One in every six citizens is a member, says the government. Only a few are allowed to carry weapons, but many train with AK-47s, just in case. They wear uniforms if they feel like it. The Basij, Iran’s vast volunteer corps, was founded in 1979 by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomenei to help defend the Islamic Republic against Iraqi invasion, but today, its members are more often called to defend against fellow Iranians: dervishes, bloggers, mystics, feminists, devil worshippers and students, all those listed as threats by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG), to which the Basij technically belong.
In 2009, when IRG commander Ali Fazli refused to fire at students protesting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection to presidency, the plainclothes Basij stepped in, laying siege to university dormitories and shooting into crowds. Three years later, on International Women’s Day 2012, Basij commanders deployed female storm troopers against protesters in Tehran, accompanied by club-wielding teenage boys bused in from rural areas. “The average Tehran policeman could have some kind of family connection to the people he has to beat up,” explains Hadi Ghaemi, director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “It’s a classic tactic to bring people from outside.”
In January 2011, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak did the same, importing poor men from the north of Cairo to charge Tahrir Square protestors with camels, while embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad dispatches gangs of Alawite Muslim shahiba or “ghosts” to attack Sunni Muslim villages. But only in Iran’s Basij are nearly 5 million such anti-protest vigilantes also schoolchildren.
From the pages of COLORS #88 - Protest.