The disconnected face of Iranian fundamentalism

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Amid a widespread national economic crisis, the latest polemics from a powerful outright preacher have served as a distraction for Iranians, with many taken by surprise and others taking to social media to mock the unrest religious fundamentalist.

Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer leader of the holy city of Mashhad and the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Razavi Khorasan province, unveiled his new prescription for social and family life when he said in recent remarks, “unfortunately, as a result of the impact of Western culture, spouses [in Iran] call yourself by first names at home.

He went on to theorize that “in the first layer of life governed by affability between wife and husband, it is fine if they are called by their first name, but in the second layer, which is the layer external life, respect between wife and husband must be preserved. He did not specify what he meant by the first and second layers.

This is not the first time that Alamolhoda, widely regarded as one of Iran’s most radical clerics, has found himself in the public sights by making controversial statements and promulgating decrees that often elicit criticism. controversies, discontent and outrage among Iranians.

In recent years, Iranian religious authorities have proselytized what they call an “Islamic-Iranian way of life,” to which they want the general public to cling so that the nation becomes a model of Muslim civilization.

This lifestyle includes a wide range of canons on how people should dress, socialize, communicate, eat, pray, and even the number of children they should have. To promote government-sanctioned customs, clerics like Alamolhoda have given themselves free rein to encroach on all dimensions of citizens’ public and private life.

But despite his tendency to comment on a range of social, cultural, political, economic and even sometimes diplomatic issues, Alamolhoda is not a “marja”, or a source of emulation, a religious authority of Shiite Islam qualified to take decisions about Islam. jurisprudence and interpret religion for adherents.

An Iranian man and two veiled women wearing protective masks fought as they attended a religious ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Fatima, daughter of Prophet Mohammad, in downtown Tehran on January 17, 2021. Photo : Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto via AFP

Yet as the religious hierarch of the country’s most important pilgrimage city, he wields enormous, and often unconstitutional, power.

As a member of the Assembly of Experts, Alamolhoda, 76, is responsible for overseeing the Supreme Leader and choosing his successor. He is one of the co-founders of Imam Sadiq University. His son-in-law, Ebrahim Raisi, is the chief justice of the Islamic Republic.

The influential cleric is known to have banned public musical performances throughout Razavi Khorasan province, a region of Iran with a population of 6.5 million. He called the concert venues “vulgarity,” which he said should not be allowed in a province where the shrine of the 8th Shiite Imam Reza is located.

The decision to issue permits for music concerts rests with the administration and the Ministry of Culture, but the formidable Friday prayer leader has managed to pull the strings and blocked repeated efforts by artists and the government to bring concerts to Mashhad.

Performances in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, have been banned for more than a decade due to the dreaded cleric’s intransigence.

In 2016, nearly 3,000 Iranian musicians signed an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani which described the refusal of authorization for concerts by the Ministry of Culture under pressure from Alamolhoda as a “disaster”.

Artists and critics have accused the idiosyncratic Shia cleric of installing an autonomous federal regime in the province, as concerts are daily in the capital Tehran and in almost every major city in the country. The people of Mashad do not seem less enthusiastic about the arts.

The source of Alamolhoda’s antagonism to music is unclear, as hardly any Muslim country represses artistic endeavor as harshly as he does in his province. The burning cleric once said that those who buy tickets to music concerts are a “debauched and corrupt minority” and that the authorities should block their path to “excess”.

In other areas of public and social life, Alamolhoda never insists on his tough positions on civil liberties, women’s rights and family affairs. He once sang that women who do not comply with Iran’s mandatory hijab rules are promoting “sexual apartheid” and they want to be “the sex toy of a group of people.”

An Iranian girl walks next to a mural of the Iranian national flag while using her mobile phone on a street in Tehran, Iran, April 28, 2018. Photo: AFP

Last year, he encouraged women to follow the “ideal” hijab style, which completely covers their face in addition to covering their body. Alamolhoda called the women who avoid the conservative hijab “the infantry of the United States and Israel and the forces that the United States and Israel have brought into Iran to defeat the system and the revolution.”

The radical preacher, meanwhile, described abortion as “one of the representations of prostitution”. While a heated national debate was underway over the need to revise the second language curriculum in Iranian schools, Alamolhoda spoke out against the teaching of English, calling it “the language of ignorance and of deception ”.

Politically, Ahmad Alamolhoda is an accomplished fundamentalist.

In January 2020, following the fatal destruction of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, protests erupted in Tehran, students and young people gathered to express their dismay at the the alleged cover-up of the tragedy by the government.

British Ambassador to Tehran Rob Macaire attended one of the demonstrations of solidarity with the British victims of the incident. Alamolhoda ranted at the time “to expel the British Ambassador is the most generous thing to do to him… he must be cut to pieces”.

After his incendiary attack on the British envoy, Macaire temporarily left Iran. British media covered his remarks extensively and former US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell responded by tweeting: “This should be strongly and widely condemned in the United States, across Europe and everywhere.

Today, Alamolhoda is at the center of another debate about spouses who call each other by their first names in the privacy of their home. Social media is full of memes, cartoons, jokes and also angry reactions from Iranians who find it deplorable that a senior religious official has made such a dubious statement and is willing to interfere in the couples’ personal affairs.

Some observers believe that the kind of posture of Alamolhoda and other senior clergymen who make unusual comments about family life, women’s issues, and societal relationships is a deliberate attempt to gain public attention and sometimes to distract people from their many economic and other problems.

Soldiers are seen at a commemoration ceremony on the first anniversary of the assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in Kerman, Iran on January 2, 2021. Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency via the AFP Forum

Alamolhoda’s remarks “are made with full awareness of the extensive coverage they receive in both official and unofficial media. He knows that such statements will elicit widespread reactions, and that is why he is expressing them, ”said Pejman Mousavi, Iranian journalist and editor-in-chief of Morvarid magazine in Tehran.

Many experts believe that the outright religious exegesis of Islam is distorted and that the dogmatic ideas it offers are not endorsed by faith. Instead, the kind of rules he claims aim to cement a patriarchal culture that advocates religious governance in Iran that strengthens the supremacy of die-hard clerics within the ruling system.

Mehran Tamadonfar, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, said Alamolhoda’s postulations have “very little to do with Islam per se.”

“Islam as a worldview fosters a warm and respectful marital relationship, which in today’s world requires fair treatment. [Alamolhoda’s remarks are] a typical example of the intrusive nature of clerics in Iran who have used their authority to reinforce the old patriarchal nature of the culture in order to preserve their diminishing role in the privacy of the people.

Tamadonfar said that such intrusive decisions have, in fact, had a negative impact on the role of clerics in Iranian social life, especially among the younger and less religious segments of the population, some of whom have attempted to undermine public confidence in the government-promoted path to salvation through religion.

“The combination of global studies and local polls shows that as the degree of democracy and freedom decreases along with the system’s waning legitimacy, Islam and the clergy are also losing popularity,” Mohsen Moheimany said. , holder of a doctorate in political science from the city of Dublin. University, which referred to a recent poll by the Netherlands-based Gamaan Institute which suggested that half of Iranians have become “irreligious.”

“We can assume that most [survey respondents] are younger generation university graduates who have access to the internet, new knowledge and secular thoughts. This is a huge change in Iranian society, which I believe is also the result of the policies of the Islamic Republic, ”he added.

Younes Saramifar, assistant professor in the anthropology department at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, said that Alamolhoda’s comments “reflect the general tendencies of those in the Shia clergy who are aligned with the Islamic Republic to infiltrate daily life and shape religiosity. and the political practices of believers in their own private spaces.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses Iranians gathered in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad to celebrate Noruz, the Persian New Year. Photo: Handout

The scholar said that while Alamolhoda is not the only one to be the torchbearer of religious fundamentalism, and that his public remarks and his manner of expression are “crude and rude, unlike [Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei, who signals his supporters through metaphors and veiled language, ”he told Asia Times.

Although progressive and moderate clerics in Iran have consistently rejected harsh interpretations of Islam, pro-reform seminarians are in the minority and are often drowned out by fiery conservatives.

“There are many like Alamolhoda, because playing the role of the hard line and waving the banner of sexual crisis and provoking toxic masculinity are the oldest tools that clerics have always used to mobilize the people for their cause. “said Saramifar.


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