When Soccer and Music Conflict with Religion: Citizens on Social Networks against Clerics in Iran

Raz Zimmt analyzes the reactions in Iranian social media to a recent concert held in the city of Qom, and a soccer match held between Iran and South Korea during a Shi'ite day of mourning.
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Members of the extreme Islamic group Ansar-e-Hezbollah demonstrating against holding the Iran-South Korea soccer match. From Telegram on October 7, 2016
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Members of the extreme Islamic group Ansar-e-Hezbollah demonstrating against holding the Iran-South Korea soccer match. From Telegram on October 7, 2016.


During the last month, the focal points of public debate on Iranian social networking sites (SNS) were a musical performance in the city of Qom, a major center for the Shi‘ite religious establishment, and a soccer match during a Shi‘ite day of mourning. The discourse that developed around these events showcases Iranians’ criticism of the conservative clerics who refuse to accommodate the public’s wishes, and increasing alienation – particularly of young people – from the religious establishment.

In early October, the musical ensemble Mahbood held a concert in Qom in honor of Sacred Defense Week, which commemorates the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980. The performance that had been approved by the Islamic Guidance Ministry, which is responsible for government policy on cultural matters, was strongly condemned by senior clerics in the city. In a public statement, the Society of Seminary Teachers in Qom stated that due to the city's holy character, holding performances of this type is unacceptable. Another statement by religious leaders severely criticized the Minister of Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati and accused the ministry of disseminating “Western, immoral culture” instead of promoting Islamic culture and religious values.[1] A senior conservative cleric, the Chairman of the Society of Seminary Teachers, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi demanded that the Guidance Ministry’s director in Qom be fired for allegedly desecrating the sanctity of the city and its clerics.[2] Minister Jannati responded to the criticism by stating that the event in Qom was not a Western concert, but rather a vocal performance that was careful to observe Islamic behavioral codes, and all female singers wore hijabs. However, he did admit that some of the audience was not careful to follow the codes and behave properly, and the director of the Islamic Guidance ministry in Qom apologized for that. Jannati made it clear that his office did not intend to permit future musical performances in the holy city of Qom, although it does allow them in other cities.[3]

The dispute over the concert in Qom is part of a larger internal discussion, which began several months ago, about holding musical performances in Iran. Behind this confrontation is a government decision to make the process for receiving a permit for performances easier by eliminating the requirement for police approval. The argument climaxed with the forceful criticism voiced by the Friday prayer leader in Mashhad, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, who asserted that concerts must not be held in his city. Alamolhoda declared that anyone who desires to live in a city with secular cultural activity should move elsewhere.[4]

The criticism that senior clerics leveled against holding concerts in Qom was met with intense responses from users of SNS, who accused the clerics of adopting uncompromisingly extremist positions. In response to the statement of the Society of Seminary Teachers in Qom, declaring that there was a limit to the senior clerics’ patience, one user tweeted mockingly that it is their intelligence and common sense that are limited.[5] Another cynical response on Twitter explained that the clerics have no problem with people being happy; they “only” object to theaters, cinemas, concerts, satellite dishes, instant messaging applications, social media, and any type of gathering.[6] Another user claimed that after forcing the cancellation of performances around the country, clerics would soon act to close music schools, because the performances are only an excuse - their main goal is targeting music itself.[7] Many other users complained that the clerics are preoccupied with minor matters rather than dealing with the genuine problems and anxieties faced by Iranian citizens, such as corruption, poverty, drug addiction, unemployment, and divorce.[8]

Nor did users spare the government their criticism; they pointed accusing fingers at top officials – up to and including President Rouhani – for not taking action to stop the radical clerics. One user tweeted that although Rouhani promised during his election campaign to release reformist opposition leaders from house arrest, he had only managed – at most – to prevent the blocking of Instagram and Telegram, casting doubt on his promise to nullify the prohibition on holding concerts.[9]

Another issue that rankled the Iranian public was a World Cup 2018 preliminary soccer match between Iran and South Korea. The match was criticized by some conservative leaders, as it was scheduled for Tasu’a Day, one of the two days of mourning observed by Shi‘ite Muslims commemorating the death of the third Shi‘ite Imam Hussein bin Ali and his followers in the battle of Karbala (680 CE). Again, conservative cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi led the opposition. Yazdi warned that the game could lead to fans expressing joy that would mar the atmosphere of mourning, and called on the Ministry of Sports to cancel the game.[10] In response, a member of Majlis (the Iranian parliament) Ali Motahari dispatched a strident letter to Yazdi, claiming that Yazdi's uncompromising positions would likely cause a decline in public support for clerics. Motahari wrote that Yazdi's behavior evokes the behavior of the medieval Catholic Church, which led believers to leave the faith.[11]

Users of SNS responded strongly to the opposition some clerics voiced to the soccer game. Many of them called the response of radical clerics “stupid” or “ridiculous,” and said that the public could be trusted to respect the spirit of the day of mourning even if the soccer match was held as scheduled. Some derisively suggested that instead of cheering after scoring a goal, fans would flagellate themselves, as customary among Shi‘ites as a sign of mourning.[12] To illustrate this idea, a user uploaded a long video to Twitter, showing a previous match between Iran and South Korea with an audio track of mourning ceremonies, including self-flagellation and cries of grief, inserted after each goal scored by the Iranian national team. This video was shared hundreds of times.[13]

The response to religious leaders’ criticism of the concert and soccer game is additional evidence of the increasing alienation between the Iranian public and the religious establishment. Clerics are now identified with the government and widely considered responsible for its injustices. Moreover, the relative wealth of senior clerics further distances them from the common people. These factors contribute to the process of secularization occurring in Iranian society, as well as its alienation from the religious leadership. Expressions of this ongoing decline in the status of religious leaders were evident in the past, for example, in the expressions of joy and ridicule at the declining health of the chairman of the Council of Experts, Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi-Kani, who died in October 2014.[14]

 


[1] “Warning of the Society of Seminary Teachers to the Authorities regarding Concerts in Qom” ISNA, October 2, 2016.

[2] “Ayatollah Yazdi Criticizes the Concert in Qom and the Soccer Game held on Tasu’a Day,” Khabar Online, October 2, 2016.

[3]“Response of Jannati regarding the concert in Qom," Tabak, October 2, 2016.

[10] “Motahari’s Letter to Ayatollah Yazdi re: the Iran-South Korea Game,” Asr Iran, October 4, 2016.

[13] Raz Zimmt Responses to the Deteriorating Health of the Chairman of the Council of Experts, as an Expression of the Eroding Status of Clerics in Iran.” Beehive, vol. 2, issue 8 (September 2014) http://dayan.org/content/beehive-responses-deteriorating-health-chairman-council-experts-expression-eroding-status .