Iranians under the Islamic regime: more or less religious?

The Islamic regime claims that Iranians have become more religious; its opponents argue the opposite.

Hassan Rouhani Iran president
"A considerable number of Iranians have chosen a third path, which is favoured by neither the regime nor its eminent opponents," writes Ali Reza Eshraghi [AP]

Millions of Iranians, like Muslims around the world, are preparing for Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. At the same time, critics and pundits are engaged in a popular debate over the contemporary Iranian society: Are Iranians, after three decades of living under the Islamic Republic regime, more or less religious? The answers have so far has been political rather than empirical.

Naturally, the ruling regime that has tried to inject Islamic laws into every aspect of Iranian life claims it nurtured a more religious society compared to the pre 1979 revolution regime. Both the repressive and ideological apparatus of the state implemented these policies to the point that every Iranian through out his or her life receives a high dose of religious training via educational curriculum and media. At the same time, every Iranian knows that displaying indifference towards strict Islamic laws, particularly in public, could have severe punishment.

On the other hand, regime opponents, secular or even religious, claim that religious pressure and inadequate governing have made Iranian people less religious. They point out to the evidence such as, increasing pre-martial relations, parties in which the young mingle with the opposite sex, consumption of alcohol and the daily resistances of Iranian girls against compulsory dress codes in public are among the issues these opponents shed light on.

A third way

But, a considerable number of Iranians have chosen a third path, which is favoured by neither the regime nor its eminent opponents: Remaining religious while adopting modern pastimes and decorum. It is to say just as the Law of Conservation of Energy argues energy cannot be created or destroyed, but changes its form , religious devotion too can change its form.

Recently, in a surprising move, conservative news agencies published photos of Iranians attending religious ceremonies of Shab-e-Qadr or Nights of Destiny, in which Muslims commemorate the revelation of Quran to Prophet Muhammad and pray for their wishes to come true. In these photos, women with inappropriate Islamic attire while wearing makeup and bright color lipsticks are praying or crying over religious elegies. For example, in one of the photos a young man and women, who technically should not be together, are seen leaning on another while asking for the divine blessing.

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These individuals are not at all strangers to Iranians. For years, they lived and interacted in society. For instance, before 1979 revolution, it was not uncommon to see women wearing revealing clothes while observing the fast. However conservative and reformist media alike have had little or no interest in acknowledging such scenes – as if they are obscene. Let’s not forget that when a phenomenon is not represented in the media it is as if it is not present at all; it becomes invisible.

What has changed in the past decade or so is that these individual performances have turned into popular carnivals. On every religious occasion (dominantly, mourning ceremonies for Shia Iranians) young, unrelated men and women despite the heavy presence of the morality police, could be spotted taking advantage of the opportunity to meet, flirt and socialise. The transformation of religious ceremonies from official to carnavalesque in the words of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin provided Iranians a “temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order.”

The irony is that if for Bakhtin “laughter” is an important aspect of carnivals, which casts aside the seriousness of official life and religious dogmatism, for Iranians, “crying” does the tricks. 

It would be a mistake to consider these people opportunists who use religious ceremonies merely for dating, mingling or showing off. For many of them this is the way they know and choose to perform their religion. 

One of course should not be surprised if the Ayatollahs and the zealots condemn these behaviors. Interestingly, the secular and the anti-religion critics have taken more offense. In a patronizing and sometimes even mocking tone, they criticize this behaviour of Iranians. These critics share a similar reading of Islam with the fundamentalists’: There is only one type of Islam in which a woman cannot pray while wearing lipstick. One group makes its claim in the name of Islam; the other in defense of lipstick –as if there is only one path to salvation.

An Iranian intellectual says people in these photos “suffer” from “disparity.” Another wonders how they could behave with such inconsistency of beliefs and deeds? The answer is simpler than what it seems: They are just doing it! They may not find any contradiction in their actions. Even if they do, they are probably not suffering from it.

This behaviour of course is not limited to wearing lipstick while praying. I know Iranians who break their fast with a glass of wine, people who start fornication with a Bismillah- In the name of God , and homosexuals who sport a beard because it is recommended in Islam.

The problem with today’s Iranian society is that few political or religious critics are willing to recognise or understand the “popular religion.” In other words, both the Islamic regime and its opposing elites are not fond of the manners in which the laymen practice religion. Therefore, instead of relying on empirical observation they prefer to simply speculate about the religiosity of this very complex society. Measuring religiosity is not a simple task. The criteria are different among the social scientists. In 2012 only, Iranian scholars held thirteen sessions in Tehran to discuss the criteria.

The limited research on this matter suggests that Iranian society is still a religious one. A study in 2009, conducted by two Iranian sociologists – Abbas Kazemi and Mehdi Faraji – conclude that in comparison to 1975, four years before the revolution, Iranians are still considerably very religious. The number of Iranians who pray or participate in socio-religious rituals has remained relatively unchanged. The number of people who fast has even increased. 

At the same time, as another sociologist Amir Nikpey says, Iranians have become modern and secular “without becoming anti-religion.”

Many intellectuals show the trajectory of modern Iranian society as a clash between tradition and modernity, secularism and religion. Others talk about the necessity of Lutheran reforms in Shia Islam. But Iranian people are going their own way and are playing in a ring of so-called contradictions; they remember some things and forget others; they tightly cling to dogmas and easily let go of others. Instead of overemphasizing the internal homogeneity of religion, they have turned to communal conformity. And this has resulted in a new form of religiosity which one could even call functionalist.

Ali Reza Eshraghi was a senior editor at several of Iran’s reformist dailies. He is Iran Project Manager at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a teaching fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.