People pray outside the closed doors of the Fatima Masumeh shrine in Iran's holy city of Qom on March 16, 2020. Photo: Mehdi Marizad / AFP

Iran, like the rest of the world, has seen the novel coronavirus wreak havoc on public health, the economy, education, and transportation. But in the Islamic republic, the pandemic is also exposing social and religious rifts that have been simmering under the surface for decades, and which come to light at times of crisis.

The Iranian authorities on March 16 announced that the shrine of the eighth Shiite Imam Reza in the holy city of Mashhad and the shrine of his sister, the revered Fatimah bint Musa, in the pilgrimage city of Qom, would be closed down to preclude the spread of Covid-19, as both of these sites are used for congregational prayers. Qom was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, and the country is now a global hotspot of the disease. According to official figures from Iran’s Ministry of Health, 18,407 Iranians have contracted the virus thus far and 1,284 people have lost their lives.

The temporary closure of the two holy sites was agreed by the religious authorities after almost a full month of tussling over whether such a decision should be authorized. In a number of Sunni countries, religious elites are encouraging people to say their prayers at home. In Saudi Arabia, pilgrimages to the holiest sites in Islam have been suspended indefinitely.

The day after the announcement in Iran, groups of angry protesters assaulted the two sites in Qom and Mashhad, smashing their closed gates and trying to break in forcefully while chanting slogans. Videos of these hardliners demanding the religious complexes be reopened quickly went viral on social media.

One of the videos was footage of an Iranian man in Qom standing before the entrance of the Fatimah bint Musa shrine, shouting loudly and inviting passers-by to listen to him. He roared that the recommendations of Iran’s Ministry of Health, which has been closely following World Health Organization directives, shouldn’t be heeded, because the WHO staff “don’t believe in God and metaphysics.” He continued by squealing that those who have advised that the shrine should be closed “didn’t understand what they have said” and that “we will stand here until the shrine is reopened.”

The video went viral on Twitter and Instagram, with thousands of re-posts.

Azadeh Kian, a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Gender and Feminist Studies at the University of Paris 7-Paris-Diderot, believes that while these hardliners are not representative of the majority of pious, religious Iranians, they are vocal and have an impact.

“Their number is quite low – sometimes in the couple of hundreds – but they are very well organized. They disobey the government’s rules because they believe President Rouhani and his government to be pro-Western and liberal, whose orders should not be respected,” she told Asia Times.

“Some of these people belong to vigilante groups or pressure groups close to ultraconservative clerics. They are hardliners, and violence is their mode of political affirmation,” she said. Moreover, they are confident they have political backing.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (3rd L), Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (2nd L) and Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani (L) attend the January 6 funeral ceremony of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces, who was killed in a US drone airstrike in Iraq. Photo: Iranian Presidency handout

‘Sacred ignorance’

Reacting to the unprecedented attacks on the two holy sites, social media users in Iran were almost unanimous in their condemnation, lamenting the phenomenon of religious-minded, practicing Iranians being entrapped by a superficial understanding of Islam.

Others went further, calling them ignorant religious bigots.

Ahmad Mazani, a reformist MP who is himself a cleric, called the assaults the epitome of “sacred ignorance,” questioning why the authorities were not swift in preventing the violation of the dignity of the shrines by a group of people acting “wildly.”

Hossein Razzagh, who maintains a Twitter account with over 10,000 followers, wrote a brief caption for the video showing an agitated mob battering the gates of the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad: “Domestic ISIS attacking the shrine of Imam Reza! May God eradicate you all!”

Iran has never had any militants in the ranks of ISIS, and on the contrary, has been an active force in battling the militant group, and has been a target of a number of the group’s attacks. However, there are fears that religious extremism in Iran could be on the rise as a result of the government’s rigid intermingling of politics with religion, its resistance to democratic reforms, and its promotion of an orthodox and unbending version of Islam.

Mahmoud Sadri, a professor of sociology at the Federation of North Texas Area Universities, blames the government for stoking radicalism, implying that it has been sowing the wind and is now reaping the whirlwind.

“This is the monster they have reared and fed for many decades. These are the core of the group lionized as the ‘ever-present masses’ by the government propaganda,” he told Asia Times.

“They are a ‘crowd’ in the sociological sense of the word: easily aroused, easily frightened. The authorities can summon or dismiss them at will. Once in a while, they temporarily lose the control of their zealot effervescence, but they will gain their control without much trouble again,” he added.

Sadri believes the fanatics who besieged the two holy shrines are akin to the mob that attacked and seized the British Embassy in Tehran in 2011, resulting in a three-year fracture in bilateral relations. He says such incivilities are not responded to appropriately by the law enforcement authorities.

“These individuals are usually cannon fodder in pro-regime demonstrations … The same reason led to the tardy police reaction in the occupation of the British embassy several years ago. The same dynamics are at work,” he said.

Iranian voters wear masks as they wait to cast their ballots during parliamentary elections at the Shah Abdul Azim shrine on the southern outskirts of Tehran on February 21, 2020. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP

Pariah status

Many Iranians are concerned that the mayhem caused by a rowdy, intolerant minority will tarnish the image of Iran, already a global pariah under crippling US sanctions.

“The impression such hardliners impart through their actions is that of a primitive, retrograde society, which is superstitious; a society that acts unreasonably and illogically. This nullifies the efforts of famous Iranians across the world who work to portray a positive image of Iran in the eyes of the global public,” said Sheida Moradi, a 32-year-old music teacher in the Caspian port city of Rasht.

“The extreme actions of these people will be viewed as the fault of an entire nation. The world will pass the judgment that they were Iranians who attacked a shrine, who smashed its doors, who resisted a medical recommendation,” she added.

The concerns of Moradi were echoed by Zinat Kamalvand, a hotel receptionist in the city of Nishabur in northeastern Iran. She believes such actions are harmful to the faith and the faithful.

“We are living in the age of social media and digital platforms communicate these footages to the entire world in a matter of seconds. This will paint the worst image of the religious community of Iran and the faithful populace. This is terrible, and I can say we might be viewed as outright religious extremists,” she told Asia Times.

“If somebody, in one corner of the world, has found some interest in Islam, he will be sickened to see such pictures and of course will be disenchanted with Islam as a religion. The public image of the Muslims will decline seriously,” she added.

Iranian hardliners made significant gains during February’s parliamentary elections, putting President Rouhani in a precarious position as he seeks to address the growing pandemic. Until present, there has been no serious determination on the part of the government to resist the firebrand crowds who find themselves qualified to throw away nationally-endorsed public health edicts.