By Ali Akbar Ebrahimpour
December 16, 2020
Forms of propaganda in the Islamic Republic of Iran are not fixed and have adapted over time. Once upon a time, pro-regime messaging was restricted to religious institutions such as seminaries, mosques and shrines. Later it advanced onto the airwaves via the radio and TV. The advent of the internet has changed the landscape of the media forever and with it, the way Iranian propaganda is disseminated.
Due to this fundamental change, religious missionaries have sometimes taken off their clerical garb to engage in more creative and multimedia fields. But the fourth decade of the Islamic Republic has seen an even more significant change: pro-Iran missionaries no longer purporting to be a part of the Shiite clergy. Prominent examples of these new, “non-clerical missionaries”, who speak and theorize on matters of importance in Iran and sometimes address the clerical caste directly, include such figures as Ali Akbar Raefipour, Hassan Abbasi and Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi.
This is a strange turn of events in the history of the Islamic Republic. If once the most important propagandists of the Iranian regime were religious figures like Morteza Motahhari and Mohammad Taghi Falsafi, they are now being replaced by pundits like Raefipour, Abbasi and Azghadi, who preach a similar doctrine but without wearing the turban. The role of Shia clerics is diminishing over time – to the point that parts of society have rejected in outright. Now, the same propagandistic role must be played by non-theologians, who sometimes even mock the clerics, calling them “inactive scientists” and “bees without honey”.
Despite this, however, these three individuals – especially Raefipour and Abbasi – and others have made similar pronouncements tying the Islamic Revolution to the concept of Mahdism: the Shia belief that a messianic figure, known as the Mahdi or the “Hidden Imam”, will appear at the appointed time to rid the world of evil and injustice. The Islamic Revolution was seen by some as a break with the Shiite quietism of the past and a move to hasten the coming of Mahdi: in other words, the end of the known world.
Raefipour is a particular proponent of Mahdism. Born after the revolution, he did not experience the Iran-Iraq war and did was not educated in the seminaries. But he has become one of the most active figures in advancing this particular aspect of pro-Islamic Republic propaganda among young audiences. Azghadi may be a prominent Shia scholar and theologian, but he lacks an institution or think-tank through which to propagate his ideas. But Raefipour does: namely, the Iranian Cultural-Art Masaf Institute, better known simply as Masaf. Through Masaf, Rahimpour Azghadi has created and implemented many innovative new propaganda techniques, while also positioning himself as a more traditional, one-man spokesperson on behalf of the Islamic Republic.
The Scope of Masaf’s Activities
The Masaf institute – masaf meaning “battle”, or “combat” – has evaded much scrutiny from either Iranian domestic or foreign media. It is most infamous abroad for its sponsorship of the Iranian regime-supported annual international Holocaust cartoon competition. The true extent of its activities, and how it serves as a propaganda outlet for the Islamic Republic, is best explained through an examination of its multiple “fighting units”, as declared on its website, where a disclaimer also says the contents “have been prepared and compiled with the aim of enlightening the apocalyptic seditionists and acquainting Muslims with Mahdavi topics and teachings”.
Among the core “units” that form part of Masaf’s output are:
Video clips, documentary and short film: This branch of the organization creates short, themed video clips and social and religious documentaries, on a range of different topics.
Games: The purpose of this “unit” is to produce computer games.
Software: This section of Masad produces special mobile phone and computer software with the over-arching theme of promoting and propagating Mahdism.
Music: This “unit” produces music to promote Mahdism.
Graphics, cartoons and illustrations: This division creates digital graphics and images to attract younger audiences to the idea of Mahdism.
Political and hostility recognition: The term “hostility recognition” is taken from Ali Khamenei’s political lexicon. The purpose of this section of Masad is to analyze the political events of the day, seemingly in accordance with the taste and policies of the Iranian regime.
International: This “unit” presents information and cultural output from Masaf in a variety of different languages, as well as answering questions and addressing common concerns about its ideology.
The institute has also co-organized several costly and high-profile events in Iran, such as the 2018 “National Summit on Mahdism and the Islamic Revolution” in collaboration with the seminaries. The purpose of these is clearly to establish a link between the Islamic Revolution and the doctrine of Mahdism.
Why is Mahdism Important to the Iranian Regime?
Mahdism is one of the central pillars of the Twelver Shiite Muslim belief system. It is essentially an apocalyptic approach to salvation, of the type seen to a lesser extent in other religions. But what distinguishes Mahdism is the belief that firstly, the promised savior is alive but absent; secondly, that he is the twelfth Shiite Imam; and thirdly, that he has representatives among the people. Twelver Shia jurists are believed to be the deputies of the Mahdi in his absence.
Many of the adherents of Mahdism therefore believe that the Islamic Revolution, and the establishment of an Islamic Republic of Iran overseen by Twelver Shia clerics, have set the conditions for the emergence of the promised savior. These people sometimes refer to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic as “viceroy” of the Mahdi – meaning he, and only he, ought to be able to claim a representative function.
For this reason, Mahdism has with some irony become a focal point of the Islamic Republic’s propaganda machine. It has been used to position the political system arising from the Islamic Revolution not as a conventional state, but as a divine one, in line with the heavenly edicts of the promised Mahdi. In this way, the governance structure of the Islamic Republic is afforded a sanctified status, despite its obvious flaws.
This type of theorizing, however, has now become less acceptable on the part of the clergy and the traditional clerics. Simultaneously, they have lost a great deal of cultural currency with Iranian youth. For this reason, individuals such as Raefipour and organizations such as the Masaf Institute have an important role to play in portraying the Iranian political system as sacred and immutable – meaning there is no longer any need to strive for legitimacy, accountability or even the consent of the people.
The International Community in the Crosshairs
Organizations such as Raefipour’s are aware of the fact that Mahdavi doctrine, and the association between Mahdism and the Islamic Republic, is not limited to believers inside Iran’s borders. For this reason they work to expand the scope of the Islamic Republic’s religious propaganda to the four corners of the world. Masaf accordingly describes itself as “the largest cyber-movement of the children of the revolution on the Internet” and publishes content in several different languages, saying it aims to promote Mahdism at “the national and international level”.
On its website the institute claims that so far its activities have “enlightened” some 700 people. “Enlightened” would normally refer to people having learned about and converted to Shia Islam, but in this context it also means acknowledging the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic because of Twelver Shia and Mahdavi doctrine. Masaf explicitly states on its website that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the “house of the Lord of the Age” [the Mahdi].
The assignment of such a task by the seminary to Masaf shows that Masaf is not independent, but in the service of the Iranian regime as a propaganda instrument. It works to instil people with the idea that the leader of the Islamic Republic is a charismatic and rightful deputy of the “Lord of the Age”, and the Islamic Revolution is the first step toward an ideal society. Masaf also states that it considers itself to be responsible for carrying out the “cultural function of the Umm al-Qura of Islam”: Umm al-Qura (mother city) is a Qur’anic term being used here to refer to Iran rather than, say, Mecca or Medina as the original home of Islam.
To link the doctrine of Mahdism with the doctrine of the Islamic Revolution is, in effect, to position the Islamic Republic against the established world order: an order that, according to Khomeinists, is bound to be overthrown by the promised savior.
How Mahdism has Informed Foreign Policy
The former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was known for several qualities that distinguished him not only from other presidents, but from the rest of the leadership. During almost all of his speeches, even at the UN General Assembly, he would pray for the hasty return of the “Hidden Imam”. By doing so he introduced the doctrine of Mahdism in the context of Islamic Republic foreign relations, even bringing up his belief in the promised savior at meetings with Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
“The doctrine of Mahdism is the basis of the republic’s foreign policy,” Hassan Ghashghavi, then-deputy foreign minister, had said at the time. If Mahdism was the basis of foreign policy then, no wonder it was also the basis of propaganda.
In 2014, an event called the International Conference on the Doctrine of Mahdism took place, co-organized by the Masaf Institute. During this summit a new term, “Mahdi-Yavaran” (Friends of Mahdi) was introduced as a way to honor people who had promoted the doctrine of Mahdism in cultural, artistic and social fields.
The event, which took place at Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s conference center, was hosted in collaboration with the Promised Mahdi Cultural Foundation: a body set up in 2000 on the suggestion of senior cleric Hojjatoleslam Mohsen Gharati, and with the consent of Ali Khamenei, with government funding. The foundation aims to expand and promote what it calls “Mahdism culture” and trans preachers, researchers and lecturers on Mahdism-related topics, under the auspices of the Supreme Council of Qom Seminary and the Center for Imams and Mahdism Studies in Qom.
This is one of a constellation of other institutions seeking to promote Mahdism within and outside of Iran. They include the Mahdism Virtual Center, the Mahdi-Yavaran Station, Mahdism Virtual Education, Awaiting magazine, the Mahdism Digital Libraryand the Encyclopaedia of Mahdavi Narratives.
Jamkaran Mosque and the Covenant with the Mahdi
Despite the abundance of tourist destinations already in Iran – and the fact that the tourist industry is practically inactive now – the Islamic Republic strongly promotes artificial and self-generated attractions instead. Some of these are religious sites lent a new fascination by the cultural linkage of Mahdism to the Islamic Republic.
Chief among these manufactured tourist sites is as Jamkaran Mosque, which was built just a few decades ago and which receives absolutely no mention in any Islamic scriptures. Nonetheless, this mosque is referred to as the “meeting place of the promised Mahdi”. In the propaganda of the Islamic Republic, Jamkaran Mosque is curiously referred to as a “military pact with the Lord of the Age”.
Stranger still despite its lack of any real connection to the Mahdi, a well has been built into this mosque into which visitors can drop letters addressed to the “Hidden Imam”. This type of correspondence, addressed to an unseen person, is called “petitioning” and sees people unburden themselves of their pains and strife to the Mahdi. From time to time, the custodians of Jamkaran Mosque empty the well so that fresh letters can be dropped in.
Believers as Soldiers
One of the most singular aspects of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s propaganda is how the Islamic Revolution is connected with the apocalyptic doctrine of Mahdism. This idea is so strongly invested in by some believers both inside and outside the country that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic is though of by some to be the Mahdi’s deputy. The Iranian regime has been able to capitalize on this belief and uses it to cement and legitimize a system of governance with no checks on its power or accountability.