How socially polarized are Iranians?


There is currently a presidential election going on in Iran. The buffoon Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is running against a "reformist," Mir-Hossein Mousavi. There is some controversy because Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, has been active in the campaign, and held hands with him in public! (and I thought that the principal banned PDA?) It is a quirk, though not too significant, that both candidates are from ethnic minorities. Mousavi is an ethnic Azeri Turk (as is the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) while the buffoon is Talysh (the Talysh language is mutually intelligible with standard Persian). But the bigger story is the social fissures in Iranian society between urban and rural, rich and poor, educated and not educated. The standard narrative is that the elites support reformists who wish to liberalize Iranian society, while the poor back populists like the buffoon who promise more bread and religious revival.

This makes me wonder, how polarized is Iranian society? A few years ago Free Inquiry had a piece up, The Next Secular Revolution?, which played up the undercurrent of anti-clericalism extant within Iran. But I was skeptical, and poking through the World Values Surey makes me even more skeptical. Iranians might be tired of Mullahcracy, but they're no free thinkers. Rather, they're moderately conservative people who have lost their taste for religious radicalism. Or have they? One of the issues that Westerners have is that the Iranians who are informants for reporters are no doubt going to be sampled from the educated elites. This might selection-bias the sample.

So I broke down various questions by education in the World Values Survey for Iran. The N's for each class are on the order of 500. Most of the questions have 4 or 10 categories. I present extreme responses. If the questions have a form such as "Very strongly agree," then there were four options.

  Highest Education Completed
  Elementary Secondary University
Politics very important 19.3 20.9 19.8
Religion very important 84.1 78 65.6
Not a member of political party 95.2 94.5 85
Most people can be trusted 9.6 8.4 13.6
Great deal of freedom & choice 16 16.5 15.6
Protect environment, even if sacrifice economic growth 47.5 50.7 50.3
Men have more right to jobs than women 74.7 67.4 62.8
Marriage is an outdated institution 12.7 18.5 20.9
Strongly disagree that university is more important for men than women 7.4 17.4 19.4
Income should be more equal 24.3 31.7 22.4
Government ownership of business should be increased 16.1 15.5 10
Competition is good 29.7 41.7 41.7
Great deal of confidence in organized religion 50.8 40.6 33.1
Great deal of confidence in press 8.1 9.1 5.6
Great of confidence in government 19.4 16.3 8
Confidence of political parties 7 6.4 3.2
Confidence in women's movement 11.3 9.3 4.4
Having strong political leader very good 25.9 19.2 20.2
Having experts making decisions very good 11.6 9.1 9.7
Having democratic system very good 37.5 43.1 46.8
There is no respect for individual rights 9.1 12.9 13.9
Taxing the rich and subsidizing poor essential characteristic of democracy 18 19 19.2
Religious authorities interpreting laws not an essential characteristic of democracy 10.7 14.5 20.3
Prospering economy and essential characteristic of democracy 35 37.3 41.6
Women having same rights as men essential characteristic of democracy 30.1 39 42.5
Democracy absolutely important 29.4 36.7 44.1
Received information from newspaper in last week 36.7 60.4 69.4
Received information from internet in last week 3.5 20.2 40.5
Received information from radio or TV in last week 83.6 88.3 89.6
Never attend religious services 20.9 25.6 29.7
Not a religious person 10.9 17.4 21.5
Organized religion answers moral problems 72 65.4 56.5
Organized religion answers social problems 57.6 50.9 37.6
God is very important in life 79.8 82.2 76.6
Agree strongly that politicians who don't beliee in God unfit for office 45.3 44.4 36.8
Agree strongly that religious leaders should not influence how people vote 22.6 29.7 30
Agree strongly if people with strong religious beliefs in office 33.8 31 26.1
Agree strongly that religious leaders should not influence government 16.1 17 22
Homosexuality never justifiable 80.8 86.8 82.7
Prostitution never justifiable 82.6 86.6 81.9
Abortion never justifiable 66.4 62 55.8
Divorce never justifiable 52 45.7 37.8
Man beating his wife never justifiable 72.1 78.1 76.1
Very proud of nationality 70.6 66 55.2
Strongly agrees that one is citizen of the world 26.5 28 37.3

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I'm find his article and the author's somewhat arrogant attitude absurd! He uses a couple of suspect studies and his own 'hunch' to declare that Iranians are basically fanatics and feels justified to categorize 70 million people??? Unbelievable!

[you're a moron. speaking of generalizatins, the posts and albania, turkey and iraq generated the same weird responses -Razib]

Very interesting indeed. Still I got to ask:
What do you mean by "I present extreme responses." ?
How did you come up with "One of the issues that Westerners have is that the Iranians who are informants for reporters are no doubt going to be sampled from the educated elites."

The variance is surprisingly small indeed. I wonder if the same questions would actually produce more divergence in the USofA? (Not to mention places like Russia)

I knew the cutest Iranian boy once. His family had left Iran sometime after the revolution, settled in France for some years and had a restaurant there. His mother worked in medical research which was brought the family to the states. They were very modern, not backward by any means. They were muslims and not ethnic minorties. Anyway, he spoke Farsi and French. After only a year and a half, he managed to pass the annual state mandated reading comprehension test and got out of ESL. This is actually pretty impressive because he was already in 7th grade. The test is not hard, but plenty of American kids still flunk it. His story reminds me that there is probably a brain drain effect somewhat in Iran. These people were smart and left.

I looked at this same study to compare responses from Turkey and iran (among other countries). Dara (reply #2) is wrong about some of these answers. In Iran there were groups of people who were religious, but did not trust organized religion. In Turkey there was less dichotomy between faith in god and institutions.

In Turkey there was a clear relationship between democracy and laicite and a resistance to authoritarianism.
Also In Iran there was a dichotomy, there were more secular leaning people who would tolerate military or democratic rule, while more religious people prefer the religious system.

I wonder if this is part of why the regime might want nuclear weapons (if that isn't over determined by the international environment.) A strong hierarchical military as would be needed for a conventional deterrent, could also pose a threat to the control of the regime. Hence we see some many divisions of internally and externally focused security apparatus. With nuclear weapons, a strong conventional military is less needed, and resources can be concentrated on internal repression.

By peter Noordijk (not verified) on 19 Jun 2009 #permalink