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Mullahs Pushed Off the Gravy Train

Mullahs Pushed Off the Gravy Train

Friday, 8 March, 2019 - 07:00
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

If you are one of the 3,400 mullahs who work as Friday Prayer Leader (Imam Jum’ah) in the Islamic Republic of Iran, you better start getting worried, very worried. The reason is that you may soon find yourself disembarked from the gravy train and your cushy seat given to a spring chicken novice.

Last week eight “Imams” were disembarked, among them heavy weights from Tabriz, Shiraz, Rasht and Ahvaz. And, if Tehran rumor mills are right, 25 more are already scheduled for disembarkation. Judging by the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei’s latest message to the nation, an ambitious “change of generations” scheme is to be implemented in the months ahead.

Being a Friday Prayer Imam in the Khomeinist republic is like owning a gold mine.

To start with you receive a mouth-watering tax-free monthly stipend plus “resources” to cover expenses. In most cases, you are also given a suitable “residence” plus a bullet-proof limousine and specially trained bodyguards to protect you against any black sheep in your flock. Other perks include free medical care, annual all-paid pilgrimages to “holy” cities in Iraq and, at least one grand Hajj trip to Mecca. Thanks to the position you will also have priority access to luxuries and services and tax-free imported goods. Moreover, if you or family members wish to travel, your visa application is fast-tracked through the Foreign Ministry.

But what does one have to do in exchange for such a cushy position?

Strictly speaking: nothing. Well not quite. You have to grow a substantial beard, wear a turban and a mullah’s gear, fondle a rosary in public and attend public events with a sober and straight face.

The highlight of your activity is the sermon you deliver at Friday mass at the mosque assigned to you. The good thing about that, however, is that you don’t have to compose the sermon; the text is faxed, or nowadays emailed, to you from the Central Office of Friday Prayers in Tehran. But even if the text from Tehran is delayed or doesn’t arrive, you need not worry. All you need is dwell on three themes: blaming the American “Great Satan” for every problem under the sun, including the Islamic Republic’s multiple failures, praising the late Ayatollah Khomeini as the man who “revived Islam”, and praying for eternal life for the current” Supreme Guide” so that he can unite mankind under the banner of “Islamic Revolution.”

The scheme, originally launched by Khomeini when the mullahs seized power in 1979, worked reasonably well for the new political masters in Tehran. It turned mullahdom, if one is allowed such a neologism, into a popular career choice, attracting energetic and ambitious men.

Before the revolution Iran counted around 80,000 full-time mullahs for a population of 40 million. Four decades later, and with its population doubled, it boasts almost half a million.

However, the real picture isn’t that simple.

To start with the vast majority of clerics have gradually distanced themselves from the regime, preferring to preserve the old traditional clerical universe in which mullahs devoted themselves to theology, philosophy and religious history. Slowly but surely, the clergy has been divided between turban-wearing politicians and genuine clerics who, in the words of Grand Ayatollah Alawi Borujerdi, have to deal with enough theological problems not to have time for politics.

Next, something that is worrying for ruling mullahs, happened.

The Khomeinist system’s failures provoked a backlash against the religious narrative. And, as always in Iran’s history in the past five centuries, setback for religious narrative leads to a rise of nationalistic discourse. The nationalist narrative is especially popular with the millennials born after the mullahs seized power, who account for half of the country’s population.

In the meantime, government mullahs grew old. Today, the average age of the 5,000 government mullahs, from the “Supreme Guide” down and including Friday Imams, is around 70.

The age disconnect is only one reason for the dramatic fall in turnouts at Friday prayers. According to the latest report by the central office in charge of the Imam networks, Friday prayers in Tehran no longer attract more than 20,000 people from a population of over 12 million. In some cities, Tabriz and Isfahan for example, the numbers have fallen below 1,000.

However, age isn’t the only worrying factor.

People, especially the younger generation, are not interested in the shopworn anti-American discourse seasoned with empty pseudo-Islamic slogans. The anti-American discourse sounds even more hallow when the Islamic Majlis publishes claims that some 15,000 children of senior Islamic Republic officials, including many mullahs, are in the United States for further studies and that hundreds of top Khomeinist officials are either US citizens or hold American “Green Cards” (permanent residence documents.) Reports of top officials and mullahs or their families traveling to the West for holidays, medical services and shopping further contribute to the falseness of official Friday sermons.

Would Khamenei’s new plan correct the disconnect between the regime and the Iranian society? No one could know for sure. Replacing older, tired, and less enthusiastic mullahs with younger, leaner and more ambitious ones may attenuate the current mood of doom and gloom among the regime-owned clergy. But, I suspect, age therapy alone may not do the trick. The second plank of Khamenei’s plan is to use as much of the Iranian nationalist discourse, as peddlers of down-market Pan-Islamism could appropriate without losing face.

In the past few weeks, sermon texts coming from Tehran have been peppered with patriotic themes about the Iranian “nation” rather than the “ummah” and Tehran’s attempts at dominating several Arab countries justified, in the words of Quds (Jerusalem) Corps chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as “moves necessary to protect our national territory.”

In the final analysis, however, a change of personnel and official discourse may not be enough to save a tired system in deep crisis. The core question in the debate about Iran’s future remains: change within the regime or regime change?

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