04/01/2015, 00.00
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Young Iranians affected by the embargo, tired of political Islam

by Bernardo Cervellera
Sanctions have been largely responsible for Iran’s 20 per cent youth unemployment rate. The crisis is such that many young Iranians have to live with their parents, unable to marry and start their own family. For them, jobs remain “more important than missiles and the nuclear programme.” Mullahs have come under criticism for their corruption and for the intrusiveness of religion in public life. "Only 16-17 per cent practice Islam."

Tehran (AsiaNews) – As Iranian officials continue to negotiate with representatives of the 5+1 group over Tehran’s nuclear programme in Lausanne (Switzerland), most young Iranians are working hard to find a job, increasingly disillusioned by official Islam.

The growing gap between the country’s youth and the state religion is perhaps one of the main consequences of the embargo against Iran, something that most but not all would like to see removed.

At least 50 per cent of Iran’s 75 million people were born after Khomeini’s revolution. Whilst their parents found jobs, status and a certain affluence, Iranians under 35 have a tough life.

At least 20 per cent of them are unemployed. And the situation got worse last year, when financial transfers abroad were embargoed. Because of this, many foreign companies simply pulled out of Iran fearing that they might not be able to repatriate their profits.

Masoud is a labourer. He earns about 10 million rials (US$ 350) a month, money that he has to stretch out until the end of the month. His rent alone is 7 million rials. He has a small child and a long story about his struggle to make ends meet.

He does not want another child. Because of the tough economic situation, he is unsure if he could provide for him or her. Every day, he tries to pick up some money doing odd jobs.

Farid too earns 10 million rials, but he has a degree. By giving private lessons in math and occasionally doing the tour guide, he is able to provide for himself. He does not have many expenses, but at 30, he is still unmarried and lives at home with his parents.

Even those who got rich in the past, now cannot trade since no foreign bank will accept to do business with Iran. This is explains why for President Hassan Rouhani and Iranian negotiators, the most important thing is an end to the embargo.

"Billions of petrodollars are frozen in [foreign] banks and cannot be used to give jobs to Iranians,” said a young businessman who preferred not to reveal his identity.

“With manufacturing and the retail sector unable to get spare parts because of the embargo, much of the Iranian economy is obsolete. Since we cannot transfer money to [foreign] banks, no one is prepared to trade with us.”

"The only people who are making money out of the embargo are the Pasdaran (the Revolutionary Guards) who control the smuggling business for those items otherwise unavailable on the market.

“We don’t care about missiles and the nuclear programme. We need for the embargo to end in order to get a job!”

Overtime, the country’s sabre-rattling and warmongering has created a chasm filled with contempt for the mullahs, the men of religion who control virtually every aspect of the country's politics. Increasingly, many young people want to see Islam and politics separated.

"Many ayatollahs got rich and haven’t got a clue about our hardships,” said one young man. “They speak but do nothing. They preach morality but are corrupt. They say they want to live like the prophet (who according to tradition lived on a spoon of honey and a piece of bread) but instead got indecently fat.”

Many of these young people are not enemies of Islam; indeed, they continue to be Muslim, but they cannot stand the power of the Shia clergy, their control over how others ought to live. Young people are especially intolerant towards their corruption.

Now, it has become almost normal for young people to push the limits against the dominant social mores, especially in Tehran, with regard to singing, men and women mixing, and what part of the body must be covered.

On many a Friday, young men and women can be gathering in parks, to hear someone play a guitar and sing along, indifferent to the Basij (revolutionary militia) trying to crack down on indecent behaviour.

Until a few years ago, anyone who offended societal mores would be beaten up and end up in jail. Women could have acid thrown at their face if they wore some make-up.

More recently, warnings have been toned down, but young people tend to disregard even them, scornful of limits to their freedom.

According to some experts, in four or five years, people will break free from the yoke of political Islam, going back to Iran’s more mystical and cultural traditions of Islam, which Khomeini opposed. However, there is a danger that many young people could turn away from religion.

Mehrab, 39, is out of work. He lost it because of the embargo, and now lives with his parents. He says he is not "religious", and does not practice. “I do believe in God, but I am not a Muslim,” he said.

In his family, his father and mother are deeply religious and observe all Islamic practices. But out of six children, only one daughter is still attached to the faith; the others have chosen not to practice any religion.

The reason for this rejection, for this being sick at religion, lies with the fact that "people in Iran are bombarded on TV, radio, public statements, from an early age, in school, at university, with long sermons on Islam, which claim the right to dictate laws and behaviours in private life."

Eventually, the young man told himself, "Why do I have to believe in Islam? Why can’t I just believe in God?" As a result, he stopped practicing Islam, causing great pain to his parents who wonder what they did wrong in raising him.

According Mehrab, the divisions in his family reflect the situation in the country. In many families, young people continue to be formally Muslim, out of a sense of duty; but perhaps only 16-17 per cent of people practice Islam, most others are secular, or even agnostic.

Ultimately, for Mehrab, "Iran does not need compulsory religion”. Instead, “What it needs is democracy and the separation of state and religion."

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