- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2001

BOSTON The busy Tehran square was packed with hundreds of dismayed onlookers, many of them women sobbing at the spectacle, according to recent press reports.
Thirteen young men, stripped to the waist, were being flogged for offenses against the public order mostly for drinking alcohol, which is forbidden in Iran, and for being seen with women to whom they were not related.
Since Mohammed Khatami, the reformist Iranian president, was re-elected by a landslide in June, there has been a spate of public floggings ordered by his hard-line opponents who control the judiciary. Hard-liners, it seems, are in a combative mood as they try to jerk back the hands of Iran's social clock a task many believe to be impossible.
They insist such deterrent sentences are needed to combat "un-Islamic" behavior and rising crime rates.
"All should be sensitive toward the issue of the promotion of corrupt means and fight against the enemies' efforts to deprave our children," Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the judiciary chief, declared in defense of the public floggings.
For the reformers, however, the latest campaign against social "depravity" is a blatant attempt to embarrass and undermine the popular president, who is committed to fostering greater personal and political freedoms within the Islamic system. He has tried to give young people the core of his power base "an atmosphere in which they can breathe." His government has condemned the public floggings.
While the old guard has stymied many of Mr. Khatami's political reforms since he came to power four years ago, young people credit him with ushering in a freer social and cultural climate. Young couples have begun to date discreetly in public, women are wearing brighter headscarves, and bootlegged Western pop CDs though officially taboo are now easily available.
Until recently, it appeared to some Iranians that the old guard had resigned itself to a counterculture that was impossible to root out without endangering social peace, concentrating instead on the political battlefront. For others, a cultural backlash was inevitable: As some conservatives saw it, the rot had to be stopped before it eroded the foundations of the Islamic regime.
Police nationwide, charged with restoring "Islamic order," began a drive two weeks ago to combat the "spread of decadent Western culture in society" and the "flagrant manifestations of corruption." Shop owners were told to remove mannequins wearing women's lingerie from their windows. Cafes and restaurants were barred from playing Western music and their owners warned not to serve women who wear too much makeup or otherwise fail to observe proper Islamic dress codes.
Selling posters of famous Western singers and movie stars has been banned. So, too, has the sale of pet monkeys and dogs, which are generally considered unclean in Islam but which have become popular as pets in parts of Iran.
In the holy city of Qom, the necktie, which had been staging a cautious comeback after 20 years in the cold following the 1979 Islamic revolution, has again been outlawed as a symbol of Western decadence.
"There is no law in Iran that prohibits displaying and wearing neckties, or selling dogs, or [requires] refusing food to women in makeup. They are imposing their own interpretations of Islamic rules as law," Karim Arqandehpour, deputy head of the Press Guild Association, told the Associated Press.
Now, young Iranians are watching anxiously to see whether the president, who has generally avoided confrontation with the hard-liners, can prevent a return to a repressive social order.
[On Sunday, Tahmineh Rezayi Milani, a top film director, was released after spending a week in jail on charges of supporting anti-revolutionary groups in her latest movie, "The Hidden Half," a day after Mr. Khatami came out in her defense.
[According to Agence France-Presse, the film tells the story of a married woman who reminisces about a romantic affair with a rebel after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
[Mr. Khatami said at a news conference on Saturday the arrest "shouldn't have happened" because her film had been "authorized by the Culture Ministry and if there's a problem, it's the government and the minister who must respond."]
In what analysts see as a positive sign, the floggings spawned a lively and serious public debate on subjects once considered off-limits. Reformers, buoyant after Mr. Khatami's huge election victory, are preparing to use their muscle in parliament to pass laws forbidding public floggings. Even some senior religious leaders have questioned the validity of public punishments according to Islamic law.
"It's the first time that figures within the system have publicly criticized the use of Islamic punishments," said a Western diplomat. "It has become center stage in the political debate.
Although those convicted of morality offenses are routinely flogged in detention centers, public lashings had been extremely rare until recently. Hard-liners insist that the Quran, Islam's holy book, sanctions 80 lashes for drinking alcohol. Others say the punishment is discretionary, and that the application of such sentences in public is an incorrect interpretation of the Quran.
Most analysts in Iran say the timing of the cultural backlash, coming on the heels of June's presidential elections, proves it is primarily politically motivated. However, they add that many conservative judges are also genuinely concerned at what they perceive as a rise in immorality, which they blame on Mr. Khatami's tolerant policies.
"There is a trend in the Islamic world generally that when people get worried about social problems, the old guard, or fundamentalists, resort to fundamentalist punishments," the diplomat said.
Morteza Tehrani, a hard-line cleric in Qom, denounced reformers for challenging Islamic punishments. "What are these clownish words? You are destroying religion, challenging God's edicts," he sneered. "You think you can say anything just because you got the people's votes?"

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