Seminary students listen to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on 12 July 2023.
“One front is the Islamic system… The other front is the deceptive front that calls itself liberal democracy.”
Within the discourse of Iran’s top religious leadership, two interlinked themes regularly surface. First is concern about decreased fertility and second is unease with the younger generation’s declining fervor. In the excerpted speech published on his official website Khamenei.ir, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warns assembled Islamic seminary students and missionaries about declining fervor among the youth and the sources to which they turn for religious education.[i] While Khamenei has previously lamented the decline of the “culture of martyrdom” among Iran’s youth, the excerpted speech goes much further into his thinking about its cause.[ii] Khamenei recognizes that young Iranians learn more about religion from their parents than from the state. This is an acknowledgment that Iran’s earlier educational revolution as well as such organs as the Islamic Propagation Organization have failed. It also suggests that the problem is not only the youngest generation but their parents as well. While Khamenei continues to embrace the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and paramilitary Basij, his broader frustration at the youth signals a growing divergence between those with elite military service and the broader population whose experience might only be as conscripts fulfilling mandatory military service.
Khamenei further blames social media and apps for providing unvetted information. Ironically, he calls out Twitter (now ‘X’), a platform he himself uses. At issue for Khamenei is not just the fact that they might provide faulty information, but that they do so purposely. He suggests social media is not simply a platform upon which individuals might communicate organically, but rather that they are the tip of a vast conspiracy designed to wage ideological war on Iran. Such a belief conforms broadly with an intellectual trend that predates the Islamic Revolution. This is best encapsulated by the late Iranian novelist Jalal Al-e Ahmed who, in 1962, published Occidentosis: A Plague from the West that critiqued Western technology and its impact on Iran. Revolutionary Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself seemed to build on Occidentosis (sometimes translated from Gharbzadegi as ‘Westoxification’) by suggesting that the antidote must be his vision of Shia Islam. Khamenei’s speech provides further insight into the intellectual and cultural battle in which he believes Iran now finds itself. He defines two fronts: Western liberalism and the Islamic system, and argues liberalism is both hypocritical and corrupt. Given his position at the helm of the Iranian regime and above that of any elected official, his castigation of liberalism signals very limited tolerance for those seeking to reform or democratize the Iranian regime.
“Biyanat dar Didar Mobleghin va Talab-e Hawzehha-ye ‘Ilmeah Saresar Keshvar” (Statement to a gathering of seminary students and missionaries from across the country),” Khamenei.ir (official website of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei), 12 July 2023.
Parents teach many things to their children. Many of our people, perhaps even the majority, have gained their information and knowledge about religion from the words and behavior of their parents. Their voices have become weak today. In the commotion caused by the media pluralism, this voice has been drowned out….
In the past, we would counsel the youth and warn them to stay away from bad friends and companions. Now such bad companions are there right inside their pockets! They have a screen of bad companions right before their eyes and everything is in it. If our Islamic propagation material and methods do not suit our audience’s situation, we will not succeed….
If this proactive approach is to be truly realized, it is necessary to know the situation. You must know who you are up against when you are confronted with a large number of doubts in the minds of young people. Who are we up against? Now suppose that a certain editorial writer, a certain columnist for some newspaper, or a certain Tweeter posts something on a social network. Who are we up against? Who is this? Is the person doing this him or herself? It is highly likely that this is not the case. It is highly probable that something is going on behind the scenes. Who is behind the scenes? We should know who they are….
Today, another confrontation exists, a confrontation between two fronts. If we know these two fronts, then we can determine if the phenomenon that has arisen against us is independent or dependent on the opposing front. What are these two fronts? One front is the front of the Islamic system, which I will speak about briefly. The other front is the deceptive face that calls itself “liberal democracy.” But, actually, it is neither liberal nor democratic! They are lying when they say they are a liberal democracy. If you are liberal, why did you colonize others whether through traditional colonialism, modern colonialism, or neocolonialism? What kind of liberals are you? What kind of freedom-seekers are you? And what kind of free-thinkers are you that you colonized a country such as India that had a population in the millions and took control of it for over a century? You siphoned off their assets and turned them into a poor nation.
[i] For previous discussion of demography and fertility, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran: We Have Five Years to Grow the Population” OE Watch, December 2020. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-past-issues/359394/download; and Michael Rubin, “Khamenei Speaks on Demography” OE Watch, December 2013. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-past-issues/195479
[ii] For previous discussion of revolutionary fervor, see: Michael Rubin, “Iran’s Supreme Leader Speaks on Martyrdom” OE Watch, December 2021. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-past-issues/399678/download; and Michael Rubin, “Khamenei Warns Veterans of Declining Revolutionary Fervor” OE Watch, February 2020. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-past-issues/310925/download
Image: Seminary students listen to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on 12 July 2023.