Iranians turning away from religious orthodoxy
English historian Edward Gibbon famously attributed the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of Christianity and what he perceived as the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens.
The theory went that, as the citizenry abandoned its war-like pagan gods and turned to the peaceful doctrines of early Christianity, the empire found itself defenceless in the face of barbarian enemies.
Iran appears to be facing a similar threat as an increasing number of Iranians turn from the government-sanctioned interpretation of Shia Islam and look for spiritual guidance and consolation elsewhere. While some follow the mystical interpretations of Islam and deism of the Sufis and dervishes, others are attracted by the anti-clerical millenarianism of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ilk.
Despite the Zoroastrian clergy’s opposition to the conversion of non-Zoroastrians, there is no shortage of Iranians wearing the Farvahar and other Zoroastrian symbols. Evangelical Christianity is on the rise, too, as are charlatan miracle workers and sorcerers. All compete with each other and Shia Islam to address the spiritual needs of Iranians.
A US Commission on International Religious Freedom report stated that evangelical Christianity appears to be particularly well-organised and is persecuted just as methodically by Iranian authorities.
Assemblies of God (Kelisa-ye Jamaat-e Rabbani) and other Christian groups bring Iranians together in so-called “house churches” to preach the gospel. They differ from established churches in Iran, which serve the country’s Christian minority, but do not proselytise among the majority Shias. Churches, after all, are subjected to surveillance by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, which can easily identify Muslims who frequent them.
Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, are engaged in a systematic effort to convert Iranians. They, too, have home churches, which are more or less hidden from security services. Evangelical Christians transmit radio and television programmes to Iran and smuggle Persian translations of the Bible into Iran.
Iran’s clerical elites are aware of the religious challenge to their monopoly and have demanded a harsher response to the sources of the threat.
On January 26, Hojjat al-Eslam Rasoul Hassanzadeh, a scholar at the Spiritual Health Institute, warned against “novel mysticism,” which has a way of “infiltrating [Iranians’] spiritual life” through foreign books and films. On May 8, Hojjat al-Eslam Mehdi Amjadizadeh, Friday prayer leader of Bakharz in eastern Iran, complained in an interview about the rapid growth of “deviant sects” within Islam, as well as the spread of “home churches” in Shiraz in Fars province and Nishapur in Razavi Khorasan province.
Tehran has yet to throw Christians to the lions, as in ancient Rome. It has responded to the rise of “deviant sects” and of evangelical Christianity with house raids, the arrest and imprisonment of converts and harassment of their family members to deter further conversions. In so doing, however, the regime revives the story of persecution of early Christians at the hands of Roman emperors.
The real problem lies elsewhere: The religious nature of the regime in Tehran. As Hojjat al-Eslam Mohsen Kadivar points out in his “Daghdagheh-ha-ye Hokoumat-e Dini” (“Concerns of Religious Government”) when the head of state is also the head of a country’s religion, the people will blame God for the state’s shortcomings.
In other words, rather than strengthening the position of religion among the citizenry, mixing religion with politics exposes religion to public criticism. It leads the Iranian public to look elsewhere for spiritual guidance.