Religious dissidence challenges Iran’s Islamic Republic

In the Journal of Democracy (Spring, 2020), Ladan Boroumand chronicles the significant religious and social transformations taking place in Iran, something that the coronavirus pandemic may intensify. Last year the Islamic Republic celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution but by last December, there were demonstrations filling the streets of the Tehran against the clerical government and Islamist ideology ruling the country. Along with human rights activists, revisionist Shia seminarians, Liberal theologians and alternative Islamic schools of thought, such as “merciful Islam” (which has 2.3 million followers on Instagram), are challenging the ruling Islamist leadership. Boroumand writes that “Iranian society has not been waiting for Shia theology to reform itself. In a highly subversive yet largely unnoticed form of dissidence, considerable numbers of people have been choosing other spiritual alternatives. Various brands of mysticism—some traditional and some modern, some Islamic, some not– have been attracting many followers.”

As mosques are emptying, the mystical Sufi prayer houses are filling up, with the intelligence service warning that disillusioned Hezbollah militants have been drawn to such groups. Christianity, and traditional religious minority groups, such as the Baha’is and Zoroastrians, and even atheist and agnostic websites are attracting disenchanted Iranians and are facing new repressive measures. The “tectonic cultural and political shifts” occurring within Iran are likely to be accelerated by the massive coronavirus outbreak in the country. The Terrorism Monitor (March, 2020) reports that the failure of Iran’s government to contain the virus, especially allowing it to spread to the Shia center of Qom drew wide public criticism. “While the virus has mostly kept the outrage off the streets, the ongoing handling of the situation and its impact will almost certainly come to bear when the dust settles,” says Brian M. Perkins.

(Journal of Democracy,; Terrorism Monitor,