May 12, 2004
Overdosing on Islam
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Iran — In the offices of an ayatollah here, I was jokingly introduced
as coming from the Great Satan. "Humph," a young man responded immediately.
"America is only Baby Satan. We have Big Satan right here at home."
Turbans to the left, turbans to the right — Qom is the religious center
of Iran, but even here, there is anger and disquiet. One of the central
questions for the Middle East is whether Iran's hard-line Islamic regime
will survive. I'm betting it won't.
"Either officials change their methods and give freedom to the people,
and stop interfering in elections, or the people will rise up with another
revolution," Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri told me.
"There is no freedom," added Ayatollah Montazeri, who is among the
senior figures in the Shiite world but is excluded from power in Iran
because of his reformist ideas. "Repression is carried out in the name
of Islam, and that turns people off. . . . All these court summonses,
newspaper closings and prosecutions of dissidents are wrong. These are
the same things that were done under the shah and are now being repeated.
And now they are done in the name of Islam and therefore alienate people."
Whoa! Ayatollah Montazeri was a leader of the Islamic Revolution,
and was initially designated by his close friend Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini to be his successor as supreme leader of Iran. Everything he
says carries immense credibility, for he is a more senior religious
figure than any of Iran's present leaders. (I've posted comments by
Ayatollah Montazeri, along with a video of the interview, at www.nytimes.com/kristofresponds,
Another Shiite leader outside the club of power, Ayatollah Jalaledin
Taheri, has denounced the regime as "society's dregs and fascists who
consist of a concoction of ignorance and madness. . . . [and] those
who are convinced that yogurt is black."
So the Islamic Republic is increasingly vulnerable to the most devastating
accusation of all: that it is un-Islamic and is alienating its youth
from Islam. The mullahs have even made beards unpopular.
"I'm sorry — I've been too busy to shave recently," said Ashkan Almasi,
a musician, mortified at having a faint beard and not wanting me to
get the wrong idea about his politics. "In contrast to what [leading
Islamic philosophers] say, this regime is the very opposite of Islamic
government," Mr. Almasi said. "It has made Islam unpopular."
On the 1,100-mile round trip between Tehran and Shiraz in the south,
I did meet some staunch supporters of the regime. But my experience
at a teahouse in a small town was more typical. With a small crowd around
me, I asked people what they thought of the government.
"How can you have hope for life any more?" said Abdullah Erfani, a
plumber, adding, "If there were a free vote, 99 percent would oppose
this system, and only the 1 percent within the system would support
A 20-year-old, Hadi Zareai, working hard to look cool in his leather
jacket, said: "There will be a Judgment Day, and all of us will meet
up. Then I'm going to find those who launched the Islamic Revolution
and go after them."
In much of the world, young Muslims are increasingly religious, but
compulsive Islam has soured some Iranians on religion. Fewer people
go to Friday prayers, and Western-style clothes are the hottest fashion.
One young woman I met, Elaheh Falakmasir, is religious and inclined
to support the regime. But smoke was almost pouring from her ears because
she and a couple of friends had been kicked out of an exhibition a few
hours earlier for being floozies: one wore a red vest over her black
overcoat, and Ms. Falakmasir herself wore a silver nose stud.
"I like it," she said hotly. "It's beautiful. God likes it. But they
complained." And so the regime alienated three more constituents who
want to be good Muslims — but also want to live in a modern world.
There's a useful lesson here for George
Bush's America as well as for the ayatollahs' Iran: when a religion
is imposed on people, when a government tries too ostentatiously to
put itself "under God," the effect is often not to prop up religious
faith but to undermine it. Nothing is more lethal to religious faith
than having self-righteous, intolerant politicians (who wince at nose
studs) drag God into politics.
2004 The New York Times Company