How Iran's Revolution Created 'Muslim Lite'

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About five days before the start of Ramadan, in anticipation of a long month of abstinence, my upstairs neighbor's kid threw a house party. Car after car unloaded young men with spiky, gelled hair, and young women in tight jeans and spiky heels. The sound system, I believe, must have been imported from an Ibiza nightclub, because no household stereo could produce such volume. Of course by 11 p.m., plainclothes police officers — well, we at least like to assume that the men in street clothes who raid parties and take bribes are actual agents of the law — had arrived and broken up the terrified crowd. But that's not the interesting part. Once the month of fasting began, I spotted many of these very same young people around the neighborhood, piously reincarnated with austere hairstyles and headscarves. I recognized one of the girls at the local square, as we stood in a pre-iftar [the Ramadan evening meal] line for halim, and asked her if the was actually observant, or just happened to like the seasonal wheat and turkey stew. "Oh, I adore fasting!" she said, as though professing to love truffles or the beach.

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One week's sleek party people had become the next week's pious Muslim fasters. These young people belong to a type that defines urban, middle-class Iran. They are sophisticated, adaptable and hyper-social, devoted as much to dating and pop music as they are to observing Shi'ite rituals.

They see no contradiction in any of this. Ask them to explain, and they all give the same answer — "everything has its place," which I take to mean that religion can be fun and dating acceptable, both worthy of inclusion in their lives. This kind of casual religious identity is a new phenomenon in Iran. For my parents' generation, there was no such Islam Lite. Back then, Iranians were either traditionally religious or whiskey-drinking secularites; fusion of the two lifestyles seemed virtually impossible. The same goes for Iranians of my generation, who grew up during the Iran-Iraq War, years when young people stuck close to their families and ended up resembling them.

The part-time-practicing young Muslim is one of the most intriguing and unworkable things ever created by the Islamic regime. It reveals both the success of the regime's Islamic indoctrination campaign, but also its failure to keep out global culture and to control public space. The Muslim Lite generation is what happens at the meeting point between a repressive theocratic state and Western modernity. When I observe these kids in the throes of young adulthood, their identities seem schizophrenic, irreconcilable. But as I watch how my friends' children grow up, being this way seems the most natural thing in the world.

Imagine yourself as a 20-year-old Iranian male: From the time you were old enough to play outside, the kids on your block lived for the festivity of Muslim holidays. You collected money to sell cold drinks on the Twelfth Imam's birthday; you lined up behind the great marching rows of young men chanting and flagellating themselves on Ashura, a Shi'ite mourning ritual. On these occasions, there were crowds, bright lights, and delicious things to eat; outside of these occasions, there was basically no fun permitted in public. In school, your teacher taught you to pray, you were forced to fast, and as the years passed, veiled women became the only reality you had ever known. At the same time, however, your family had a satellite TV dish, and you watched music videos and films from the West. You followed trends and learned that around the world modern young people date, play in bands, cruise cars and flirt — so, you and your friends made sure you also partook in some or all of these pleasures. You fit all these dissonant influences into your life, and found it wasn't so difficult to be many things at once. That's how kids from religious families ended up more independent and modern, and how kids from Westernized families worked religion into their lives. Everyone became Muslim Lite.

But being Muslim Lite, for all its fluidity, is ultimately messy. At its heart, there lies a tremendous confusion about values. When you're running around playing in a band and keeping up your religious hobbies on the side, this is not immediately obvious. Usually Muslim Lite claims its victims around marriage age, when young people discover their parents haven't changed at all, and that tough choices must be made. A family friend realized this when he found his parents refused to consider his girlfriend a suitable marriage candidate. Though polite and educated, to them, she was loose and tainted, like all girls who date. In the end, the parents persevered and found him a wife from a religious family, a non-dater that seemed to meet their purity standards. After the engagement party Ms. Purity's real personality emerged, brash and rebellious. What parents don't quite understand is what young people know only too well: in the era of Muslim Lite, appearances mean nothing.