Tossing Turbans to Delegitimizing Iran’s Ruling Clergy

ByMohammad Al-Sayyad

 Turbans have great symbolic significance for clerics in general  and for Shiite clerics in particular. Turbans  have been used for political purposes since the ruling system took  power in 1979. Those who wear  black turbans are  from  Ahl al-Bayt ( Arabic: People of the House;  the family of  Prophet Muhammad), whereas, white turbans are  worn by   all clerics and seminary  students, without any association to the Prophet’s household.  Clerics who wear black turbans have a special status among the Iranian people. Therefore, most of the important religious positions are taken up by clerics wearing black turbans.  From 1979 until now, the Iranian ruling system has forcibly removed  turbans from opponents as a punishment  and has deprived  them of wearing them for a while or  permanently. The system wants to curb the scholarly  community and tame it as it fears losing control over this important segment of Iranian society.

Ironically, the Iranian people themselves have decided to punish the ruling system and its clerics with the same policy of removing turbans. Recently, campaigns such as  “knocking the turbans off, ” have gone viral, with the aim to remove   the turbans of sheikhs and clerics.

Iran’s current protests and campaigns on this issue are indicative of a number of factors and changing realities in the country:  the Iranian youth aimed to achieve several things:

  • Diminishing influence of clerics: Iran is an “Islamic” republic  and it is ruled by jurists. Therefore, the Iranian youth hold the clerics responsible for the deteriorating conditions that have befallen Iranian society.  They want to reduce their influence, modify their behavior, and send them back to the hawzas (Shiite religious seminaries).  The Iranian youth believe that the clerics have for over 40 years supported foreign wars, created cross-border militias, and fueled sectarian tensions at home and abroad. In addition, they are  the reason behind the  economic sanctions, hostility toward  political opponents, and the exclusion/marginalization of women, youth, and  minorities whether religious or ethnic.
  • Silent  hawza: The clerics ’s silence  on  the policy of the ruling elite convinced  the Iranian youth, women and the common people  that the clerics are no longer advocates for public rights and demands.  Ironically, the Qom Hawza has always accused the Najaf Hawza of being a “silent” hawza that does not care about  public affairs nor  defends the rights of the “oppressed” and the “disadvantaged.” Qom is taking the same course today in terms of not criticizing  the ruling system’s policies. This  has important implications. Qom’s silence is because it either fears a crackdown or it is content with the benefits it receives from the ruling system.  Despite the reason for the silence, Iran’s rebellious youth are angry with the clerics whether  against those who follow the Wilayat al-Faqihdoctrine  (the ruling of the jurist/faqih) or those who believe in intezar  awaiting for the reappearance of  Imam Mahdi while shunning political life). They argue that  the state should be based on constitutional rule.   
  • A generation gap: A large gap has emerged between the revolution and post- revolution generations. The current generations of young men and women who did not experience  the revolutionary atmosphere in the 1970s  and 1980s   are not concerned with the revolutionary narrative,  which is well-versed in making  enemies and creating an imaginary or real enemy, and holding it accountable  for the country’s  economic, political, and social failures. However,  they  are concerned about reform and the economy is at the top of their priority list. Moreover, political reforms that ensure freedoms are important for this new generation and the Iranian youth are brave enough to campaign for sociopolitical freedoms as this dominates their thinking and mentality.  However, the ruling system is using the revolutionary rhetoric  of the 1970s when the Iranian people revolted  against the shah.
  • Imagined holiness: The “sacred” status of the clerics  is no longer as it was at  the beginning of the revolution. A wide  current of clerics have  refrained  from  criticizing and  modifying  the ruling elite’s behavior.  Some clerics have been  tamed, whereas, others are  only concerned about their  economic interests at the expense of the overall interests of the Iranian people.  This self-interest created the perception among the new generation that the clerics are no longer deserving of their “sacred” status, and need to be brought down to reality.  Women have faced the brunt of the government’s policies, with them having their rights curtailed, with elements in the ruling elite deeming them as incompetent, thus deserving of no rights when it comes to matters such as choosing how to dress and deciding who to marry. In addition, the government has blocked them from entering sports stadiums.  As a result, a wide range of Iranian segments are opposed to the ruling establishment, and this poses a real danger to the status quo if it does not change its behavior and policies.
  •  “Reformists” and the enlightened  religious discourse: The “reformists” and enlightened  religious discourse oppose   the religious narrative imposed by the ruling establishment. This discourse is supported by the Iranian  youth and women as it addresses  contemporary issues and the problems facing the new generation.  The enlightened  discourse criticizes absolute power, rejects the   guardianship of the jurist because it is  alien  to Shiite thought, and attempts to democratize Shiite political thought. In addition,  it aims to liberalize social life in Iran and place women at the core of the country’s political and social scene.  This discourse is promoted   by Abd al-Karim Soroush, Shabestari, Hajjarian, Malkian, and others. It is accurate to say that the enlightened  current is clearly different from   the  “reformist” current,  to which Montazeri, Kadifer and  Khatami belong to. It wants real reform, and for the system to transition to a constitutional one.

The important question is, has the current  protest movement created a   rift  among the clerics? The ruling religious elite has failed to  meet  public demands and is determined  to ignore and confront these  demands, and to continue with its  policy of violence and oppression against  the protesters, including young men and women. This policy, in fact, has added momentum to the protests.  In his context, the soccer players and Iranian football fans   at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar participated  in  the protests by refusing to sing    the national anthem when Iran played its first match against England.  The Iranian players refusing to sing the national anthem, Iranians tossing turbans, and the ongoing protests, all reflect the dire domestic situation, and the deteriorating relationship between the Iranian people and the clerical establishment.

In fact, the protests have caused a rift within the religious elite in Iran. Hassan Khomeini called on the ruling establishment to be rational and democratic, arguing that public opinion  is “rational [reasonable], so the best and least expensive way is to take into account public opinion as a criterion [benchmark to assess the ruling system’s performance].”  Former President Mohammad Khatami  warned the government as he believes that the current situation  will lead to a total social collapse.  At the same time, he said that the overthrow of the ruling elite is neither possible nor desirable. He indirectly criticized the Supreme Leader Khamenei who has blamed foreign  enemies for stirring the protests. Khatami said,  “ If every protest is described as a riot, and violent and harsh treatment   is justified, then the problem will  exacerbate.” From his own perspective, the solution to the problem lies  in changing the behavior of the ruling system from within or what he calls  self-reform as  the only option  available for the system. However, according to him, the ruling system does not “feel the need to hear this.” On the other hand, the pro-ruling system religious elites made sure to deny  that the protests were sparked by  people in the first place. Ahmad Alam al-Huda,  the Friday prayer leader  in Mashhad, said that  the people who are protesting in the streets are secularists, atheists, and enemies of the ruling system,  and another   cleric said that those in the squares are the enemies of “Islamic” Iran.

The religious elite is  sharply divided: a groups wants to pursue the confrontational approach,  and is  concerned about  the implications  of any fundamental change as the protesters may consider it  as  an indication of the ruling system’s vulnerability and weakness, and on the other hand, another group is critical  of the prevailing conditions, and calls for reforms to  satisfy the people, and curb the mass protest movement to prevent  the collapse of the political system.

Finally, the religious elite seems  far removed from the priorities and concerns of the Iranian youth and women  and  the post-revolutionary generations.  This elite has not only failed to adapt to a new reality but wants to deny it.  It accuses  the new generations of being secular and influenced by Western modernity and imperialism. This narrative aims to demonize  a wide range of   Iranians who  no longer care about the ideological and sectarian orientations of the political system.  On the other hand, the youth, women and the new generations  have  failed to  embrace the views of clerics, whether radical or traditional ones.  These generations have grown up amid technological transformations, and their demands are different from the past generations.  Therefore, these generations   should be either  absorbed or contained. Otherwise,  the situation will blow up  one day, no matter  the   oppression and violence that people are  subjected to.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Mohammad Al-Sayyad
Mohammad Al-Sayyad
A researcher of ideological studies at Rasanah