June 21, 2009

Jon Lee Anderson: Understanding The Basij

I don't follow Iranian culture and politics that closely, so the information in Jon Lee Anderson's essay at The New Yorker on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Basij is new to me. In the past few days, stories like this (Warning: not for the squeamish!) suggest that the Basij are thugs who are not afraid to get their hands dirty on behalf of their political patrons (and Anderson's essay says as much as well). But there is, apparently, another side to the Basij and Ahmadinejad. Two excerpts:

On a trip I made to Iran in 2006, a year after Ahmadinejad assumed the presidency, I met a Basij official, Dr. Mahdi Araby, who worked at the Tehran City Hall. In the late nineteen-nineties, Araby had been one of Ahmadinejad’s engineering students at the Iran University of Science and Technology, where Ahmadinejad was studying for his Ph.D. in traffic management. In 2003, after Ahmadinejad’s appointment as mayor of Tehran, he had asked Araby to come and work with him. Araby described Mayor Ahmadinejad as a man of pure heart and missionary zeal. “His original aim was not political,” explained Araby. “He just wanted to serve people.”

Araby pointed to a beige windbreaker that was hanging on a hook on the closed door of the room. I remarked that it appeared to be exactly like the jacket the president usually wore. He smiled proudly and said it was his. “It is the jacket of the Basij.” he said.

He then told me the following story. One night during Ahmadinejad’s time as mayor, Araby had been driving home when he saw an elderly couple standing by the side of the road and looking as though they were in distress. They were holding up a jerrican to show that they had run out of gas, but no one had stopped to assist them. Araby did. He instructed the old man how to siphon some petrol from his car, but the man had explained that he was asthmatic, so Araby did it himself. The old woman had wanted to pay him, but he had refused, telling them, “I am a Basiji. It is our duty to help.” Araby accidentally swallowed some of the petrol and had begun spitting up blood, so he ended up in hospital for three weeks. He explained that he had a lung problem from a chemical-weapon attack during the Iran-Iraq war. He smiled; his wounds, like his Basij jacket, were a badge of honor.

Next, Araby told me a story he had heard about Ahmadinejad while he was mayor. The story was that Ahmadinejad had been dressing up as a streetsweeper at night and going out with a work crew for an entire month, to understand what their life was like and decide how to pay them a fair wage. Araby had confronted Ahmadinejad about the story and asked if it was true. “He asked where I had heard it from, and he smiled,” said Araby. To him, Ahmadinejad’s reaction was a confirmation of the rumor. “Ahmadinejad is a true Basiji,” he said approvingly.

It was that same spirit that propelled Ahmadinejad into the presidential race, Araby believed. “I can tell you that, up to two months before the presidential election in 2005, he was undecided about running. But our people were fed up with the promises being made during the presidential campaign, and we realized that the middle-class people, and the people at the lower rungs of society, were not satisfied either.” Araby said, “He hadn’t planned to become president. We pushed him to do it.”


Gharavian, a teacher of Islamic studies, wore black and white robes and a black turban. He explained that it was he who had first brought Ahmadinejad to Yazdi’s attention, and that it had come about by a quirk of destiny. The ayatollah had been in the habit of speaking to the university professors’ Basij organization once a week, but once, when he was unable to attend, and Gharavian had stood in for him. He had met and been impressed by Ahmadinejad, who was a prominent member of the group. Afterward, he told Ayatollah Yazdi about him, and introduced them. “What was it that impressed you?” I asked Gharavian. “I saw that he had a true Basij culture,” he said approvingly. “And that, like Imam Khomeini, he was especially resistant to foreign cultural influences.”

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