Iranians as a people are not exceptionally religious, certainly no more than Americans—indeed, I would argue even less so. There is no politician in Iran's parliament who can be considered more of a religious fundamentalist than, for instance, Sen. Rick Santorum or Attorney General John Ashcroft. Iran's President Khatami has never once claimed that God picked him to be president of Iran, as America's George Bush so often has. I would even bet there are more churches per capita in the United States than mosques in Iran. And few if any countries could beat the United States when it comes to using religious rhetoric in political arguments.
Islam is ingrained in the social consciousness of Iran in the same way that Christianity is ingrained in the consciousness of America. It is a part of their national identity. It defines their morals and shapes their view of the world but, for most Iranians, it does not control their lives.
That's where the Basij come in. Originally formed during the Iran-Iraq war as a volunteer militia made up of those too young to serve in the regular military, the Basij gained fame as heroic martyrs when Khomeini flung them at Saddam's advancing army. Tens of thousands were killed. When the war was over, the Basij were transformed into the Supreme Leader's private militia. Somewhere between Hitler's Nazi Youth and the children of the Khmer Rouge, the Basij are supposed to promote ethical guidance among their own age group. Informally, however, they act as the Islamic Republic's morality police, walking the streets of Tehran in packs like a street gang totally unimpeded by the law—indeed, encouraged by the law—to force Iranians to observe the Supreme Leader's moral guidance.
The Islamic Republic likes to boast about its 20 million-strong Basij force. This claim is made on billboards, on television, and in the official press. Of course, it's not mentioned that a great majority of the 20 million are high-school students who join the Basij to avoid their compulsory military duty. My cousin Nader is one of these kids.
Nader is a gentle and personable 17-year-old who's not particularly religious and has no knowledge of the vagaries of Islamic law. He drinks; he smokes; he talks about girls. Like millions of other young Iranians, he joined the Basij both to avoid the military and because membership opens many doors in Iran. As with a prestigious fraternity, Basij membership helps get you into the top universities; it gives you that promotion at work; it helps you dodge that traffic ticket.
This afternoon, Nader takes me out for a "patrol" of Tehran, just for fun. An affectionate young couple walked past us holding hands and Nader explains that, if he wanted to, he could stop them and ask them about their relationship to each other.
"What do you do if they're not related?" I ask.
"I don't know," Nader shrugs. "We bother them, I guess."
He describes how last winter they arrived at a party full of drunk college students and forced them to take off their clothes and roll around in the snow as punishment. Once, when they cornered a girl who had violated the Islamic Republic's modest dress code, they had her take off her shoes and put her bare feet in a dirty bucket filled with worms.
The Basij have no official authority. They do not wear uniforms. They can't arrest anyone. They are not given weapons, though some of them carry batons. They're basically a group of pimply thugs used by the Supreme Leader to enforce his will upon a reluctant population. And therein lies the problem with the Islamic Republic. It's not so much that Iranians are suffering under the imposition of Islamic law. It is that there simply is no law.