Does the Iranian law encourage acid attacks?

Vincent Tourret, translated by Rodolphe Leclerc
28 Novembre 2014

In Iran, several acid attacks have upset public opinion. Now, people are either scared or angry at the authorities. Accused of laxity, the latter have also had to explain themselves regarding a new legislation, which would offer means and protection to the moral militias that watch the enforcement of the law on wearing the veil. A climate of inflexible morality settles, and Iran obstinately negates the attacks, pretending foreign agents committed them.

Acid was sprayed on the faces and bodies of four women  in the city of Isfahan, 60 miles South of Teheran,   leaving them disfigured. It is assumed those crimes where motivated by an improper wearing of the hijab. The latest one happened on October 15th. Iran is going through a painful hysteria: numerous demonstrations are  taking place all over the country, particularly in Teheran and Isfahan. 

Facing strong criticism, the elites lapse into an overdone moral strictness, becoming alarmed at a degradation of Islam. With even more resolution, they demand maximal penalty. They have already arrested four suspects. At first glance, it could look like an appropriate answer to heinous crimes yet, in fact, it hides a deep denial of the situation. Indeed, these actions followed the adoption of a new legislation, which gave protection to the moral militias enforcing Islamic law in the street. Under fire from critics, the Iranian government tries its best to conceal the truth: the law is out of control. 

The fight against the occidental lifestyle: ordering good and forbidding evil

The moderate Hassan Rohani succeeded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the President,awakening  conservative fears. In spite of his declared will to liberalize society, his main goal is to find a solution to the nuclear issue through negotiations. 

Thus, to untie his hands, the President makes concessions on social issues. Last June, a petition from the Majlis, the Iranian Constitutive Assembly, signed by 195 of its members, urged to fight the “cultural invasion” threatening the existence of the Islamic system and its moral purity. According to them, the Iranian way of life has been “dishonored” and has “lost its meaning”  as soon as anyone could “choose their garments” among other things. To them, what must stay a priority is, on one hand, the strict obligation to follow the laws that force women to wear the veil, and, on the other hand, the codes of the Islamic way of life. Thus, new means must be mobilized to apply these measures. 

Iranian Islamic militias (organized by Ansar-E Hezbollah and its leader Yalasarat al-Hussein) have since threatened administration to enforce laws on wearing the veil themselves, if it did not take stricter measures to make sure these laws were applied in the streets. Therefore, to avoid conflict, the administration adopted the law “ordering good and forbidding evil”. 

This principle, which has its root directly in the Koran, pronounces the right and the duty for Muslim governments and every believer to establish and enforce hijab and sharia in society, even by strength. On October 22th, Rohani defended it, saying it was a pacific way to unify society, instead of a partisan instrument causing divisions; it would not have any physical implication, even though its teaching has to be followed in a “polite” way. That is to say, nobody can have any excuse to break the law. More prosaically, many Basij and other Islamic militiamen were molested or even found dead after their moralizing intervention. They were named martyrs of the Islamic values. There was a growing necessity of a « special basis » to protect them. and as a consequence this law was enacted. Not only does it forbid every institution from prosecuting and arresting militiamen for their activities, it also plans prison and fines for offenders. Added to the Ghesas laws (retribution principles establishing  punishment proportional to the offense), a sort of total immunity seems to be granted to militias. Civil society did not miss the opportunity to highlight it after the attacks.

A policy of denial: the media, “the den of English agents”

The attacks and the demonstrations that followed have been largely relayed by the press and social networks, especially Twitter, with the hashtags #iranacidattacks or #stopacidattackonwomen. The Islamic Students’ News Agency (ISNA) was the one that covered the affair the most completely, as well as the most critically,. running the headline “This is neither the first acid attack against our society, nor the last”. They bravely denounced the authorities’ incapability to fight this kind of crime effectively, which is “at the opposite of their zealous behavior when they have to gather drone debris and enforce Islamic codes ». Therefore, some members of Parliament, such as Laleh Eftekhari, criticized Rohani’s position, not understanding « that a man who received a religious education could not understand the more global dimension implied in law: ordering good and forbidding evil”. 

The reaction was quick: several ISNA journalists were arrested and some of them remain in custody today. Indeed, the authorities equally condemned the crimes that were committed and the critics from civil society. Thus, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami demanded that those guilty of the attacks be severely punished, and then he required the same for medias: according to him, they affected the dignity of the Islamic system, by blaming the work of the moral militias. Through the leader of Ansar-E Hezbollah, Yalasarat al-Hussein, these militias accuse medias of having lied, using those crimes as a pretext for their anti-Islamic positions. The public prosecutor responsible for the case qualifies the association between law and those crimes as an “immoral” act. 

The most worrying aspect of this repression is that when people run dry of arguments to justify it, they call upon the story of the “foreign plot” (a time-honored, hypocritical and hackneyed tactic, by excellence). « Acid attacks in Isfahan are a game and a true conspiracy » according to Ayatollah Shirazi. These interpretations aim at deflecting public opinion from the true authors of the attacks: “antisocial” individuals. The police, Basij militias and the press devoted to the regime (such as Far news), relay the idea of a strange coincidence between the media coverage of the affair and the critics against the law. This becomes the symbol of a repression of the freedom of speech. The former intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, does not mean anything else when he declares this affair is a « calculated act from the agents of foreign medias » (the Western ones, of course). According to him, British agents committed the attacks. Anza-e Hebollah even said that BBC stands for the « new agency of Foxian imperialism ».

It could all seem laughable, as some Iranians think: these last days, they have taken advantage of the vast fear to spray passersby with water, showing their dangerous sadism. Thus, the climate of fear among women, already at its peak, takes a more perverted turn. These behaviors and violence disturbingly denote a dramatic degradation of the status of women in the increasingly brutal Iranian society. According to the Organization for defending victims of violence, 66% of them will suffer from violence in the near future.

Iranian authorities’ policy of denial is cruelly absurd, because they refuse to face their responsibility, having created an atmosphere of repression which encourages criminals to disfigure innocent women.