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How Schoolchildren Are Brainwashed In Iran

Children taking part in a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran last year -- Iran's next generation of martyrs?
Children taking part in a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran last year -- Iran's next generation of martyrs?
Acting on orders from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to counter the "soft war" launched by Iran's enemies after last year's disputed presidential election, the Basij militia have beefed up their ideological indoctrination of schoolchildren.

Brigadier General Mohammad-Saleh Jokar, who heads the Students Basij, told the Mehr news agency last week that in the last six months, 6,000 "resistance centers" have been established in elementary schools in order to fully prepare children for joining Basij units when they transfer to middle schools at the age of 12.

The idea of expanding Basij activities was first announced last November, when Jokar told Mehr that "schoolchildren are more susceptible at a young age than at any other time in their lives...and we want to promote and instill into elementary schoolchildren the ideas of the revolution and Basij."

Martyrdom Icon

The Basij Resistance Force, with a nominal strength of 12.6 million, has been present in schools since it was first created 31 years ago, but the law authorizing the government to establish schoolchildren's Basij units was ratified by the Majlis only in April 1996.

During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, when self-sacrifice and martyrdom became the quintessential values of the Islamic revolution and the guiding principles of Iranian society, more than 550,000 students were sent to the front, often with a plastic "key to paradise" hanging around their necks and the promise that they would automatically go to paradise if they died in battle.

Basij members parade in Isfahan in 2008 .
General Jokar told the Fars news agency last October that 36,000 schoolchildren were killed and 2,853 injured during the war, while 2,433 were taken prisoner. The exceptionally high ratio of dead to wounded (in a conventional war between professional armies the number of wounded is higher than the number of those killed) reflects the children's lack of military training: they were used as cannon fodder in human-wave attacks launched by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps against the Iraqi forces.

In order to promote and glorify the spirit of martyrdom in line with the law enacted by the Majlis, October 30 is celebrated as Student Basij Day.

It was on that day in 1980, during the battle for the southern port of Khorramshahr at the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, that 13-year-old Hossein Fahmideh pulled the pin out of a grenade and leaped clutching it under an advancing Iraqi tank, killing himself and disabling the tank. Islamic republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared Fahmideh a hero, and a monument to him was later erected on the outskirts of Tehran. That monument has since become a place of pilgrimage for schoolchildren.

Discussing the importance of observing Islamic standards in kindergartens, Welfare and Social Security Minister Sadeq Mahsouli, himself a former Revolutionary Guard commander, said last month that "children should be educated in such a way that when they reach the age of 13, they will be able to imitate Hossein Fahmideh."

Pioneers, Komsomol, And Commissars

According to General Jokar, the Student Basij currently numbers 4.6 million members of both sexes. They are subdivided into units of "Omidan" (Hopes, in elementary schools); "Pouyandegan" (Seekers, in middle schools) and "Pishgaman" (Standard Bearers, in high schools). Those subdivisions are similar to the Young Pioneers and Komsomol in the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, 4,000 experts in political education are to be sent to schools across the country, a senior Education Ministry official recently told the Iranian Labor News Agency. Those experts, who bear a striking resemblance to Soviet-era political commissars, are to show children "how to combat the onslaught of [Western] culture and inform them about the enemies' plots being hatched against the Islamic revolution."

"The clerical regime is once again using religion to create an ideology in order to brainwash schoolchildren and consolidate its authority in society, the way many other authoritarian regimes do," Azadeh Kian, a political sociologist at Paris University VIII, tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

Increasing Indoctrination

Confirming that the indoctrination of schoolchildren has become a priority for the regime, Education Minister Hamid-Reza Hajibabai recently disclosed that "10,000 houses of the Koran, 20,000 prayer rooms, and 20,000 libraries will be established in schools."

Said Payvandi, a professor of education at the University of Paris VI, describes such indoctrination as anathema to education. "All international charters stress that children, especially 7-14-year-olds, should receive education in a free environment devoid of ideological pressure or military training," he tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

Schoolteachers too are seriously concerned by the government's measures to indoctrinate even the youngest schoolchildren. A teacher from the province of Khuzestan who asked not to be named told Radio Farda that the presence of at least one Basij at every school, Basij cooperation with the Intelligence Ministry, and the selection of Basij members as headmasters in most schools has brought schools firmly under the control of the security agencies.

Yet these combined measures were not sufficient to prevent student protests at a number of schools last September inspired by the post-presidential-election demonstrations.

It seems as though the government's education policy over the past 30 years has not succeeded in molding young Iranians' minds. "The government's failed policy manifested itself in [the post-presidential-election] protests by young people who were born after the [1979] revolution and grew up in an environment imbued with propaganda and the ideologization of Islam. But the result [of that brain-washing] has been the opposite of what the regime intended," says sociologist Azadeh Kian.

Rouzbeh Bolhari of RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this article. Hossein Aryan is deputy director of Radio Farda. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL