Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment, while answering a question on the idea of enlightenment in 1784 in erstwhile Prussia, said, “For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all — freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. But I hear on all sides the cry: Don’t argue! The officer says: Don’t argue, get on parade! The tax-official: Don’t argue, pay! The clergyman: Don’t argue, believe!”

All this means restrictions on freedom everywhere. It is within this framework of freedom and unfreedom that the public discourse on Iran — both academic and general — largely rests.

Narges Bajoghli’s book, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic, does not limit the understanding on a complex country such as Iran to the existing binary of freedom and unfreedom. In fact, it counteracts a lot of insincere and shallow expertise on Iran available on hawkish news channels and irresponsible social media platforms. The book explores the paradox that the Iranian regime faces today, much like any successful revolution: how to transmit the commitments of its political project to the next generation — of dissidents and fundamentalists — who are sceptical about the efforts undertaken by the regime’s media in winning their hearts and minds.

Bajoghli, an academic teaching Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, travelled through Iran and found that there is a major shift in the media industry in Iran, where the pro-regime media is intensively engaged in making cinema on revolutionary subjects as well as creating opportunities for the younger generation to make more such media. Bajoghli’s in-depth and meticulous research shows that there has been a splurge in the production of “new entertainment” media in Iran that aims to communicate pro-regime messages to woo young audiences by appropriating music — which is a form of popular culture banned in the Islamic Republic. Given that ‘culture’ had been the prime battleground since the early days of the 1979 Revolution, Bajoghli embarked on this research project to explore what would be different now in the culture battle.

To avoid any formulaic answers from state elites, the author decided to spend prolonged periods with media producers both at work and outside the work space. Having gained access to regime media producers and the institutions they worked for, Bajoghli, for over a period of 10 years, observed them closely as they produced new material to keep their revolution alive, which is now in its fifth decade.

Empathetic and provocative, a compelling book for anyone who wants to understand Iran as it exists today

Beginning her research in 2009, she immersed herself in the complex and competitive environment of regime media producers. Here she found a media world where men tied to the Revolutionary Guard and the country’s paramilitary organisations such as the Basij — one of the five forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — held debates and heated discussions over the future of the Islamic Republic. This book is the story of how military and paramilitary media producers work on behalf of the state, and thus raises important questions about politics, media and revolutions.

As the book reveals, the revolutionary language in Iran is not understood by the younger generation today. Bajoghli learned this fact when Reza Hosseini, a retired military officer of the Revolutionary Guard, spoke to his colleagues, expressing his lack of faith in the media that was being produced by them. In Iran, there is an urgency felt by state elites to communicate in a language the young can understand. This language, as Bajoghli’s research brings out, has to go beyond the Islamic Republic and instead focus on Iran as a nation. A telling statement from one respondent reveals the crisis of credibility that the regime in Iran faces today: “Our media needs to centre on Iran as the thing that we’re all defending, not just a regime or ideology.”

Since more than half the present Iranis were not alive at the time of the revolution in 1979, and many of the ones who were led to believe that political Shiism would continue to grow beyond Iran’s borders, the religious public space in Iran is clearly a contested sphere. There is a section of Irani citizens — categorised as gheyr-i-khodi [the outsiders] — who find the regime’s understanding of Islam disadvantageous to them. The other section is categorised as the khodi [the insiders], who believe in the supreme authority of the regime and it’s understanding of Islam. Interestingly, the outsider-insider divide was created by the Islamic Republic when it enacted laws about ‘permissible’ dress. This politicised the outward appearance to the point where the people were demarcated as gheyr-i-khodi and khodi. In post-1979 Iran, dressing became the first indicator of this demarcation.

This clear divide is embedded in the creation of war culture, following the 1980 Iran-Iraq war that normalised conflict and militarised the cultural field in Iran. While the militarisation of culture is not specific to Iran, the production of war culture continued to exist and spread despite the ceasefire in 1988 and with the establishment of “the culture of Sacred Defence” that is used to refer to the eight-year long war.

Since war was the foundational narrative of the Islamic Republic, war culture was further entrenched in Iranian society — particularly universities and art institutions where the ground was divided between regime cultural producers, the Basij, and regime critics (outsiders), with the former enjoying greater space and state support for their projects. Following the directives of the Supreme Leader’s office, the Basij spread their chapters in universities across the country, acting as vanguards protecting the state against anti-regime student activism. This pro-regime paramilitary group exists as the most hardline element on Iran’s university campuses.

It was after 1988 that the frontline moved from the battlefield to the field of culture, where moral control is exerted over society by the Basij, which collaborates with various police enforcement agencies, including the Revolutionary Guards. As the Revolutionary Guards increased their presence in socio-economic aspects of public life in Iran, the Basij also became one of the most important sites of power and citizen participation and citizen control in the country. It is no surprise that the Revolutionary Guards in Iran have become the most “powerful and independent institution within the regime.” This has happened over time with the Corps’ involvement in both business and politics.

While this helped the regime create a more loyal cadre of supporters — those who would not seek reform within the system — it failed to gauge the internal dissent that was building within the two organisations. In the 1997 presidential elections, over half the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij voted for reformist Mohammad Khatami. This vote for reform from within the ranks of the regime’s military and paramilitary apparatus was seen by Ayatollah Khamenei as a direct threat to his rule. An embarrassed Khamenei, along with the conservative elements of the two forces, decided to intensify the training programmes, especially for the younger members, with an aim to create a stable voting bloc for hardline candidates and consciously avoid any landslide victories of reformists.

These foundational changes also show the difference between the current Supreme Leader Khamenei and the younger generation of Basij supporters on the one side and the older war generation that tends to support Ayatollah Khomeini and his family, who have become reformists. While Khomeini had clearly written in his will to keep the Revolutionary Guards out of politics, his successor Khamenei has allowed the military organisation to enter politics in order to safeguard his own position, which does not enjoy the same mass support as Khomeini, the founder and leader of the Irani Revolution.

As one reads the book, the internal faultlines become clearer, helping the reader debunk the deeply embedded stereotypes about Irani society that is often seen as a monolithic pro-regime group of citizens. Many men from the first two generations of the Basij aspire to have their children rise in class position, as most members of the Basij belong to the lower middle-class. For them, to allow their children to be part of the Basij would be a step down the social ladder that they have scaled. As an alternative to this life, they save their money and send their children for tours to Europe; this to ensure the right cultural capital to fall in the social class to which they aspire.

Bajoghli’s book is a long, complex and an arduous journey of Iranis in shaping their politics and everyday social life. It starts with the dilemma of dealing with the moral corruption of the Shah and the ruling elites before the 1979 Revolution; spans the post-Revolution early geopolitical transformations and internal changes that transformed the class systems (antagonisms); covers the existence of generational difference in public and private spaces and the outsider-insider dichotomy; and ends with the crisis of credibility that the regime confronts today. Empathetic and provocative at the same time, this is a compelling book for anyone who wants to understand Iran as it exists today.

A writer’s biggest asset is freedom — freedom from self-imposed negative and positive biases as well as freedom from external control and censorship. This book by an Irani-American academic is an exercise in such a freedom — an element of true enlightenment.

The reviewer is a Delhi-based journalist specialising in Pakistan-India relations and Kashmir

Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic
By Narges Bajoghli
Stanford University Press, US
ISBN: 978-1503610293

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 5th, 2020