The New York Times

May 12, 2004

Overdosing on Islam


OM, 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, Posting 389.)

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 it."

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.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company