Iran is more secular than you might think, and its people are rising up against theocratic rule.

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Iran could be a free, secular country.

When Americans think of Iran, we have a variety of unflattering images to choose from. We think of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” the mobs who stormed the US Embassy and took hostages, funding for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, the ayatollahs who offered blood money for Salman Rushdie’s death.

But Iran isn’t just the ayatollahs. It has millions of young, diverse, well-educated people who chafe against theocratic rule. In contradiction to state censuses which implausibly claim that 99.5% of Iranians are devout Muslims, carefully done anonymous surveys suggest that 40% of Iranians are nonreligious, atheist or agnostic, comparable to many Western countries.

It’s possible that Iran’s theocratic system is about to crumble. If it happens, we’ll have Iranian women to thank.

Say her name: Mahsa Amini

The new wave of protests began with the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. Amini was a 22-year-old woman from Kurdistan who was in Tehran to visit family. Iran’s Islamic morality police arrested her, supposedly for wearing her hijab incorrectly, and beat her to death while she was in custody.

A rebellious mood has been spreading since Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, declared a “Hijab and Chastity Day” and threatened to use facial recognition technology to crack down on women who defied the country’s dress code. (Raisi was elected in 2021 in a sham election after the ruling clerics barred more popular and moderate candidates from running.)

Iranian women have been resisting the regime’s morality laws for years. There was the Green Movement in 2009. There was the White Wednesdays movement in 2018, as well as the No2Hijab protests earlier this year, where women shared selfies and videos of themselves in public without headscarves. There have even been vigilante attacks on the clerics.

However, Amini’s murder was the spark that ignited an explosion of popular rage. In the days since her death, massive protests have spread like wildfire across the country. Iranian women are burning their hijabs in the street and chopping off their hair in symbolic protest. Protesters are chanting, “Women, life, freedom!” and “Death to the dictator!” in reference to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

As Roya Hakakian writes in the Atlantic:

More than some past uprisings against the regime, this one has been remarkably broad-based and inclusive. The affluent residents of north Tehran have come out alongside the poor ones from the city’s south side. The youth are there—and so are their parents, even their grandparents. The metropolitan people are out, and so are the small-town folk.

The women of Iran are at the forefront—they who have most consistently resisted the regime’s tyranny and persisted in rebutting the myth that the hijab is an Iranian tradition. The sight of all the men at their side is a sign of the near-universal disdain for the regime’s official misogyny. With the risks these citizens are taking and the sacrifices they are making, they are proving that if any tradition needs defending 24 hours a day by armed men who have to beat people to embrace it, then it deserves to perish.

The Bonfire of the Headscarves.” Roya Hakakian, The Atlantic, 24 September 2022.

The Iranian regime has reacted with indiscriminate violence. State police have fired live ammunition at protesters, killing at least 76, and arrested hundreds more. They’ve also cut off internet access across much of the country, trying to stop news from spreading. But, so far, they haven’t been able to crush the protests.

How does this end?

It’s hard to guess how these protests might end. Iran’s clerics don’t plan on giving up power peacefully, and they still have the upper hand when it comes to force. Impassioned as they are, the protesters don’t seem prepared to storm Evin Prison, the way the French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille.

On the other hand, even the Iranian regime, repressive and dictatorial as it is, depends on a perception of legitimacy. That’s why they bother holding elections for a president and a parliament, even though they only have whatever power the theocratic Guardian Council and Supreme Leader permit them to have. It provides a facade of democratic consent that keeps just enough people pacified.

Government, like money or religion, is a shared illusion that relies on a critical mass of belief. Even a seemingly entrenched regime can collapse if it loses enough support. Iran’s rulers have survived popular unrest before, but that doesn’t make them invincible. And by all accounts, this protest is bigger than anything they’ve faced so far.

Mahsa Amini, like other victims of the Iranian regime, is an ordinary person who didn’t set out to be a martyr. She should be alive today. But the least we can do is to make her death mean something. It would be fitting if, in her name, the Iranian people rise up against the rule of the morality police and the mullahs.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...