Society

Society

IRAN HAS BEEN EXPERIENCING significant social changes since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the monarchy. Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Revolution, and his supporters, who were organized in the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), were determined to desecularize Iranian society. They envisaged the destruction of the royal regime as a prelude to the creation of an Islamic society whose laws and values were derived from the Quran and religious texts sacred to Shia Islam. The flight into foreign exile of the royal family and most of the prerevolutionary political elite, and the imprisonment or cooptation of those who chose to remain, effectively enabled the Shia Islamic clergy to take over governmental institutions and to use the power and authority of the central government to implement programs designed to accomplish this goal. The creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 resulted in the destruction of the power and influence of the predominantly secular and Western-oriented political elite that had ruled Iran since the early part of the twentieth century. The new political elite that emerged was composed of Shia clergymen and lay technocrats of middle-class origins. The major consequence of their programs has been cultural, that is, the desecularization of public life in Iran. By 1987 this new political elite had not adopted policies that would have caused any major restructuring of the country's economy. While there has been controversy regarding the appropriate role of the government in regulating the national economy, the overall philosophy of this new political elite has been that private property is respected and protected under Islam.

The establishment of an "ideal" religious society has been impeded by foreign war. Iran became involved in a protracted war with its neighbor, Iraq, in September 1980, when the latter country invaded Iran's oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan. This conflict has meant a total war for Iran. By 1987 at least 200,000 Iranians had been killed and another 350,000 to 500,000 wounded. At any one time, 600,000 men were under arms. Property destruction, including the complete leveling of one major city, several towns, and scores of villages, as well as extensive damage to industrial infrastructure and residential neighborhoods of other urban areas, was estimated at billions of dollars. The war also created the need to provide for as many as 1.5 million persons who had become refugees; to ration a wide variety of foodstuffs; to retool most major industries for the production of war-related goods; and to expend a substantial proportion of government resources, including revenues from the sale of petroleum, on the war effort.

Although the war with Iraq has imposed extraordinary burdens on the economy and society, the government of the Republic has continued its efforts to recast society according to religiously prescribed behavioral codes. These policies have resulted in a significant enhancement of the role that the mosque plays in society. The Shia clergy have become the major political actors not only at the national level but also at the local level, where the chief cleric in each town has assumed the functions of a de facto district governor. Thus, local mosques, in addition to fulfilling their traditional roles as places for prayer, have become primary sources of social services that formerly were obtained from various government ministries. Mosques also have become one of the principal institutions for enforcing the observance of public morals.

All the major cultural and social groups in Iran have been affected by the changes resulting from the establishment of the Republic. The secularized, Western-educated, upper and middle classes of the prerevolutionary period have been frequent targets of criticism by the clergy and lay political leaders, who have accused them of "immoral life- styles." These secular groups have tended to resent the laws that regulate individual behavior. In particular, they dislike hejab, the dress codes that require women to be covered in public except for their faces and hands, and the prohibition of all alcoholic beverages. Members of these classes, who predominated in the upper levels of the civil service and in the professions, have also been compelled to undergo "re-education classes" in Islam to retain their positions.

In contrast, the religious middle class, generally identified as the bazaar class, has tended to support the laws the secularized groups disliked because these laws reflect the ideal life-style that the bazaar traditionally has tried to follow. Similarly, the lower classes in both urban and rural areas have not necessarily tended to perceive laws regulating behavior as intrusions because the religious sanctions have for the most part merely reinforced the values of their generally conservative life-styles.

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