Growing up, I hated Muharram and Safar. These two months of mourning in Shia Islam meant that the Iranian regime’s already strict application of religious orthodoxy would be all the more brutal. This year Muharram started on July 30 and Safar ends on September 26. Instead of commemorating the battle of Karbala, the start of the first Sunni-Shia civil war in the year 680, this year Muharram and Safar could mean defeat. of Iranian Islam itself.
Since the religious lunar calendar revolves around the secular solar calendar observed in Iran, every child’s birthday must fall during the months of mourning at some point. Once that’s done, that means there won’t be any birthday parties for the next five or six years. Instead of parties with friends, we would have secret meetings of close family. I don’t know which was worse: missing the opportunity to spend time with my friends, or having to put up with my stuffy old parents!
In my early adulthood, my friends were more than happy to discuss and debate political issues with me, but debating religion was taboo. It wasn’t that they were going to report me, just that they were going to get very personal about it. They shouted without debate any dissenting opinion on Islam because, while political criticism of the regime was a societal norm despite the regime’s best efforts, apostasy and blasphemy remained prohibited. As soon as anyone approached criticism of Islam, everyone’s inner authoritarianism rushed to end the discussion before it started.
It’s been over a decade since I left Iran for good, and the country has changed. I am in contact with a few friends – secular people who represented the minority view alongside me – and they sometimes update me on our former peers. Young men who would tell you to shut up while criticizing religious policies and religion itself have now become proud blasphemers, cursing Islam and its vanguard regime. It’s a shame that I can never go back to Iran, because it seems to have improved a lot since I left.
The ninth and tenth of Muharram are the culmination of the mourning period. When I was there, people took to the streets to give nazi– food that they had promised to God and that they would give during a religious holiday if a wish came true. At night, battalions of men and women took to the streets, playing mourning music, shouting religious songs, and marching. This year, the streets are empty. The battalions have shrunk to small squads, and it’s embarrassing for the mosque to hold protests.
A friend told me: “No one goes out anymore. I asked, “Literally nobody?” He replied, “Well, a few went out to see girls!” He wasn’t kidding. With social life and gatherings limited to mourning, young men and women are committing the ultimate heresy of using sacred ceremonies to find connections. Did I come to America or did America come to Iran?
Religious people who drink socially avoid alcohol during this time as a sign of respect. A young Iranian, friend of a friend, had sent a photo of his hands with blisters a few years ago after performing the rituals – the one he had undergone stirring a gigantic pot of soup for hours. Another infamous is literally fight to demonstrate the adoration of Hussein. A less severe ritual is the theatrical narration – not the historical narration – of the battle. This year he was with my friend drinking. Another friend asked his septuagenarian father why he did not return to their hometown, as he does every year during Muharram, to fulfill his nazi pledge. The old man replied, “Son, I realized all that stuff is bullshit!” It’s one thing for a young person raised on hip-hop and WhatsApp to make such a statement. But from an old man, pious all his life, that’s rather rare—or, at least, it would have been ten years ago.
Judging by Instagram, the most used social media in Iran, it was as if the country was dead. Few people posted anything because there was nothing to do. And the few people present had no signs of a period of state-enforced mourning. The few pro-regime youngsters are straining enthusiastically into their posts, but largely from the same handful of mosques, with small crowds made up almost entirely of elderly people. Most of their messages are not from ceremonies but from graphics and texts related to Muharram.
GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based center run by two Iranian political scientists that tracks public attitudes in Iran, reports that 67% of Iranians reject the idea of theocracy and 72% reject having a religious personality at the head of the state. A 2020 report by the same organization found that only 32.2% identify as Shia Muslims, with an additional 5% identifying as Sunni. (Compare this with the CIA World Factbook, which reports that 90 to 95 percent of the country is Shia.) Nearly half identify as some form of irreligious – none, agnostic, spiritual or atheist. A whopping 7.7% call themselves Zoroastrians, far more than the 0.03% of the Zoroastrian population in Iran. It’s not that Shia Iranians are converting en masse to the religion of their pre-Islamic ancestors – Zoroastrianism does not accept converts. The best interpretation is that a significant number of Iranians claim the ancient Persian religion as a method of identifying themselves as Persian and getting rid of the Muslim identity they have come to hate.
Iran’s plummeting fertility rate provides further evidence of its declining religiosity. Iranians have been poor in the past, but they still had high fertility rates despite their high poverty index. The return of poverty alone does not explain why the fertility rate has dropped to 1.7 children per woman of childbearing age, but that makes sense considering the increase in “nones”. People with no religious affiliation have fewer children on average than religious people. In 1989, when I was born, Iran average fertility rate was 5.1.
The “Free the Hair” movement is another sign of how defensive Islam is. Iranian social media is full of videos of women publicly rejecting the compulsory hijab. (After Muhammad bin Salman lifted Saudi Arabia’s mandatory hijab law, Iran spent a year as the only country in the world with the law, until the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan.) More strikingly still, when a religious person confronts them about this topic of civil disobedience, a fight – verbal or physical – ensues, with passers-by almost invariably siding with the woman who does not cover her hair.
But none of this data is as startling as the clergy under attack. Iranians used to respect the clerical class, sincerely or grudgingly. It was not only fear for their power but also a tradition and a custom. These days, the stories that populate the news are about how pedestrians, often for no reason, physically attack random mullahs in the street.
Half a century ago, secular modernizers in Iran complained that Islam was an obstacle to progress. In the four decades since it took power, theocracy has succeeded in removing this obstacle, leading a proud and pious people to embitter themselves with their own religion. Before the Islamic revolution, Iran had an Iranian state and a religious population. Now it has a theocracy and a population that increasingly embraces the non-religious components of its national heritage.