tanakh or the sages of China. A growing number of Iranians are web-savvy young people who push the rules of “Islamically-correct" clothing to the absolute breaking-point to show their personal sense of style. A good fit for Islam's racial universalism, Persia has always had a heterogeneity that might surprise some visitors. In general a very good-looking people, Iranians tend to smile a lot and treat strangers with unusual warmth (not that they treat each other any differently). One sees the full range of facial hair on Iranian men, with the most luxuriant growth reserved for the most pious; the Iranian president usually sports a few days growth of beard, like the younger of today's Hollywood heart-throbs.
As Fatemeh Keshavarz points out:
"Many are neither particularly religious/revolutionary, anti-revolutionary, nor for or against the West. Most love their country, respect other people's beliefs, do not support extremism or war, and love to see a democratic system that respects culture and tradition continue to develop in Iran. They complain about the unequal distribution of power in the world...The will not be co-opted, bribed, labeled, intimidated, accused, or made to disappear. They go about living a quiet, humane, honorable life: no one gets to hear about them because they do not write slogans on the wall or attach bombs to themselves."
One can scarcely overestimate the importance of the fact that more than half of the Iranian population is now under the age of nineteen, and almost 100% literate, an achievement of Iran's current government not often highlighted in press accounts. (The higher education system in Iran consists of 54 state universities and 42 state medical schools where tuition, room and board are totally free. Public funding also goes to 289 private universities.) The youth are awake, aware and plugged-in. Despite highly-developed governmental filtering systems, Iranians can boast an internet use rate per capita that is higher than that of China, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia, ten times that of Cuba, and 100 times greater than Iraq or Afghanistan (per OpenNet Initiative). Donna Jo Napoli, the Swarthmore professor who visited Iran, wrote: "Iran is a country of orality. Songs live. And the storytelling tradition lives. People say whatever they think, freely, to each other and to strangers. Taxi drivers often disseminate the daily news as they maneuver through traffic. The Internet quickly spreads the word. The press, however, is not free; but it hardly matters. Iranians are wired. They walk the streets glued to their cell phones. They check their computers often. They turn on their satellite TV’s."
According to the recent book by Nasrin Alavi We Are Iran: the Persian Blogs, there are incredibly now at least 64,000 blogs written in the Persian language – more than in Spanish, Chinese or Russian. This count (from the NITLE Blog Census in 2004, an eon ago by cyberspace standards) does not include Iranian blogs done in English, or blogs and websites maintained by the highly-educated Iranian diaspora (there are scores of elaborate websites maintained by the Iranian-American community). In fact, her figure may be seriously out-of-date; more recently, the Open Net Initiative estimated 400,000 blogs in Persian (citing a report by E’temad-e Melli, “Iran press activists oppose regulation of websites, weblogs,” January 2, 2007, referenced in BBC Monitoring International Reports), and Wikipedia now puts the number at 700,000!
New York Times reporter Thomas L. Friedman assessed the potentially profound generational factor this way in June of 2006:
"[Iran has] a bomb that is ticking away under Iranian society and over the next decade it will explode in ways that will change the face of this Islamic Republic. It's called here, for short, 'The Third Generation.'
"The first generation of Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the Shah in 1979 and founded the Islamic Republic. They are now old, gray and increasingly tired, a clerical regime clinging to power more by coercion than by any popular acceptance of their plan to Islamize all aspects of Iranian life. The second generation came of age during the 1980's Iran-Iraq War, which left 286,000 Iranians dead and 500,000 injured. This is a lost generation, deflated and quiescent.
"The third generation are [sic] those Iranians from 16 to 30 who have come of age entirely under Islamic rule. They never knew the Shah's despotism. They have known only the ayatollahs'. There are now 18 million of them – roughly a third of Iran's population – and they include 2 million university students and 4 million recent university grads.
"...Where this Third Generation wants to go is already apparent. While some of them are religious conservatives, most are not. They are young, restless, modern-looking and often unemployed, because there are not enough good jobs.
"...This Third Generation of Iranians is quite different from its counterpart in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a country getting younger, poorer, more Islamic and more anti-American – as young Saudis react against what they consider a corrupt, irreligious, pro-American regime. Iran is a country getting younger, poorer, less Islamic and less anti-American – as young Iranians react against an anti-American theocracy, isolating them from the rest of the world.
"...The Third Generation will eventually find a new political horse to ride and, when it does, Iran will change – with or without the ayatollahs' blessings."
People in our part of the world have a monopoly on maturity, morality or wisdom. It is not Iran has that has alarming rates of illegitimate birth, divorce, murder and rape, but our own society. As Daniel D. Perlmutter wrote, even “To use words from one culture to describe the activities of another is always a political act.”