Iranian clerics no longer wield control

Iranian clerics no longer wield control

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At a time when parties and organizations associated with political Islam face rejection and criticism from the peoples of Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan and Iraq, the Iranian clerics are also increasingly facing severe criticism, domestically as well as regionally, and becoming targets of the Iranian people’s anger and rebuke.

The situation is so volatile that the clerics now avoid appearing in public at certain places and times to avoid the people’s rage. This situation prompts us to attempt to determine the reasons behind the significant shift in the Iranian people’s attitude toward the clerics, whose former great prestige among the masses has now plummeted.

It is self-evident that the first reason why the Iranian people despise the clerics is their politicization of faith, whose rituals and sanctity the mullahs cynically exploit for their own political ends. The people can see the gaping gulf between the clerics’ lofty words on morality and their practices in reality.

The second reason is the religious seminarians’ blind loyalty to the Guardian Jurist, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose predecessor stripped the seminaries and the clerics of their historical autonomy and separation from the state, which they maintained prior to 1979. Subsequent to that, the role of Guardian Jurist, occupied previously by Ayatollah Khomeini and now by his successor Khamenei, was greatly expanded in scope so that judicial guardianship encompassed all the clerics, not only the masses. As a result, the clerics are obliged to unquestioningly follow the Guardian Jurist and accept his jurisprudential judgments in the public sphere. 

These are not the only reasons for the decline in the clerics’ popularity and stature. Another important reason is the clerics’ increasingly apparent attempt to keep the Iranian people isolated from the fast-moving modern world and deliberately cut them off from the global interactions taking place in the social, political and economic spheres. The clerics are constantly criticizing and fearmongering about modernity and Western civilization, vilifying and prohibiting anything deemed Western.

This has led to widespread resentment, particularly among the younger, more internationalist post-revolutionary generation, and created a backlash, including violent reactions against the clerics. Young Iranians see the theocratic elite as old and out of touch, unaware of how times have changed. They see the urgent need for a paradigm shift to lead the country away from its present misery, which is the inevitable result of fundamentalist theocracy, endless wars, sectarian conflicts and support for extremist militias.

This comes at a time when Iran’s neighbors, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and India, are making impressive economic advances and experiencing transformations in various sectors, including education, health and infrastructure. The Iranian people have been deprived of these because of the Guardian Jurist’s regressive policies and the clerics preferring an isolationist, premodern society.

This widespread anger against the clerics is exemplified in a recent video that was widely circulated on social media and in other media outlets. It shows an angry young Iranian man slapping a cleric in the face on the street, accusing him of destroying the youth’s future. He yells at the cleric, “You’ve blown up our future,” and adds, “There’s no life or work.” 

In another incident also caught on video, a young woman is seen attacking a cleric in the city of Qom after he criticized the way in which she was wearing her hijab. Rather than listen to the lecture in silence to avoid further trouble from the authorities, the young woman turned on the cleric, tearing his turban off and throwing it to the ground.

This growing phenomenon is another sign that all the manifestations of political Islam are facing rejection throughout the region

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

These incidents are not unusual or isolated but are part of a rapidly growing phenomenon that is concerning Iran’s leadership. Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said in a remarkable statement a month ago: “If the revolution is to be stabbed, women will be the ones to do so.”

Seminaries and clerics face violence at the hands of the Iranian people as protests and popular anger grow. Protesters recently attacked a seminary in the city of Karaj, chanting slogans against the clerics and the Guardian Jurist, including “Death to the dictator.” Even the homes of some clerics have been attacked by protesters. 

Hard-line cleric Mohammed Reza Zaeri said in a post on Instagram last week that he had been spat on and sworn at on more than one occasion in the previous 10 days. He also said that a taxi driver refused to pick him up and told him: “I will not give rides to mullahs.” Also in recent days, footage circulated online shows clashes between the Iranian people and clerics.

The significance of these incidents lies in the increasing realization among Iranians that the root of their problems is the clerics, their policies and their antiquated worldview. This steady increase in public anger is sending a firm message to the hard-line regime of President Ebrahim Raisi and emphasizing that any further pressure on the people could lead to a tremendous explosion — especially amid the miserable economic and social conditions and the religious elite’s hostility to the West.

We must also remember that there is a spat within the religious seminary itself between a poor segment of clerics, who see that they have been denied privileges and senior positions within state institutions, and another group that has seized the state’s financial resources and positions. This spat has sparked family disputes in many seminary students and clerics’ households due to their low income and living problems, according to cleric Fazel Maybodi. 

Maybodi believes that the Iranian people’s confidence in the clerics has been shattered because of their inability to meet them directly. The clerics must adhere to extensive security protocols when they move from one place to another, making it virtually impossible for the people to interact with them face to face. As a result, the people’s questions to the clerics have decreased and they have turned to alternative sources. This has impacted the clerics’ reputation and prestige. Many of them now fear showing up wearing their religious uniform at markets for fear that they may be insulted or beaten by angry members of the public. 

In the end, this growing phenomenon is another sign that all the manifestations of political Islam are facing rejection throughout the region and its authority is quickly eroding in Iran. If it had not been for the regime’s excessive use of violence, repression and continued intimidation, the Iranian people would have toppled it, as has been the case with many of the region’s governments based on political Islam. 

It is likely that this tense relationship between society and the clerics will continue as long as the internal economic conditions remain unchanged and religion is mixed with politics and used to enhance the regime’s legitimacy and stigmatize its foes. 

But the regime is betting on its networks of corruption — made up of the clerics and their families, the police, the army, traders and the powerful state apparatuses — to stay in power. They are estimated to be in the millions among the people. In addition, the regime relies on its repressive militias, such as the Hezbollah group, which is seasoned in killings and assassinations, the Basij and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It has never hesitated to use excessive violence and repressive force against the people in all the protests that posed an existential threat to it. Cleric Mohammed-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi even once issued a fatwa that stated it was lawful to kill 90 percent of the people if they posed a threat to the Islamic regime.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is head of Rasanah, the International Institute for Iranian Studies. Twitter: @mohalsulami
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