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Reviewed by Sam Razavi,
Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Columbia University Press, 2015. 289 pages. $60.
In Captive Society, Saeid Golkar takes on the challenge of trying to explain Iran's Basij to a Western audience. This is a particularly difficult task given the shadowy nature of the inner workings of the Islamic Republic. Golkar should be applauded for having gone through most of the English and Farsi literature on Iran's security apparatus. The author also conducted interviews with Basij members in Iran, occasionally offering the reader an authentic inside view of the group.
Captive Society is divided into five parts: an introduction, three sections of four chapters each, and a conclusion; seven of the book's 14 chapters were published earlier, in books or academic journals. Some editing work to avoid redundancies would have improved the overall product.
Part One involves the complicated issue of explaining the "nature" of the Basij. Golkar (rightly) discredits the regime's official explanation that the Basij is a nongovernmental organization independent from the state. He offers three alternative descriptions of the Basij commonly seen in the literature: an administered mass organization (AMO), a political party and a militia. Golkar disputes the explanation that the Basij is an AMO; it is not a civilian organization and is, in fact, part of Iran's military apparatus. Although the regime has tried to mobilize the Basij's electoral power, Golkar discredits the suggestion that the Basij is a political party, as it falls under the authority of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The author settles for the third option and terms the Basij a "semi-official pro-government militia."
Given the complex nature of the Basij, the organization-cum-militia has found itself in the middle of Iran's typical factional politics. In Chapter Two, Golkar recounts the history of the Basij from its inception, showing how the group has found itself in the crosshairs of politicians, clergymen and IRGC officers. In Chapters Three and Four, he explores in exhaustive detail the organizational structure and membership of the Basij. He estimates overall Basij membership at between four and five million, with more than three million regular members, about one or two million active members and around 200,000 cadres and special members.
In Part Three, "The Basij and the Suppression of Others," Golkar describes the group's propaganda machine, the group's surveillance network and its role in political repression. In these four chapters, his tone towards the Basij becomes increasingly negative. He presents the Basij as almost an alien entity, repeatedly describing its "penetration" or "infiltration" into a "captive" Iranian society. His focus on the group's role in political repression offers the reader an unbalanced view. For example, he only mentions in passing the Basij's role in post-Iran-Iraq War reconstruction efforts, disease-eradication campaigns, natural-disaster relief, electrification of rural provinces, construction and improvement of the national road network, and other productive programs. These four chapters would have benefited from additional nuance.
In the chapters of Part Four ("The Basij and the Controlling of Societal Sectors"), Golkar analyses the Basij's heavy-handed involvement with families, schools, universities and the economy. At the end of each of these four chapters, he offers an assessment of the regime's success. He accurately notes that the government has more supporters in rural and disenfranchised areas and that, by empowering conservative female Basij members, the regime paradoxically contributes to their emancipation and eventual ability to distance themselves from official strictures. Despite the efforts of Iranian leaders to keep revolutionary fervor alive, Golkar reminds us of the broad scholarly consensus that young Iranians today barely relate to state-sponsored ideology. The same applies to the regime's attempt to control universities. Golkar shows that the vast majority of professors who join the Professors' Basij Organization do so mainly to increase their chances of getting tenure-track positions. The same reasoning applies to many of the students who join the University Students' Basij Organization: they want to increase their admission chances.
In Chapter 13, Golkar offers a detailed picture of the Basij's involvement in various sectors of the Iranian economy: banking, stock market investments, real estate, construction, transport, medicine and pharmaceuticals, retail, sales and information technology. The participation of the Basij in the economy grew under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), thanks to his close association with the Basij. Golkar believes it is "highly likely" that the Basij economic empire will continue to expand. According to him, this trend will likely lead to a militarized regime in which the armed forces become "arbitrators, instead of partners, of the political elite" (p. 174). This is probably a premature assessment given that civilian leaders — chief among them the supreme leader — are still firmly in control of the security apparatus. Moreover, under the presidency of Hassan Rohani (since 2013), there have been several efforts on the part of elected officials to roll back the security establishment's involvement in the economy.
In Part Five, Golkar correctly demonstrates that many of those who join the militia do so for financial and material benefits, show very little motivation and often have questionable loyalty to the ruling system: "[…] many Basij members join because of materialistic and opportunistic incentives — to find a job, to secure a promotion, to take advantage of educational training opportunities, to improve one's chance for acceptance by a more accredited university, to be part of an acceptance quota for university entrance exams, and so on" (p. 191). Although this concluding assessment is accurate, it is not in harmony with the overall tone of the book, which continuously describes the Basij as a sinister network that has "infiltrated" and "indoctrinated" throughout Iranian society.
Captive Society should be read as an accurate description of the Basij's repressive role, making it useful perhaps in security and intelligence circles. However, given Golkar's focus on this singular component, the book cannot be considered a complete assessment of the militia.