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People walk at the Tajrish Bazaar, in Tehran, Iran, on March 15.WANA NEWS AGENCY/Reuters

Dina Nayeri is the author of Who Gets Believed? When the Truth Isn’t Enough.

All my life, I’ve been taught intellectual humility – to trust facts over my instincts. To change my mind when I’ve been proven wrong. To listen to experts. To try to imagine the limits of my observations, all that I can’t possibly know or understand. It’s hard to be humble when you think you have hard data, gathered by experts, quoted by scholars, never refuted. Facts are knowable; no modesty required. Still, in business school, I read about the dangers of flawed or biased data, and I try to scrutinize whatever facts I’m presented – especially when they don’t match my own observations.

Here is a “fact” I once accepted, despite decades of observing the contrary, simply because I didn’t scrutinize the data:

I was always told that Iran was a country of devout Muslims. For years, the Pew Research Center and the World Values Survey, experts with trusted methodologies, reported a wildly religious Iranian population (over 90 per cent Shia Muslim). Academic publications spread these numbers, the media confirmed them and hardly any experts questioned them. And yet, in my eight years in Iran and three decades among the diaspora, I’ve met maybe 10 devout Iranians, and half are Christian. Meanwhile, I’ve attended dozens of dinners that ended with scarves and scripture cast aside, everyone confessing that they no longer believed – or had never believed – in God and the prophets.

My experience tells me this: that Iranians are diverse, educated and largely secular – and they are sick of the West telling them what they want. Yes, many are religious, but even older, rural, less educated people have inherited a rich literary and philosophical culture; they are curious and, when challenged, surprisingly modern and fluid in their thinking. Speaking to grandfathers in village squares or shepherds in the fields, you hear “live and let live” more often than prayers – unless perhaps a moral police officer is lingering nearby.

And that’s the problem with religion surveys inside a theocracy: people have no choice but to perform devotion. In Iran, you cannot be officially secular. If a surveyor comes to your door or calls your house (the surveys aren’t anonymous), and asks about your faith, are you going to say anything other than Muslim?

Researcher Pooyan Tamimi Arab, too, grew up doubting the picture the media painted of his fellow Iranians. He moved in early childhood from Iran to the Netherlands with his mother, a secular feminist. In her 2003 anthropology thesis at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, she claimed that Iranian women found civil rights increasingly more important than religious honour. Some professors scoffed – she was exaggerating the will of Iranian women to free themselves.

In 2006, on a long bus ride to Rome with fellow twentysomething philosophy students, Dr. Tamimi Arab had a similar moment as his mother. He made what he thought was a simple, obvious claim: Iranians don’t want the Islamic Republic. For the first time, he encountered the rebuke of Western intellectuals. Believing that Iranians are Muslim – must be Muslim – it seemed, had become part of this Western, progressive belief cluster.

Dr. Tamimi Arab met Ammar Maleki, a fellow academic, around the time of the 2009 Green Movement protests. Dr. Maleki had lived most of his life in Iran and he knew: Iranians aren’t 90 per cent religious, not even close. The two men became friends. “We were realizing there were problems with the numbers and also conceptual problems. Doing my PhD I was reading things like ’Secularism is colonialism under the guise of modernity,’ and I’d say, ‘What? What are they saying?’” And yet it didn’t feel okay to talk about Iranian secularism in Europe. In progressive circles, Iranian reformists delegitimized regime-change advocates by branding them as coddled outsiders, or war-mongers. The message was: You aren’t there, so you shouldn’t speak.

From February to May, 2012, Pew conducted face-to-face surveys of Iranians, and in 2013 it reported that 83 per cent favoured sharia law in Iran. These statistics were never questioned. Dr. Tamimi Arab saw “face-to-face” and laughed – conducted three years after the 2009 Green Movement, Iran’s biggest uprising since the revolution, Pew’s survey ignored an important piece of context: If you live in a brutal theocracy and someone comes to your door asking if you’re Muslim, you tell them you’re Muslim.

And yet there was so much qualitative evidence: the stories, the films, the arrests. All that background experience, so common to us all. “We didn’t know the true ratios, but we just knew … it was more complicated than this,” Dr. Tamimi Arab says, “Of course, the people tried voting for reformists, but that’s only because they didn’t have the power to overthrow the regime.” Dr. Tamimi Arab and Dr. Maleki began speaking out about this. At first, Western analysts didn’t believe them. Hassan Rouhani had been elected twice with high turnout rates. The foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, used the high turnout to claim that people support the Islamic Republic. Outside Iran there were whispers: But isn’t it obvious that this isn’t ideological agreement? The people were turning out in large numbers to guarantee themselves the lesser evil, and they were taking to the streets to create a spectacle, to show their unhappiness.

Outside Iran, the diaspora argued over what Iranians wanted. The two researchers struggled against an image clash – the image the West had of devout Muslim Iranians, and the image they’d retained from years among Iranians, dinner after dinner after dinner, where everyone confesses to being secular or agnostic or some such.

With their PhDs and university positions in hand, Dr. Maleki asked Dr. Tamimi Arab to help him found a research organization called GAMAAN – their aim was ambitious. To conduct wide-reaching values surveys inside the Islamic Republic, under the nose of the regime, without scaring people into dishonest responses. They wanted to offer surveys that were safe and anonymous, yet attracted enough respondents to be statistically useful.

At first, academics and the surveying community dismissed them – non-probability surveys, they said, weren’t representative. When people opt-in, the sample is skewed. But online surveys are common now, and surveyors have developed all kinds of ways to correct the data. GAMAAN pressed on. In 2019, their first survey had more than 200,000 respondents – and the majority said they didn’t want an Islamic Republic.

Despite their huge sample, there was little interest in GAMAAN’s work. Detractors persisted, saying online surveys were biased. Researchers and the media kept using the old data, the ones in which respondents’ identities were known.

The 2019 protests were a turning point. People poured into the streets, and the embedded images in European and American minds changed. The image of the religious Iranian, voluntarily living by sharia law, grew muddled, and much more complicated than it had been. GAMAAN’s results were published in Open Democracy, and journalists began contacting them. Other researchers began scrutinizing their work. How were they correcting the data? Could their results be showing the true nature of Iranian values?

Over the years, GAMAAN conducted other surveys, included a viral religion survey, and found a diverse and secular Iran. In the country, their results spread rapidly and led to months of fiery debate in chatrooms, on Telegram and Clubhouse. In Europe, GAMAAN’s results were discussed in major intellectual circles, among statisticians, political activists, philosophers and sociologists. Then, they were cited in The Economist.

In 2021, GAMAAN began using the popular VPN (virtual private network) Psiphon to disseminate their surveys to hundreds of thousands of people at a time. They added many more external checks. Their data undergo rigorous corrections for language, age, education, geography, economic class and much more. They make sure they match World Values Survey and even regime-backed polls on politically non-sensitive demographics. In their latest survey, for example, they matched results on uncorrelated data such as language at home, choice of health insurance and economic situation. Often it was shocking to see it so plainly laid out. In cases where every other variable matched the World Values Survey, respondents’ faith dropped dramatically in GAMAAN’s anonymous surveys.

Now, after the 2022 protests and the death of Mahsa Amini, our image of Iran is continuing to evolve and complicate. Now we’ve seen women and men take to the streets, tearing off hijabs, cutting their hair, screaming for change. The people are unequivocal and the evidence overwhelming. While many media outlets refuse to acknowledge a secular Iran, ignoring footage, survey data and online engagement from around the country, slowly GAMAAN is gaining mainstream acceptance. They’ve won the Market Research Society’s President’s Medal in London and been invited to speak at major universities such as Stanford and Edinburgh.

In 2023 they conducted their most important survey, asking the Iranian public: If a free referendum were organized, would you want the Islamic Republic? They used satellite TV stations and Psiphon to promote their survey, and provided QR codes so that respondents could download the survey anonymously. Psiphon sent the survey to almost 400,000 people in a matter of days. They had more than 157,000 respondents inside Iran. After correcting the data to make it representative, 81 per cent said that they did not want an Islamic Republic.

How was GAMAAN finally believed? It wasn’t a change in methodology but a change in our image of Iran: a richer, more colourful mosaic of a perplexing country. Now voices from Iran are loud enough, the footage unignorable enough. Even the fractured Iranian diaspora is coming together, with some scholars calling for humility – to “think the unthinkable” about a population we thought we understood.

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