The Islamic Republic Is Killing Islam in Iran
Growing up, I hated Muharram and Safar. These two months of mourning in Shi’ite Islam meant the already strict enforcement of religious orthodoxy by Iran’s regime would be that much more brutal. This year, Muharram began on July 30 and Safar ends on September 26. Instead of commemorating the Battle of Karbala, the beginning of the first Sunni-Shi’ite civil war in the year 680, this year Muharram and Safar might be signifying the defeat of Iranian Islam itself.
Because the religious lunar calendar rotates around the secular solar calendar observed in Iran, every child’s birthday is bound to fall during the months of mourning at some point. Once it does, it means no birthday parties for the next five or six years. Instead of celebrations with friends, we’d have secret gatherings of close family. I don’t know which was worse: missing the opportunity to spend time with my friends, or being forced to endure my stuffy old relatives!
In my early adulthood, my friends were more than happy to discuss and debate political issues with me, but debating religion was taboo. It wasn’t that they were going to turn me in, just that they would get very personal about it. They would shout down any dissenting opinion on Islam without debate because, while political criticism of the regime was a societal norm despite the regime’s best efforts, apostasy and blasphemy remained off limits. As soon as someone would come close to criticizing Islam, everybody’s inner authoritarian would rush to end the discussion before it began.
It’s been more than a decade since I left Iran for good, and the country has changed. I’m in touch with a few friends—secular people who represented the minority viewpoint alongside me—and they sometimes update me on our old peers. The young men who would tell you to shut up when criticizing religious policies and religion itself have now turned into proud blasphemers, cursing at Islam and its vanguard regime. It’s a shame I can never go back to Iran, because it sounds like it’s much improved since I left.
The ninth and tenth of Muharram are the peak of the mourning period. When I was there, people would pour into the streets to give away nazri—food they had pledged to God they would give away on a religious holiday if a wish came true. At night, battalions of men and women would take the streets, playing mourning music, shouting religious chants, and marching. This year, the streets are empty. The battalions have shrunk to small squads, and it’s embarrassing for the mosque to make demonstrations.
A friend told me, “Nobody goes out anymore.” I asked, “Literally no one?” He responded, “Well, a few did go out to check out girls!” He wasn’t kidding. With social life and gatherings limited to mourning, young men and women commit the ultimate heresy of using the holy ceremonies to find hookups. Did I come to America or did America come to Iran?
The religious people who drink socially avoid alcohol during this period as a sign of respect. One young Iranian, a friend of a friend, had sent a picture a few years ago of his hands with blisters from performing the rituals—the one he’d fallen victim to was stirring a gigantic pot of soup for hours. Another infamous one is literally beating yourself to demonstrate worshiping Hussein. A less severe ritual is theatrical storytelling—not history-telling—of the battle. This year, he was with my friend drinking. Another friend asked his septuagenarian father why he was not going back to their hometown, as he does every year during Muharram, to fulfill his nazri pledge. The old man responded, “Son, I have come to realize that all these things are bullshit!” It’s one thing for a young person raised on hip-hop and WhatsApp to make such a statement. But from an old man, pious all his life, it is rather rare—or, at least, it would have been ten years ago.
Judging by Instagram—the social medium most widely used in Iran—it was as though the country was dead. Few people posted anything because there was nothing to do. And the few there were had no signs of a period of state-enforced mourning. The smattering of pro-regime young people make an effort at enthusiasm in their posts, but largely from the same handful of mosques, with diminished crowds composed almost entirely of older people. Most of their posts are not from the ceremonies but graphics and texts related to Muharram.
GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based center run by two Iranian political scientists that tracks public attitudes in Iran, reports that 67 percent of Iranians reject the idea of theocracy, and 72 percent reject having a religious figure as the head of the state. A 2020 report by the same organization found that only 32.2 percent identify as Shi’ite Muslims, with another 5 percent identifying as Sunni. (Contrast that with the CIA World Factbook, which reports that 90–95 percent of the country is Shi’ite.) Nearly half identified as some form of irreligious—none, agnostic, spiritual, or atheist. A whopping 7.7 percent called themselves Zoroastrian, far higher than the 0.03 percent of the Zoroastrian population inside Iran. It’s not that Shi’ite Iranians are converting en masse to the religion of their pre-Islamic forbears—Zoroastrianism doesn’t accept converts. The better interpretation is that a significant number of Iranians claim the ancient Persian religion as a method of identifying as Persian and shedding the Muslim identity they’ve come to hate.
Iran’s plummeting fertility rate gives more evidence of its declining religiosity. Iranians have been poor in the past, but they still had high fertility rates despite being high on the misery index. The return of poverty doesn’t alone explain why the fertility rate has fallen to 1.7 children per woman of child-bearing years, but it makes sense when one considers the rise of “nones.” Religiously unaffiliated people, on average, have fewer children than religious people. In 1989, when I was born, Iran’s average fertility rate was 5.1.
The “Free the Hair” movement is another sign of how Islam is on the defensive. Iranian social media is replete with videos of women publicly rejecting the compulsory hijab. (After Muhammad bin Salman lifted the compulsory hijab law in Saudi Arabia, Iran spent a year as the only country in the world with this law, until the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan.) More strikingly, when a religious person confronts them about this civil disobedience, a fight—verbal or physical—follows, with the bystanders almost invariably siding with the woman not covering her hair.
But none of these data are as astounding as the clergy under attack. Iranians used to respect the clerical class, either sincerely or begrudgingly. It wasn’t just fear for their power but also a tradition and a custom. Nowadays, the stories that populate the news are about how pedestrians, often without cause, physically assault random mullahs on the street.
Half a century ago, secular modernizers in Iran were complaining about how Islam was an obstacle against progress. In the four decades since it seized power, the theocracy has managed to remove this obstacle, leading a proud and pious people to sour on their own religion. Before the Islamic Revolution, Iran had an Iranian state and a religious population. Now, it has a theocracy and a population increasingly embracing the non-religious components of its national heritage.