An increasingly common call amid the many protests since Iran’s presidential election has become “Join us!” This is not a vague invitation. It is frequently directed specifically at the members of Iran’s volunteer civilian militia known as the Basij. They are subject to the direct orders of the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard. As plain-clothed militia, their key advantage in policing the Iranian people is their ability to blend in with them.
Since the presidential elections, members of the Basij (Basiji), have been beating and even killing peaceful protesters, as well as entering homes and assisting in arrests. While their duties also include responding to natural and man-made disasters, as well as “moral” policing, today they have gained notoriety for their vicious attacks on the demonstrators in the streets of Iran.
Some Basiji volunteer for service as young as 13, and given the majority of them maintain reserve status during peacetime, there generally isn’t a huge risk involved in joining.
Today, however, with thousands of protesters in the streets and much of the Basiji charged with controlling them, being a member of this civilian militia has become an increasingly dangerous and depraved task.
The main incentives for signing up are the government benefits that accompany such status, as well as a sense of purpose and belonging. These benefits include reserved spots in Iranian universities and various government welfare subsidies.
In many ways, especially for the younger members of the force, peer pressure is also a significant factor in their decision to join. As a teenager anywhere in the world, little seems more important than the acceptance of one’s peers, and as a result, with each new incoming member often comes a clan of comrades.
Today, thanks to their new duties, which include increasingly violent and inhumane acts, reports of Basiji taking protesters up on their invitations to join the opposition movement are growing.
The demands of the regime to attack their own people have simply become intolerable for rising numbers of the Basiji. Simply put, this is not what they signed up for.
While they often hold a devout commitment to the ideology of the Islamic Republic, like much of the United States Army’s commitment to American foreign policy, for example, they also share some of the same reservations in signing up. Similarly, just as more minority and low-income sectors of American society tend to join the US military for the economic benefits, so too do Iranian members of the Basij.
Apart from the incentives of increased socio-economic and education entitlements, prior to more recent events, being a member of the Basij meant earning the respect of many Iranians. These were the people who responded to the devastating 2003 Bam earthquake that killed over 25,000 people and injured another 30,000.
This is not to say that they have been categorically beloved by all the Iranian people, as their “moral” policing has been a consistent annoyance for many Iranians. But, before this past June they weren’t detested. There was even a level of sympathy for them, as many of the Basiji come from under-privileged classes. Joining the Basij before the elections had become a means of gaining a level of respect within Iranian society that was unknown to many before choosing to volunteer.
Today, however, the tables have turned. There is no longer any esteem associated with membership. Basiji has now become a dirty word among many Iranians. With each beating and every bullet, they are gaining the contempt of their own people.
Thus, the temptation to turn has never been greater and it is escalating. It is this temptation among its own forces that may in fact lead to the demise of the so-called Islamic Republic. Indeed a new revolution is brewing in Iran, even in the most surprising of places.