Iranian cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda is the voice of Islamic fundamentalism. Image: Facebook

In the midst of a full-blown national economic crisis, the latest polemics of a powerful hardline preacher have served as a distraction for Iranians, with many caught by surprise and others taking to social media to poke fun at the fundamentalist cleric’s rabble-rousing.

Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer leader of the holy city of Mashhad and the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Razavi Khorasan province, unveiled his novel prescription for social and family life when he said in recent remarks, “unfortunately, as a result of the impact of the Western culture, the spouses [in Iran] call each other by first names at home.”

He went on to theorize that “in the first layer of life governed by the affability between the wife and husband, it is fine if they call each other by first name, but in the second layer, which is the external layer of life, respect between the wife and husband must be preserved.” He didn’t elaborate on what he meant by the first and second layers.

It is not the first time Alamolhoda, widely viewed as one of the most radical clerics in Iran, finds himself in the crosshairs of public scrutiny by making controversial statements and issuing decrees that often spark contention, disgruntlement and outrage among Iranians.

Iran’s religious authorities have in recent years proselytized for what they call an “Islamic-Iranian lifestyle,” which they want the general public to cling to in order for the nation to become a paragon of Muslim civilization.

This lifestyle includes a wide range of canons on how people should dress, socialize, communicate, eat, pray and even the number of children they should have. To promote government-sanctioned customs, clerics like Alamolhoda have given themselves carte blanche to encroach on every dimension of citizens’ public and private lives.

But despite his tendency to comment on a range of social, cultural, political, economic and even at times diplomatic issues, Alamolhoda is not a “marja,” or a source of emulation, a religious authority in Shiite Islam qualified to make decisions on Islamic jurisprudence and interpret the religion for the adherents.

An Iranian man and two veiled women wearing protective face masks beat themselves while attending a religious ceremony to commemorate the death anniversary of Fatima, daughter of Prophet Mohammad, in downtown Tehran on January 17, 2021. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via AFP

Yet, by virtue of being the religious hierarch of the country’s most important pilgrimage city, he wields enormous, and often unconstitutional, power.  

As a member of the Assembly of Experts, Alamolhoda, 76, is tasked with supervising the Supreme Leader and choosing his successor. He is one of the co-founders of the gender-segregated Imam Sadiq University. His son-in-law, Ebrahim Raisi, is the Chief Justice of the Islamic Republic.

The influential cleric is notorious for outlawing public music performances throughout the entire Razavi Khorasan province, a region of Iran with a population of 6.5 million. He has branded concerts venues for “vulgarity,” which he maintains shouldn’t be permitted in a province where the shrine of the 8th Shia Imam Reza is located.

The decision to issue permits for music gigs lies with the administration and the Ministry of Culture, but the formidable Friday prayer leader has been able to pull the strings and has blocked repeated efforts by the artists and the government to bring concerts to Mashhad.

Performances in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, have been had proscribed for more than a decade due to the feared cleric’s intransigence.

In 2016, nearly 3,000 Iranian musicians signed an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani that called the Ministry of Culture’s denials of concert permits under pressure from Alamolhoda “a catastrophe.”

Artists and critics have accused the idiosyncratic Shiite cleric of installing a self-governing federal regime in the province, since concerts are quotidian in the capital Tehran and almost every major city across the country. Residents of Mashad appear no less enthusiastic for the arts.

The source of Alamolhoda’s antagonism toward music is not clear, since virtually no Muslim country cracks down on the artistic endeavor as harshly as he does in his province. The firebrand cleric had once said those who purchase tickets for music gigs are a “debauched, corrupt minority” and authorities should block their path to “overindulgence.”

In other domains of public and social life, Alamolhoda never pulls his punches on his hard-line stances on civil liberties, women rights and family affairs. He once intoned those women who don’t comply with Iran’s compulsory hijab rules promote a “sexual apartheid” and they wish to make themselves the “sexual plaything of a bunch of people.”  

An Iranian girl walks next to a wall painting of Iran’s national flag while using her cellphone in a street, in Tehran, Iran, April 28, 2018. Photo: AFP

Last year, he encouraged women to follow the “ideal” hijab style, which is covering their faces fully in addition to covering their bodies. Alamolhoda has referred to women who eschew the conservative hijab as “the infantry of the United States and Israel and the forces that the US and Israel have brought to Iran to defeat the system and the revolution.”

The radical preacher, meanwhile, has described abortion as “one of the representations of prostitution.” When a heated national debate was underway on the necessity of revising second language curriculum at Iran’s schools, Alamolhoda railed against the teaching of English, calling it “the language of ignorance and deception.”

Politically, Ahmad Alamolhoda is a consummate fundamentalist.

In January 2020, following the fatal downing of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, protests broke out in Tehran, with students and youths gathering to express their consternation at the perceived government coverup of the tragedy.

British ambassador to Tehran Rob Macaire had attended one of the protests in solidarity with the British victims of the incident. Alamolhoda fumed at that time “to expel the British ambassador is the most generous thing to do to him… he must be chopped into pieces.”

Following his incendiary attack on the British envoy, Macaire left Iran temporarily. British media gave coverage to his remarks extensively and the former US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, reacted by tweeting: “This should be loudly and widely condemned in the United States, throughout Europe and everywhere.”

Now, Alamolhoda is at the center of yet another debate on spouses calling each other by their first names in the privacy of their homes. Social media is replete with memes, caricatures, jokes and also angry reactions by Iranians who find it deplorable that a senior cleric has made such a questionable pronouncement and is willing to intrude into couples’ personal affairs.

Some observers believe the sort of posturing by Alamolhoda and other senior clerics who make unusual comments on family life, women issues and societal relations is a deliberate attempt to garner public attention and sometimes divert people’s focus from their many economic and other woes.

Soldiers are seen during a commemoration ceremony held within the first anniversary of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani’s killing in Kerman, Iran on January 2, 2021. Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency via AFP Forum

Alamolhoda’s remarks “are made with full knowledge of the extensive coverage they receive in official and unofficial media. He knows such statements will elicit widespread reactions, and that is why he expresses them,” said Pejman Mousavi, an Iranian journalist and the editor-in-chief of Morvarid Magazine in Tehran.

Many experts believe the hardline cleric’s exegesis of Islam is distorted, and the dogmatic ideas he proposes are not endorsed by the faith. Instead, the sort of rules he asserts aim to cement a patriarchal culture that advocates a religious governance in Iran that deepens hard-line clerics’ supremacy within the ruling system.

Mehran Tamadonfar, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, said Alamolhoda’s postulations have “very little to do with Islam per se.”

“Islam as a worldview favors a warm and respectful spousal relationship, which in today’s world requires equitable treatment. [Alamolhoda’s remarks are] a typical example of the intrusive nature of the clerics in Iran who have used their authority to reinforce the old patriarchal nature of culture in order to preserve their waning role in the private lives of the people.”

Tamadonfar said that such intrusive rulings have, in fact, had an adverse impact on the role of the clerics in Iranian social life, especially among the younger and less-religiously inclined segments of the population, some of which have angled to undermine public faith in the government-promoted pathway to salvation through religion.

“Combining global studies with local polls show that as the degree of democracy and freedom decreases alongside the falling legitimacy of the system, Islam and the clergy lose their popularity, too,” said Mohsen Moheimany, a PhD graduate in political science from the Dublin City University, who referred to a recent poll by the Netherland-based Gamaan Institute that suggested half of Iranians have become “irreligious.”

“We can assume most [survey respondents] are younger generation university graduates who have access to the internet, new knowledge and secular thoughts. This is a considerable change in Iranian society, which I believe is the result of the Islamic Republic’s policies, too,” he added.

Younes Saramifar, an assistant professor in the anthropology department at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, said Alamolhoda’s comments “reflect the general tendencies of those of Shia clergy who are aligned with the Islamic Republic to infiltrate everyday lives and shape the religiosity and political practices of believers from within their own private spaces.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses Iranians gathering in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad for a celebration of Noruz, the Persian New Year. Photo: Handout

The academic said that while Alamolhoda is not alone in being the torchbearer of religious fundamentalism, and his public remarks and manners of expression are “crude and unpolished, unlike [Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei, who signals his followers through metaphors and veiled language,” he told Asia Times.

Although progressive, moderate clerics in Iran have consistently rebuffed hardline renditions of Islam, pro-reform seminarians are in minority and are often drowned out by the fiery conservatives.

“There are many like Alamolhoda, because playing the hardliner role and raising the banner of sexual crisis and provoking toxic masculinity are the oldest tools which clerics have always used to mobilize the people for their cause,” said Saramifar.