Calls for change in Iran have even reached the Shiite heartland of Qom

Calls for change in Iran have even reached the Shiite heartland of Qom

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The Iranian city of Qom is one of the country’s most important centers for Shia Muslim clerics, full of religious schools and revered shrines. But even here, some are quietly calling on Iran’s ruling theocracy to change its ways after months of protests have rocked the country.

To be clear: Many here still support the cleric-led ruling system, which this month marks the 44th anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

This includes support for many restrictions that stop protests, such as the mandatory hijab or headscarf for women in public. They believe the state claims that Iran’s foreign enemies are destabilizing the country.

But they said the government should change how it approaches protesters and women’s demands to choose whether or not to wear the Islamic head covering.

“The harsh crackdown was a mistake from the beginning,” said Sahebnazaran of Abuja, a cleric who described himself as a staunch supporter of theocracy, as he visited the former residence of late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. “And the youth should have been treated softly and modestly. They should have been enlightened and guided.”

Qom, about 125 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Iran’s capital Tehran, attracts millions of pilgrims each year and is home to half of the country’s Shia clerics. Its religious institutions have graduated the country’s top priests, making the city a powerhouse in the country. The faithful believe that the city’s glittering blue-domed Fatima Masumeh shrine represents a path to heaven or a place where prayers for their sorrows are answered.

For Iran today, suffering abounds.

Protests have swept the country since September after the death in custody of Iranian-Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, who was detained by morality police on charges of inappropriate clothing. The protests, initially focused on the mandatory hijab, soon turned into calls for a new revolution in the country.

Activists outside the country say at least 528 people have been killed and 19,600 detained in the ensuing crackdown. The Iranian government did not provide any figures.

Meanwhile, Iran has faced increasing pressure abroad to enrich uranium near weapons-grade levels after the collapse of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Renewed sanctions worsen long-standing financial problems, pushing its currency – the real – to historic lows against the dollar.

“Many of the protesters either had economic problems or were influenced by the Internet,” Sahibnazaran said from inside Khomeini’s former home, which features pictures of the ayatollah and the Iranian flag.

Protesters have even expressed their anger directly at clerics, whom they see as the bedrock of the system. Some videos circulating online show young protesters running after clerics in the street and ripping off their turbans, a sign of their status. Those wearing black turbans claim to be direct descendants of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

The sporadic videos are a sign of the alienation some feel toward the clergy in a nation where 44 years ago, clerics helped lead a revolution against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

“It was part of the enemy’s plan, they wanted to tell the people that clerics were responsible for all the problems and high prices,” Sahebnazaran said. “But the clergy are being affected by inflation like the rest of the people. Many clerics at the lowest economic level of society live on tuition fees. Most of them face the same problems as the people.”

Seminary students earn about $50 a month, many of whom work as laborers or taxi drivers. Less than 10% of Iran’s 200,000 clerics hold government positions.

Sakineh Heidarifard, who volunteers with Qoum’s morality police and actively promotes the hijab, says arresting women and forcibly taking them into police custody is not a good idea.

He said ethics patrols are necessary, but they should warn violators if they find them. “Force and coercion are not right at all. We should speak to them in a soft and gentle tone, with kindness and care,” he said.

Still, he sees the hijab as a central tenet of the Islamic Republic. He said, we have given many martyrs or blood to sustain this curtain. “God willing, it will not be erased from our heads.”

The change in approach, however, is unlikely to satisfy those who have called for a wholesale rejection of the cleric-driven government. For years reformist politicians have been calling for change within the theocratic system, and many protesters have lost patience.

Also, the growing economic pressure on Iran’s 80 million people could one day explode throughout society, said Alireza Fateh, a carpet salesman standing next to his empty shop in Qom’s traditional market.

“Economic collapse is usually followed by political collapse … and unfortunately that’s what’s happening here,” he said.

“Most of the population… still have little left in their bank accounts. But one day they too will hit the streets, soon. Soon the poor, who cannot make ends meet, will surely hit the streets.”

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