JANUARY 7 — Eggs. It may put a smile on our faces in the morning fried sunny side up, or half-boiled and accompanied by a cup of black, sweet-as-sin coffee. Or maybe they upset you, when they break.
But in Iran, eggs ostensibly sparked its latest revolution. Last week, Iran’s Mehr News agency reported the price of eggs shot up and in some cases even doubled.
Many observers argued it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, leading to at first a minor rally against president Hassan Rouhani in Masshad, Iran’s second largest city, and home to his embittered rival, the cleric Ebrahim Raisi who went up against the former in the 2017 presidential election.
By the third day, the protests had spread to 26 cities, making it the country’s largest protest since 2009’s reformist protest against then president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad that gave rise to the Green Uprising.
In a week, at least 21 people have been reportedly killed while over 1,000 have been arrested, including many student protesters in Tehran.
Of course, the whole thing in not that simple. It was not just the price of eggs that went up, but also chicken and meat.
The grouses were many. Besides hyperinflation, there was unemployment and economic inequality. The public were already incensed with Rouhani, a self-styled reformist, who announced a what was seen as a conservative Cabinet due to pressure from the religious faction.
But all this paled in comparison to the budget Bill tabled by his government last month, as he seeks a financial reform. Fuel prices were going to be hiked, while subsidies were to be cut — a sure way to upset low-income earners, as evident here in Malaysia as well.
The budget was the most transparent since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Iranian-American professor Ahmad Sadri wrote in his Al Jazeera opinion piece that under pressure from conservatives, Rouhani had justified the rising fuel tax by revealing some hard truths — that billions and billions of rial are going into Islamic foundations imposed on him.
Iranians were finally beginning to realise the hefty cost of maintaining its Islamic bodies.
Radio Farda, the Persian version of Radio Free Europe, reported that the budget had allocated among others:
- US$110 million (RM439 million) for the High Council of Religious Seminaries, which oversees training of clerics, a further US$105 million to support current seminaries, and US$93 million in planning and policy-making for seminaries.
- US$5 million for supporting religious “research activities” in the seminaries.
- US$150 million for the Service Centre for Religious Seminaries, a welfare institution supporting retired and disabled clergymen and families of deceased clergy.
- US$$75 million for Al-Mustafa International University, a front to educate and influence foreign students.
- US$23 million for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a paramilitary organisation separate from the army, whose only aim is to protect the Islamic republic system. This fund is used among others on preachers, and spiritual ceremonies.
- US$17 million to maintain the mausoleum and residence of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, and protect his ideological legacy.
Added to that the rampant corruption among religionists, the failure of the relief from the Iran nuclear deal to trickle down, and the religious oppression by the moral police, it was only a matter of time before protesters shout “Death to Rouhani”, “We don’t want the Islamic regime”, and “Iranian Republic not Islamic Republic.”
One of the images that has been circulated during the protest was that of a young woman, standing alone, using her white headscarf, or hijab, as a flag in protest.
While the photo was not from the recent protest, it was an extension of the My Stealthy Freedom movement — kickstarted by UK-based Iranian photographer Masih Alinejad to document women in Iran taking off their hijab as a sign of protest against the Islamic dress code and moral police.
The “dehijabing” has picked up as a form of protest, but in many other ways, Iranian women are leading the protests in their own way, after their complaints over lack of political representation fell on deaf ears.
A video has gone viral showing a woman saying: “You raised your fists and ruined our lives. Now we raise our fists,” in reference to the 1979 revolution.
Other videos showed members of the Basij, an arm of the IRGC that functions as among others the moral police, burning their membership cards in protest of the religious oppression.
In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, Malaysian youths were galvanised by the Islamic Revolution, which they saw as a pushback against post-colonialism and the humiliation of the Muslim world at that time. They had thought that “returning to Islam” would make things better for the country.
The next few decades saw the institutionalisation of Islam, the formation of Muslim groups especially among youths, not least spearheaded by now Opposition leaders Anwar Ibrahim, and Dr Mahathir Mohamad who had co-opted the former as a way to counter PAS which had transformed into an Islamist, pan-Islamic juggernaut.
Years later, not much good has come out of it. Islamisation has taken hold of the administration and the country’s policy, simply because it is more prudent for the status quo to hold onto political power that way, but at the cost of a divided society and a Muslim population that has been repressed over the years.
And yes, who can forget the close to RM1 billion ballooning annual budget for our own federal religious body?
There may not be moral police to enforce the Islamic dress code here, but there is no need for that — the peer pressure, bigotry and fear that has been inculcated over the decades are effective enough.
Malaysians raised their firsts after the Islamic Revolution back then... it remains to be seen whether the latest “revolution” there will influence the thinking here.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.