Demonstrators hold up a poster of exiled Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini during an anti-shah demonstration in Tehran, the Iranian capital, on Dec. 10, 1978. (AP)

By Track Persia

March 15, 2019

Since the crackdown on the protestors of the 2009 Green Movement which demanded some grievances be heard, there has been a growing trend among Iranians, in particular, the younger generation presented in an anti-Shiism and anti- Islamisation policy adopted by the Iranian theocracy after the success of the Islamic revolution that deposed the Shah  in 1979.

The new trend is rooted in the pre-election of President Mohammad Khatami who gained about twenty million votes in 1997. Those who voted for Khatami were hoping that the latter would make a change, but they became disappointed to realise he was an integral part of the regime and he could not meet his election campaign promises.  The disillusion with Khatami was followed by an episode of popular protests in 1999, 2003 and the Green Movement of 2009-10.

The protagonists of the growing anti-Shiite trend have expressed their regret for supporting the 1979 Islamic revolution led by Iran’s late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. They have been focusing instead on reviving the history and the pre-Islamic era of the Persian Empire such as Zoroastrianism.

Anti-Shiite Symbolism

The growing anti-Islamisation trend in Iran can be interpreted as a reaction to the regime’s politicised Shiism policy which is based on the Shiite doctrine of ‘wilayat al-faqih’, or the rule of a Shi’i religious jurist,  which was  developed by Khomeini and has been applied in Iran’s governance  since the success of the Islamic revolution in 1979.  It is a criticism of the clerical and elite rule in the country. The followers of this trend are mostly non-organised and they usually do not have any affiliations to political parties. They just want to express their demands for freedom and democracy.

During the course of the Green Movement, the protesters’ main demands were a separation of religion and politics in Iran. This came when the Shiite Islamic symbols overwhelmed Iran including the name of the country and its national flag.

Over the last few years, symbolic Persian figures have been revived by the Iranians following the nationalist trend including the Persian king Great Cyrus, Ferdowsi, Kaveh Ahrangar and Rostam. It has become common to reference these Persian icons by these nationalists for political intentions.

The anti-Islamic nationalist trend among Iranians, in particular, the younger generation, has reflected in replacing Islamic Shiite names with iconic Persian names such as Shirin, Dariush, Atusa and Kurosh. In the last 18 years, the new trend is also reflected in the growing number of visits to Iran’s iconic pre-Islamic sites such as the tomb of the poet Ferdowsi in Mashhad. The growing number of visitors to Ferdowsi has made the respective authorities extend visiting hours. The irony is the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth imam in the Shiite Islam, is also in the same city. Ferdowsi is considered the symbol of anti-Islamic nationalism. The growing number of visitors to his grave can be interpreted as a rivalry between the symbolism of the Shiism adopted by the theocratic regime and Persian nationalism that glorifies Persian history and culture.

Iranians annually mark the international day of Cyrus the Great, the ancient ruler of the Persian empire, whose legacy is credited with forging the Iranian national identity.  They commemorate this day by gathering at Pasargadae, the tomb of Cyrus the Great, which is located in the Fars province. The large gatherings on October 29, terrified the regime of potential protests against its policies that it used military force to disperse the gatherings in different cities in the Fars province.

This year, members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and state security forces established a virtual military curfew in the surrounding regions a few weeks ago in order to prevent any gathering from taking shape and to control the roads and pathways that lead to Pasargadae. They blocked all roads that lead to Pasargadae and prevented vehicles from going to the site.  The IRGC made an announcement to all vehicles and people moving toward the site, warning that the gathering was illegal and was orchestrated by “the dissenters and anti-state movements”. They also threat of dealing with the participants through “law and the judiciary.”

However, these threats and measures did not deter the participants from showing unity against the regime and from commemorating Cyrus the Great. In fact, large groups of people defied the regime’s suppressive organs and travelled to the site to pay their respects to the nation’s great king. Some of them even walked through mountains to reach the site to face arrests and beat up by the security forces.

Conversion to other faiths

According to recent reports, there has been a growing number of Iranians who converted from Shiite Islam to other faiths, especially Zoroastrianism, Baha’ism and Christianity, though there are no official statistics in order to avoid state persecution. Additionally, a significant number of young Iranians do not consider themselves Muslims. Others have secretly become atheists or agnostics. It is worth mentioning that formal statistics show that 90 per cent of Iranians are Shi’i Muslims.

That’s said, there has been a significant decrease in the level of mosque attendance among the Iranians. According to the World Values Survey, Iran has one of the lowest mosque attendances compared to ten other important Muslim countries. One of the possible explanations is the extensive politicisation of Shiism under the Islamic Republic and the disenchantment with this faith.

The rise of nationalism in Iran is seen as a resentment towards the politicised Shiism under the Islamic Republic whose rule is based on the Shi’i ideology of the rule of the clergy. The growing trend is cultural and political criticism and it demands democracy and freedom.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.