Austin Dacey, Free Inquiry Magazine:

March 15, 2005. Tehran. Somewhere, a Qur'an is burning. It is Tchahr Shanbe Souri, the traditional Persian fire festival, and in major cities throughout the country Iranians are turning the celebration-denounced as pagan by the ruling clerics-into a protest. There are reports of revelers chanting "Down with the Islamic Republic" and casting Islamist literature and even scripture into bonfires.¹ Government militia respond brutally, and violent clashes with demonstrators continue into the night.

The episode is not isolated but appears to be part of a trend in which large numbers of Iranians are taking to the streets, as they did in July 1999, October 2001, November 2002, and July 2003. During the fire festival of 2000, so many bushes were set ablaze that the pilot of an Air France plane attempting to land in Tehran changed course, thinking that a revolution had begun in Iran. The pilot may have been right.

Twenty-six years ago, 98 percent of Iranians voted in favor of Ayatollah Khomeini's referendum calling for an Islamic republic. Today, half the population is between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. They were not even born at the time of the revolution. An August 2002 telephone public-opinion poll found that only 19 percent of Iranians supported a politically active clergy, while 68 percent said their family's financial situation had gotten worse since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.² An overwhelming majority favor a new referendum, which asks simply: theocracy or democracy?

As in 1979, university students are at the forefront of the fundamental shifts now underway in Iranian society. The election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 on a platform of reform gave them fresh hope. Throughout the 1990s, they organized under the auspices of a national umbrella group, the Office of Consolidation Unity, or OCU. But by 2004, Khatami's initiatives were stalled, and most student activists had come to regard the reformist program as a sham.

"The theocratic regime is nonreformable," says Aryo B. Pirouznia, coordinator of the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran or SMCCDI, a Texas-based network of activists inside and outside Iran. According to Pirouznia, SMCCDI represents the orientation of the current generation of activists: pro-Western, media-savvy, anti-"reformist," and explicitly secularist.

Today's activists are secularist in two senses. First, they are convinced that "religion is to go back to the mosques and the hearts of those who want it," says Pirouznia. "Even the Ayatollahs are saying that a majority of Iranians is no longer attending regular services. A lot of young Iranians are changing their Islamic names, like Mohammad, to Persian names. That can give you a very clear indication that they are turning their backs to Islam, rejecting a privilege of having the name of the prophet." The goal is absolute separation of mosque and state: "Islamic democracy is in itself a pure contradiction. What's going to happen to Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and atheists?"

Today's activists are also increasingly operating independently of any religious organizations, including the OCU, which descends from a state-backed body of religious students involved in the Cultural Revolution of the 1980s that Islamicized Iranian universities. Today's street demonstrations are spontaneous outpourings rather than centrally planned actions. The ultimate goal of these demonstrations? The overthrow of the Islamic Republic. By what means? That depends on whom you ask. SMCCDI favors a nonviolent popular uprising to oust the mullahs, the creation of a transitional government that would administer a UN-monitored referendum on the theocracy, and the formation of a National Commission for Reconciliation to begin a process of national healing.

Mass media are crucial to this secular movement. Again, SMCCDI is representative. Their Web site averages sixty thousand hits a day. They disseminate their calls for secular democracy through the many Los Angeles-based radio and satellite-TV programs that broadcast in Iran, as well as Voice of Israel, Voice of America, and the BBC. In the words of SMCCDI's charter, which has been read in Farsi repeatedly over the airwaves:

The most effective way the outside world can help the democratic movement in Iran is by publicizing the Iranian people's grievances and their yearning and struggles for freedom. The world's media need to focus on our peaceful resistance to establish basic human rights. TV coverage, not bullets and tanks, will end Iran's theocracy and bring democracy and tolerance to the Middle East.³
Many anticipate a general boycott of the June 2005 Iranian elections. Few will venture predictions, but with increased pressure by an emboldened Bush administration, the country might look radically different by the time of Tchahr Shanbe Souri next year.

This special section of Free Inquiry aims to introduce readers to the secular student movement, which may play a pivotal role in the future of Iran. Effort has been made to present various perspectives, including the neocon foreign policy expert Michael Ledeen (interviewed by author Ibn Warraq), a former OCU member, and a young woman who was among the crowd of students whose exasperation with "reform" boiled over at President Khatami at Tehran University in December 2004. The editors would like to acknowledge the assistance of Pooyan Aslani, Azam Kamguian, Majid Mohammadi, Ibn Warraq, and three translators who wish to remain anonymous.

1. "Traditional 'Pagan' Celebration Turns into Street Fights against Regime Forces," SMCCDI Information Service, March 15, 2005.
2. Public Opinion Survey in Iran, August 23-28, 2002, Tarrance Group.
3. Available at

Austin Dacey, the editor of this special section, is an associate editor of Free Inquiry and director of Educational Programs for the Center for Inquiry - Transnational.