Iranians are on the streets. Ordinary people, high school kids, college students and expats are all demonstrating. They have a universal slogan: “Woman, Life, Freedom”. They call for an Iran free from theocratic rule based on the narrowest interpretation of Islam.
I grew up in Iran when the Islamic Republic and its interpretation of Islam took over Iranian everyday life. I witnessed women in my extended family being forced to wear the veil. Many were teachers, some were government employees, and some ran their own businesses. Most were devout Muslims who fasted and prayed regularly during Ramadan. They did not believe in hijab. But to keep their jobs, they had to wear it.
I vividly remember the day a minister told my high school class that we were free to choose. He added, “However, as a Muslim, you must choose what Islam dictates to you.” In a class of 45 students, we had so many different ideas and understandings, but none was important. The mullah’s interpretation of Islam was undeniable. Ours was to obey; he should be the voice of Islam.
For the past four decades, the Islamic Republic regime has ruled the country and faith. It has told the Iranians what Islam expects of them. It didn’t matter what millions of Iranians thought was right or believed. The regime had the final say over the Islamic faith. Many who study Iran and follow its affairs are convinced that what happened in Iran was based on Islam. Few have realized that the ruling clergy call it Islam and not the 85 million Iranians who have practiced different readings of Islam over the past 12 centuries.
Every time there has been an uprising in Iran, there have been voices in the media, academia and intelligentsia telling the public that the Islamic Republic is a system deeply rooted in the Islamic beliefs of Iranians. Few bothered to ask Iranians about their beliefs. These voices told us that what is happening in Iran is what Islam dictates and that Iranians are Muslims. So, reasonably, they shouldn’t have any complaints.
When Iranians demonstrated in the so-called Green Movement against an electoral fraud in 2009, analysts told the world that the protesters were urban, middle-class Iranians; they did not represent all Iranians, who largely continued to believe in Islamic rule. When President Barack Obama sought advice to support Iran’s green movement, he couldn’t believe the protesters represented a real opportunity for change. As a result, he has not supported Iranians who are rebelling against the regime’s oppression, a decision he regrets, he said on a podcast this month.
Ironically, even in the West, analysts and researchers have accepted the Islamic Republic’s definition of an Iranian Muslim. If an Iranian woman is a true Muslim, she obediently follows the Islamic Republic out of her Islamic faith. If anyone rises up against the Islamic Republic, they must not be pure Muslims. She is either westernized or has lost her faith. Such a rationale criminally ignores Iranians’ right to vote.
The new insurgency began last month in Iran demanding justice for Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old girl who was killed in morality police custody. It quickly became something more; much more. Iranians have rebelled against the official interpretation of their faith, values and beliefs. They are reclaiming their integrity and their right to choose their beliefs and values. And they are reminding the world that they too have a choice and the right to choose.
The leadership of the Islamic Republic still refuses to recognize the Iranians and their demands for women’s rights, normal life and freedom. Instead, she describes the demonstration as a Western conspiracy and accuses various European embassies of conspiring against the Islamic Republic.
Today the world has another opportunity to recognize Iranians and their right to choose to live in a democratic Iran. Our global community can look to Iran and see its reality: a brave people rising against dictatorship. Iranians do not have to choose what the Islamic Republic dictates to them. Their interpretation of Islam might differ from that of their rulers.
I hope the world does not miss this opportunity. It is time to accept that Iranians can change and evolve as every other nation in history has. It is time to recognize that Iranians can be free and still be Iranians and Muslims.
Ali Dadpay is an Associate Professor of Finance at the University of Dallas Gupta College of Business. He wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.
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