Northwestern lecturer discusses Basij militia at MENA event

Ben Winck, Reporter

A lecturer in Northwestern’s Middle East and North African Studies Program presented on the Basij militia, a volunteer paramilitary organization in Iran and its capacity to derail the Iranian political system at the Evanston Public Library on Monday night.

Saeid Golkar, who is from Iran and is also a senior fellow on Iranian policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, discussed the potential for the volunteer paramilitary organization to foster a hostile authoritarian regime in the country. The Basij militia comprises Iranian citizens of differing faiths, races and social backgrounds who unite to counteract various acts of political dissent.

Golkar opened with a history on the Basij, starting with its inception in 1980 and continuing to its significant growth in 2009 due to the group’s suppression of anti-government protests during the Iranian presidential election.

Over the years, Basij has rapidly gained influence by growing to over 5 million members and offering incentives such as free education and elevated social status.

However, Golkar noted that as the militia has developed, its presence in nearly all regions and often violent methods of subduing demonstrations has prompted questions about the rapid growth of its power from non-Basij Iranians and Americans alike. The group now works with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to silence opposition and promote the Islamic Republic, a governing force in the Middle East that presides over Iran among other countries.

Golkar detailed how the Basij has become corrupt with this relatively new power and oppressed much of Iran’s revolutionary society and overall hope for democracy.

“The Internet (in Iran) is a battlefield between the regime and the people,” Golkar said. “The Islamic Republic use the Basij to produce the pro-regime content … you know that the Basij has the TV, newspaper organizations, news agencies, radio and social media. They are the most pervasive.”

Not all of the Basij’s anti-rebellion actions are as passive, Golkar said. He talked about how the Basij militia aggressively stops student protests and strikes with overwhelming force and explained how this has created a climate of fear within Iranian society.

“I just talked to a German political science student who came from Iran, and he told me that ‘there is a sense of fear when you’re talking to the people,’” Golkar said. “There is a sense of fear from the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij.”

Of the nearly 40 audience members, several had differing opinions on how to handle the problems the Basij and its influence pose. Afsaneh Kalantary, an anthropologist and Evanston resident, spoke of how the Basij’s connection to the Iranian government is responsible for its revolutionary culture.

“Iran is not Nazi Germany, Iran is not fascist Italy. … It’s a revolutionary society,” Kalantary said during the event. “These young men and women want to create new politics through resistance, and they haven’t been successful in translating their little acts of resistance into different types of politics.”

Barbara Lyons, another Evanston resident, had a different opinion.

“(We should do) nothing. It’s their country. The whole thing is capitalism,” Lyons told The Daily. “We’re no longer separate countries, we have corporations that go across the globe. … They tolerate democracy as long as nobody messes with them. If somebody messes with them, then they would prefer a dictatorship.”

Golkar said he hopes to return to Iran someday.

“I can only hope for peaceful transition to democracy,” Golkar said. “I hope to go back, but I don’t think I can.”

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