By Golnaz Esfandiari
August 16, 2022
A woman assaulted a cleric in the holy Shi’ite city of Qom, home to seminaries and senior ayatollahs, knocking off his turban and stepping on it after he apparently warned her about her hijab.
The video of the incident went viral last year, with many praising the woman, while there was almost no sympathy for the cleric, who some said deserved the treatment.
The incident — which resulted in the arrest of the woman — highlighted public resentment for the clerics, who came to power following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In a sign of the rising anger, physical attacks against clerics appear to be increasing in Iran, where some of the religious officials have said they don’t wear their robes or turbans in public to avoid being targeted, while others have warned about the public wrath against them and the decline in their stature and influence.
Tehran-based dissident cleric Abolfazl Najafi-Tehrani tells RFE/RL that the poor performance of Iran’s clerical establishment, its interference in the daily lives of Iranians, and the failure of the clerics to respond to modern needs are to blame for a gap between the clergy and the people that has widened since the revolution and the creation of the Islamic republic.
“In recent years, we have witnessed people’s hatred and anger towards particularly those clerics who follow state policies,” Najafi-Tehrani said, adding that the anger has resulted in assaults on clerics who impose “their reactionary lifestyle on others.”
Several incidents of physical assault against clerics have been reported in the media in the past few months, including in early June when the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the central province of Isfahan was reported to have been attacked by a man who attempted to stab him.
In an interview after the attack, Ayatollah Yusef Tabataeinejad, the Friday Prayers leader of Isfahan, who appeared unharmed, said the assailant was a young man who “likely had a problem,” while adding that his motives were being investigated.
In early July, a cleric was injured in an assassination attempt in Isfahan, while weeks later, on July 28, a young cleric was stabbed several times in Karaj near the Iranian capital while delivering a sermon at a shrine.
In April, two Iranian clerics were stabbed to death and another was injured at the revered Imam Reza Shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad in what officials described as a terrorist attack.
The attacker — who was identified as a 21-year-old ethnic Uzbek from Afghanistan with Sunni radical views — was executed.
Many of the attacks in recent years have targeted clerics who attempt to enforce Islamic codes in public, including the hijab rule that became compulsory after the revolution.
In April, the hard-line Fars news agency released the names of two dozen clerics who have come under violent assault in the past decade. Three were killed following attacks and two lost eyes.
In the early years after the Islamic revolution, groups such the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) launched several assassination attempts against senior clerics.
But the majority of the recent attacks, which targeted low-level and little-known clerics, do not appear to be organized. State media have blamed some of them on “thugs.” Senior officials have not publicly commented on the attacks.
Khamenei, who has the final say in the Islamic republic, claimed in a speech in June that people’s “inclination” toward religion and the clergy has increased since the beginning of the revolution, citing “millions” of mourners for General Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated in a 2020 U.S. drone attack.
The attacks come amid rising antiestablishment sentiment and an ailing economy that has been devastated by crippling U.S. sanctions and plunged many into poverty.
Najafi-Tehrani says people blame the clerics for their hardships.
“They demand the withdrawal of the clerics and the noninterference of religion and religious representatives in the state,” he said, adding that “43 years after the revolution, the inefficiency of the governing system and structure based on religion has been proven to the people.”
He also noted that many are angry that the state budget is being spent on seminaries, especially at a time when many Iranians are struggling to make ends meet.
Earlier this month, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Nurelahian warned about “a very severe” gap between the people and the clergy while blaming the clerics for the division.
“Today, we’re witnessing senior clerics issue statements regarding official and state ceremonies, but they rarely raise their voice in the face of many injustices, inequalities, wrong decisions, and violent treatment of the people,” said Nourelahian, the former head of seminaries abroad.
In January, Mohammad Taghi Fazel Meibodi, a member of the Assembly of Qom Seminaries and Researchers, said many people view the clerics negatively, adding that in Qom many of them studying at seminaries refuse to wear their clerical garb in public “because people swear or curse at them.”
Frustration has been growing since the early years of the 1979 revolution when many Iranians routinely joked about the clerics, portraying them as incompetent and ignorant. Many taxi drivers would refuse to pick them up.
In recent years, amid rising economic hardship, public anger against clerics has grown, with many taking part in street demonstrations and calling on the clerics “to get lost.”
During the violent November 2019 protests over the sudden rise in the price of gasoline, nine seminaries and offices of Friday Prayer leaders were targeted by angry protesters, who chanted against Iranian leaders, including Khamenei.
“People ask, ‘Why are [clerics] silent about [the problems]?’ Silence means satisfaction, [and] I think a big part of the people think like this,” cleric Abdolhamid Massumi Tehrani, a critic of the establishment, told RFE/RL in an interview from Tehran.
“People see a difference between establishment mullahs and those who are not,” Massumi said, adding that he has not personally faced any bad public treatment.
Najafi-Tehrani agrees that much of the anger is targeted at pro-establishment clerics. But he says he avoids wearing his robe when not necessary as he says people cannot distinguish between pro-regime clerics and those who are not.
“I cannot write on my robe that I’m a critic of the current situation,” he said.