By Narges Bajoghli
“The only similarity between the Basij of today and the Basij of the war is that we share the same organizational name. Those in the Basij today are horrible,” Mehdi Kermani, a war veteran, former Basij and pro-regime filmmaker said to me one day as we sat in his office in Revolution Square, steps from the University of Tehran’s main campus, sipping tea. Over the years, I have interviewed numerous members of the Basij, the volunteer militia that rose up alongside Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, across several generations. Kermani served in the Basij before going to work at the Chronicles of Victory, a prominent pro-regime media center, in 1989. He had been pushed out of the center during the second term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013). Kermani found the environment in Iran too suffocating after his 2009 suppression, and decided to leave rather than open his own production studio like some of his colleagues. He spent most of his time in Lebanon, making films with Hezbollah’s media team. He came back for short stints in Tehran to see his family and friends. “We’re all so embarrassed.” He stared off into the corner of the room, his right hand mindlessly spinning a sugar cube on the glass table, his jaw tight.
Breaking his silence, he continued, “Basijis used to stem from the people. The Imam [Khomeini] meant for us to serve the people and the nation when he created the Basij. But what they did this past summer [during the 2009 Green Movement] was disgusting. They turned everyone against us.”
“It’s so painful that people think of the Basij in negative terms now. We were created for a different purpose at the beginning of the revolution. We went to defend the country against the invading Iraqi military, not to get better jobs or get into university, like the Basij of today. Or to beat our own people, for God’s sake!”
Kermani’s cell phone rang. It was another filmmaker named Hosseini on the line, his good friend and a leader of pro-regime filmmaking in Iran. He was in the neighborhood and wanted to see if we would grab lunch with him. One of his favorite sandwich shops in the city was on the same street as Kermani’s office. We picked up our things and joined him.
Kermani filled Hosseini in on our conversation. Hosseini turned to me as he took a bite of his kabob sandwich and said, “I’m embarrassed to tell you that I don’t know what the Basij is today.” He had spent all morning in an editing room, where the filmmakers were putting the finishing touches on yet another narrative film about the ways in which the newly minted Revolutionary Guard suppressed the Kurdish uprising in 1979.
Hosseini stared off into the corner of the restaurant as he chewed on his sandwich, looking for answers about how to define an organization that he joined with conviction as a fifteen-year-old. He shook his head, as if in disbelief, before turning his attention back to his sandwich. Hosseini could no longer define the Basij, much less defend it: “During the war, everything was clear: the Basij was a training ground. But today, I honestly can’t tell you what it’s about. There is not one definition of the Basij. I guess we all believe in the Imam [Khomeini] and the revolution, but beyond that, we’re mixed. And this new generation of Basijis,” he scoffed, “forget about them.”
The younger Basijis, on the other hand, feel that their elders have sold out on the ideals of the revolution and tried to refashion themselves as the secular elite. “They used to be revolutionaries,” Ahmad, a third-generation Basiji said to me, “but they aren’t any longer. They’ve become the very people they fought against. We’re the ones who have to continue ensuring the revolution stays intact.”
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