there appears to be a rural-urban split in public perceptions of the Basij, noted in a previous RAND study and reinforced to us in 2006 by a longtime visitor to the Islamic Republic. In the provinces, the Basij present a more benign face through construction projects and disaster relief, while in urban areas, they are more apt to be seen quite negatively, quashing civil society activities, arresting dissidents, and confronting reformist student groups on campuses. Urban sentiments may be, moreover, affected by the Basij’s affilia-tion with the “pressure groups” or hardline vigilantes, of which Ansar-e Hezbollah is the most widely known.
This is somewhat typical of mass organizations in single-party or otherwise autocratic states. In Vietnam, it happens with organizations like the Youth Union and the Fatherland Front. It stems from an imbalance in the vitality of authentic civil society activity in urban vs. rural areas. Basically, in rural areas, there’s not much civil society organization going on. People are less educated and have less free time, and social activity tends to be structured around the extended family. In that context, there’s a lot of constructive work for government-sponsored mass organizations like the (Communist) Youth Union or the Basij to do.
In cities, on the other hand, there’s typically a lot of independent civil society energy, with people forming clubs and organizations to do everything from reading books to lobbying for more parks and playgrounds. In those contexts, government-sponsored mass organizations tend to play a more negative role, often trying to shut down independent organizations, co-opt them, or crowd out their space. The mission of the official mass organizations is to organize society within a government-controlled framework. In the quietude of the countryside, that often means organizing things where nothing existed before. In the hubbub of the city, that often means trying to shut things down or take them over.
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