By Hessam Ghanatir
March 21, 2020
Iranian authorities have at last closed the two holiest Shia Muslim shrines in Iran – the Shrine of Masoumeh in Qom and the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad – to contain the spread of coronavirus. But on Monday night, angry protesters who saw the closure as an insult to the household of the Prophet Mohammad broke into these shrines.
A group of clerics have called these protesters “English Shias” – a political slur in Iran – for reacting against the closures and storming the shrines. Another group, however, has countered this by saying the protesters are not “English Shias” but hardline supporters of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This kind of political scuffle is not new. The same charges and counter-charges were traded when Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad were attacked in January 2016. At first, judiciary officials and a number of members of parliament tried to attribute the attacks to the followers of Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi, a critic of the Islamic Republic and its founding philosophy. It turned out, however, that the attackers on the Saudi missions were associated with the paramilitary Basij Organization and similar groups.
In the past few years, Ayatollah Shirazi has been presented as a symbol of the “English Shias,” a term used repeatedly by Ayatollah Khamenei to defame clerics who criticize the regime or his rule. The termis simply a newer version of the “English mullah” which was used by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomein, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
The term “English mullah”, however, predates even the 1979 Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. It was used to refer to those who wanted to sow divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims or among Shia religious authorities or clerics. Some revolutionary clerics also used the term to attack their colleagues who were part of the so-called “quietist school” who believed in the separation of religion and state – figures such as grand ayatollahs Abolghasem Khoei (1899-1992) or Ahmad Khonsari (1891-1985) who were labelled the “English mullahs.”
Updating the Term
After clerics who did not support an Islamic revolution were forced out of Iranian politics, the term was updated and re-branded (by leftist revolutionaries) as “American Islam” and used to attack more conservative members of the revolutionary movement. During this period, however, Ayatollah Khomeini and the circle around him called themselves followers of “pure Mohammadi Islam.”
Under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei, the term was revived in another shape. In the 1990s, Khamenei banned tatbir or Ghamezani, a ritual bloodletting practiced by some Shias to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hossein. This ritual has been practiced in parts of Iran for hundreds of years but Khamenei later called it a “fabricated tradition” and others attributed it [Persian link] to “English Shiism”.
Since the early 2000s, Khamenei has repeatedly used the term in his speeches. For instance, in a speech on February 3, 2012, he said: “Be suspicious of American and English Islam because it will lure you into the trap of western capitalism, consumerism and moral decline.”
“Today, one of the main goals of … America in the world of Islam is creating discord,” Khamenei said in December 2004. “The best means [of achieving this] is to create discord between Shia and Sunni.” In another speech, in 2005, Khamenei said that the budget for radio or TV broadcasters that insult Sunni leaders comes from the “English treasury” [Persian link] and this is “English Shiism”.
Following such speeches, actions against Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi and his associates gained momentum. In the summer of 2015, the Intelligence Ministry shut down online TV channels associated with the followers of Ayatollah Shirazi in the cities of Qom, Isfahan, Mashhad and Tehran, charging those involved in operating them with “sowing divisions among Islamic denominations by insulting and libelling what is sacred to them” and arrested [Persian link] a number of people.
A year later, Hossein Shirazi, son of Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi, was arrested after he delivered a speech critical of the “guardianship of the Islamic jurist”, the founding principle of the Islamic Republic. In his speech, he compared Khamenei to the “Egyptian Pharaohs,” symbols of ungodly tyranny for Muslims. He was released some time later but on March 9, 2018, while he was still under arrest, a group of his father’s followers attacked the Iranian embassy in London. They were arrested and removed by the London police.
According to [Persian link] Mohsen Kadivar, a professor of Islamic studies in Iran, Shirazi’s worldview is a combination of a traditional and retrogressive Shiism, on the one hand, and opposition to the underlying principles of Islamic Republic on the other. Unlike other Shia religious authorities, Shirazi’s power base is not in Iran but in Iraq. The most prominent figure in the Shirazi family was the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hosseini Shirazi, brother of Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi, who was on good terms with Ayatollah Khomeini. But their relations soured after the Islamic Revolution and he had hostile relations with Khomeini’s successor Ayatollah Khamenei.
Although Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi criticized the government’s treatment of its political critics, otherwise he has a retrogressive view of things. For example, he supports tatbir, or the religious self-flagellation practiced during mourning ceremonies, seen by many Shias as forbidden because it is a form of self-harm. But Shirazi’s interpretation of Shi’ism has well-financed followers and is supported by many online TV networks. In recent years the Islamic Republic has increasingly pressured the followers of Shirazi but has not made any move to wipe them out once and for all.