Iran Abolishes Its Morality Police...Or Did It?
After three months of almost non-stop protests, the most widespread and most enduring in Iran in over a decade, Iranian leaders appeared to be backing down ever so slightly, with the apparent announcement that the morality police—the group which initially detained Mahsa Amini—had been either suspended or disbanded.
A senior Iranian official said this weekend that Iran had abolished the morality police, the state media reported, after months of protests set off by the death of a young woman who was detained by the force for supposedly violating the country’s strict Islamic dress laws.
The morality police “was abolished by the same authorities who installed it,” Attorney General Mohammad Javad Montazeri said on Saturday during a meeting at which officials were discussing the unrest, according to state media reports.
However, Montazeri’s statement has been itself somewhat walked back by other government officials, and regardless of the status of the morality police units themselves, the mandatory hijab law under which Amini was initially detained remains very much in force.
For his part, Mr. Montazeri said on Saturday that the judiciary would still enforce restrictions on “social behavior.” Days earlier, he said that the authorities were reviewing the law requiring women to cover their bodies in long, loose clothing and their hair with a head scarf or hijab, and would issue a decision within 15 days. But it was not clear whether the authorities were planning to relax the law.
Mr. Montazeri’s comments appeared to suggest the government was making its first major concession to the protest movement ignited by the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in September in the custody of the morality police. The unrest has become one of the biggest challenges in decades to Iran’s system of authoritarian clerical rule.
Indeed, the very next day, Iran’s state-run television network denied that the morality police had been abolished or that the hijab law was set to be changed.
Iran's state-run Al-Alam news network on Sunday dismissed reports that the Islamic Republic's controversial morality police, in charge of implementing mandatory hijab rules, has been abolished.
Al-Alam was addressing extensive coverage of remarks by Iran's hard-line Chief Prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, who appeared to suggest that hijab police was no longer operating.
At least one western analyst has suggested that any move against the morality police by the judiciary is grounded more in the unit’s arguable ineffectiveness and inefficiency in enforcing the hijab law. If the unit was disbanded, or so the hypothesis goes, it is because the unit was not enforcing the hijab law enough.
"The prosecutor's comments about the 'closure of the morality police' has led to the misunderstanding that the Islamic Republic has retreated from its position on mandatory hijab. It hasn’t," wrote London-based analyst Hossein Bastani. "The prosecutor, in fact, had a bone to pick with the police, [as] they are exhausted and not continuing their hijab controls in simultaneity with their crackdown on the protesters."
It has been established for quite some time that the protests had moved beyond the hijab law and Mahsa Amini’s detention and death under that law. While her death had been the immediate catalyst for the protests, the scope of the protests have moved far beyond, at times mounting an existential challenge to the Islamic Republic regime itself.
So remarkable has been that apparent shift in tone and message that French President Emmanuel Macron considers the mood in Iran “revolutionary.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, after holding a landmark meeting with exiled Iranian dissidents last month, described the movement as a "revolution" by a generation of "young women and men who have never known anything other than this regime".
"It was very obvious from the beginning that the protests were not about reform or the morality police, but were targeting the entire regime," said Shadi Sadr, founder of the London-based Justice for Iran group that campaigns for accountability for rights violations.
"What is happening is a fundamental challenge to the regime," she told AFP. "They know they are facing a real threat from protesters."
Indeed, there are signs the religious elite are willing to moderate their theocratic regime in response to the protests. In a meeting with the state cultural council, Supreme Leader Ali Khameni called for a “revolutionizing" of Iranian culture.
"It is necessary to revolutionise the country's cultural structure... the supreme council should observe the weaknesses of culture in different fields of the country," Khamenei said during his meeting with a state cultural council.
What exactly Khameni has in mind for a “revolutionizing" of the culture is unclear.
Meanwhile, in the latest escalation of the protests, there have been calls for a three-day general strike.
Protesters in Iran have called for a three-day strike this week amid conflicting reports that the nation’s “morality police” had been shut down, and as the US said the leadership in Tehran had locked itself into a “vicious cycle” that had cut it off from its own people and the international community.
The call steps up pressure on Iranian authorities after the attorney general said this weekend that the morality police – whose detention of a young woman triggered months of protests – had been shut down.
However, despite Macron’s depiction of the protests as “revolutionary,” at this time the protests still have not coalesced into a movement with a clear agenda for after the current regime is toppled. There have been plenty of chants during the protests that the government should be toppled, but there has been no statement to date of what government would take its place. As New York University Associate Professor Azadeh Moaveni noted in a recent interview on National Public Radio, that level of focus among the protesters simply has not (yet) emerged.
KELLY: Is there potential for a strike, if it were to gain traction, to put pressure on the regime in a way that street protests have not been able to, at least not yet?
MOAVENI: Absolutely. Bigger strikes across industries that are central and potentially strategic - I mean, that would take this to really a revolutionary level. We're absolutely - we're not there yet. And I think it's partly because the protesters out on the street - they haven't been able to yet articulate a positive vision of how and what they're seeking that would help all of the people watching and empathizing and supportive from the sidelines to give them a positive vision to come join in. So I think once - you know, if and when they're able to bridge that, then there's a potential for that kind of mobilization that we haven't seen yet.
That “positive vision” appears to be the primary missing ingredient to turn the protests into a true revolution/insurrection that would result in the toppling of the mullahs’ theocratic regime.
If the strike happens, even if only partially, it will be clear confirmation that there exists a significant desire among the Iranian people for regime change. It will mean that the Iranian people want the Islamic Republic itself ended.
What it will not mean is a clear conceptualization of what will take the place of the Islamic Republic government.
Outwardly, Iran has a democratic republican form of government, with the theocratic wrinkle of the late Ayatollah Khomeni’s ideology of Velayat-e Faqih, “guardianship of the Islamic jurist”, which makes all government actions subject to the review and approval of Islamic clerics.
The concept of velayat-e faqih (in Farsi, or wilayat al-faqih in Arabic) transfers all political and religious authority to the Shia clergy and makes all of the state’s key decisions subject to approval by a supreme clerical leader, the vali-e faqih (guardian Islamic jurist). The supreme clerical leader (the faqih) provides guardianship (velayat) over the nation and, in doing so, ensures the top-down Islamisation of the state.
If the influence of the mullahs, in particular the leadership of Ayatollah Khameni, Khomeni’s successor, were removed, the rest of Iran’s governing institutions would immediately move in a more secular direction.
The reports of acts of arson and vandalism at Khomeni’s home, now a museum, are a strong indication that the protesters at a minimum want the influence of the mullahs purged from Iran’s government.
However, it remains very much unclear how much beyond such a purge the protesters want to shake up the Iranian government.
Unless and until the protests take on a sharper focus towards actual regime change, the existing theocracy is likely to survive this challenge to its existence. Yet the desire for regime change, while it may be suppressed this time by the government’s security forces, is unlikely to be extinguished.
Even if the government survives this challenge to its authority and legitimacy, there will be no assurance that it will be able to survive the next challenge—and there will be a next challenge.
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