Officially, there are 1.1 million drug addicts in the nation of Iran. It is in fact illegal to say there are more. But in a recent international conference on addiction, a spokesperson for Iran’s Interior Ministry publicly admitted the number is more like 10 million, or around 1 in 7 Iranians. With a cheap and plentiful supply of narcotics from across the border in Afghanistan (responsible for 93% of the world’s opium), the disillusioned youth in Iran have proved a fertile breeding ground for a massive epidemic. Though possessing and using narcotics is illegal, the dangers posed by the rapid spread of the AIDS virus have forced the government to launch an emergency campaign to distribute free needles throughout the country. At the same time, billions are being spent to construct a massive wall between the Iranian and Afghan border which is 13 feet high and 16 feet wide.
The wall has become somewhat symbolic of Iran’s futile attempts to protect its citizens from outside influence. No matter what they do, they only succeed in increasing the demand for whatever it is they have most recently outlawed. One begins to get the feeling that a majority of the social problems in Iran are actually silent protests against the government’s oppressive restrictions of personal freedom. While Iran’s young people may not be allowed to march in the streets, they have found other ways to voice their discontentment with the current regime, which are far more difficult to control.
Point of No Return
Following the 1979 revolution, the Mullahs established a shadow government called the Guardian Council which essentially ran the country. In every way, this was the revolution: religion and the state were now in sync. But what the Mullahs seemed unprepared for was the fallout that would follow from such an alliance. When the state failed to deliver on its promises, it reflected on Islam as well. And over time, the inconsistent behavior of public officials left the Islamic regime with little moral credibility. (A case in point was the arrest last March of Tehran’s police chief, who had led a yearlong crusade against “immodestly” dressed women. He was caught with six prostitutes in a raid on a brothel. However, in the end he received a slap on the wrist. He was released from prison in June and dismissed from his post.)
But long before any government scandals ever surfaced, the seeds of discontentment were being planted for many Iranians right from the start. Many trace their disillusionment with Islam to the very first year of the Revolution, when the Iran-Iraq war began. The conflict soon became the Iranian equivalent of America’s Vietnam quagmire, only with serious religious overtones. Little children were enlisted to clear minefields with nothing more than their own bodies, and were then declared to be martyrs for Islam when blown to pieces. Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against border towns revealed the cruelty and brutality of what became Jihad vs. Jihad. Yet there was nothing sacred about it. It was just Muslims killing Muslims, and clerics on both sides condemning the other and providing justification for the mass-slaughter of innocent civilians.
With casualities of over a million persons in Iran, the rapid social decay which followed became something the government desperately needed to keep under wraps. Iran was supposed to become a model for the entire Muslim world of what an Islamic society should look like. The Mullahs promised health, wealth and prosperity, but all that followed was war, unemployment, and widespread corruption. And in the end, the greatest irony of it all was that the Revolution produced the very thing it set out to stop: the complete secularization of the hearts and minds of the Iranian people.
Iran’s Unique Dilemma
Far from achieving their ideals, some would argue the Mullahs have done the Muslim world a favor by disproving the feasibility of their own political theories. But in a honor/shame culture like you find in Iran, nothing could be more painful than to experience the embarrassment of an entire population spinning out of control while its leaders stand by helpless, and seemingly heartless. Indeed, one can’t help but feel the desperate frustration of the government coming through with every new piece of increasingly despotic legislation.
But adding to the embarrassment and frustration of the regime is the fact that the Islamic Revolution has to work. They have no choice but to make it work—the entire Sunni Muslim world is watching this Shia experiment. The violent split between Shiites and Sunnis in the 7th century occurred over the very issue that fed Iran’s Islamic Revolution over a millennium later. The Shiites favor clergy-run governments, and the Sunnis oppose it. So what is at stake here is the very legitimacy of the Shiite tradition. This explains why disillusionment with the government in Iran can only lead to disillusionment with Islam itself. It’s all rolled together into one package, and no other alternatives are possible.
The sense that there is no way out of this has only added to the despair and hopelessness of what is fast becoming a lost generation—an age group which represents 70% of the country. Today, young people commonly ask their parents the same question: How could you let this happen? Why did you support something so dark and terrible as the Islamic revolution? Being unfamiliar with what led to the current reign of the Mullahs and only familiar with the strict measures it has imposed on their lives, this bizarre event simply makes no sense to anyone under 30. Why would anyone choose this? To an entire generation there can only be one answer: Surely our parents must not have known what they were getting themselves into. The Mullahs deceived them, and now we have to pay for it.
With no other Islamic or religious options permissible, an entire generation of young people has little choice but secularization, and thanks to Afghanistan, a hopelessness made a little easier with a heavy dose of sedation. In fact, some Iran watchers believe law enforcers secretly support the narcotics trade and control it as a win-win scenario: officials get to pack their slush funds, and the young, would-be revolutionaries are too stoned to care.
The virtual secularization of the country has created a vast spiritual vacuum which something has to fill. Presently there are two major options: drugs or Jesus. The government can’t seem to make up its mind which one is worse, though if current proposed legislation is passed, possessing Jesus as a Persian will become an automatic capital offense. In the past, judges had flexibility in dealing with converts to Christianity, but the new law would make execution the mandatory sentence.
The government has also stepped up their efforts to crackdown on secret Christian gatherings. But this is nothing new for Iran’s young people. For decades they have become very creative in staying one step ahead of the police. You might even say Iran’s secret youth parties were preparation for the birth of the underground church, because they are organized in much the same way. There is the intermediate meeting place where several groups come together separate from one another to check everybody out. Then there are the scouts that guide people to the meeting place. Once inside, the head-coverings come off and the dancing gets started. The only real difference is the dancing is to Jesus, and no drinks or drugs are being passed around, just the Holy Spirit.
For the Iranian government these are the worst of times. It was tough enough to bring a generation of disillusioned youth into submission, but now with Jesus thrown into the mix, it’s an even tougher sell. How do you take away from a million new Persian believers something which has given them a reason for living? That’s the sort of thing people will die for, and every arrest only adds another martyr to the roster.