Shay Khatiri (an Iranian-American journalist specializing in geopolitics) recently penned an article with quite the sensationalist title: “The Islamic Republic Is Killing Islam in Iran.”
It consists mainly of tangential personal anecdotes, but at some point he does present a few statistics, writing:
GAMAAN, a Netherlands-based center run by two Iranian political scientists that tracks public attitudes in Iran, reports that 67 percent of Iranians reject the idea of theocracy, and 72 percent reject having a religious figure as the head of the state. A 2020 report by the same organization found that only 32.2 percent identify as Shi’ite Muslims, with another 5 percent identifying as Sunni. (Contrast that with the CIA World Factbook, which reports that 90–95 percent of the country is Shi’ite.) Nearly half identified as some form of irreligious—none, agnostic, spiritual, or atheist. A whopping 7.7 percent called themselves Zoroastrian, far higher than the 0.03 percent of the Zoroastrian population inside Iran. It’s not that Shi’ite Iranians are converting en masse to the religion of their pre-Islamic forbears—Zoroastrianism doesn’t accept converts. The better interpretation is that a significant number of Iranians claim the ancient Persian religion as a method of identifying as Persian and shedding the Muslim identity they’ve come to hate.
Before commenting on these numbers, it must be stressed that the author Khatiri is unquestionably biased. He is son to a communist father. He’s also a “policy associate” at Garry Kasparov’s dubious Renew Democracy Initiative (RDI), which aims to promote liberal-democracy (and consequently secularism) all over the world.
Not only does Khatiri opine that the US should be more bullish in its global promotion of liberal-secularism, take a look at this vital piece of information about him:
As a kid, he was inspired by President George W. Bush’s muscular advocacy for freedom around the world, and his upbringing in Iran informs him of the importance of the advocacy of American values in American foreign policy both as a matter of moral good and U.S. strategic interest.
It is thus no wonder that a neo-con such as Bill Kristol sits on the RDI’s advisory board.
The above had to be clarified so that the readers may understand why it is that Khatiri would lose no sleep over the secularization of Iran—quite the opposite in fact.
Perhaps it would also be fitting to spare a moment in order to discuss the authors of the survey report which he quotes. Ammar Maleki and Pooyan Tamimi Arab are both Iranian academics and university teachers based in the Netherlands.
Ammar Maleki is the son of Mohammad Maleki (d. 2020), an academic and “human rights activist.” Mohammad Maleki was also Tehran University’s first president after the 1979 Khomeinist revolution and an influential dissident leader against the Khomeinist State.
Ammar Maleki said in an interview:
But although I always had sympathy with my father’s dreams for a free and democratic Iran, I wasn’t political myself.
It should be noted that his father Mohammad Maleki was part of the so-called “nationalist-religious” opposition to the Khomeinist State which spoke of democratization, etc. but within an Islamic framework (an obviously flawed approach).
So Mohammad Maleki likely wouldn’t have been as joyful as his son was upon hearing such news.
Pooyan Tamimi Arab
The other author, Pooyan Tamimi Arab, is an admirer of Spinoza—the 17th-century Jewish philosopher who, as per Jonathan Israel in his Radical Enlightenment, was the most diehard secularist of all the Enlightenment thinkers, who are often radical secularists themselves (such as Voltaire).
We can thus see why not only the author, Khatiri, but also those he presents as his authorities, Maleki and Tamimi Arab, all have every reason to favor the secularization of Iran for their own ideological, and even personal, reasons.
It is vital that we keep such subjective biases in mind when we discuss statistics.
Are Statistics Always Facts?
We’ve seen how the authors of the 2020 GAMAAN report would love to see a secular, and thus liberal-democratic, Iran.
Now let’s examine the actual statistics themselves.
Some have argued that the statistics are likely just unrepresentative, in the sense that the population which was targeted is not characteristic of the Iranian population as a whole. There’s also the fact that the authors claim they interviewed thousands of “literate Iranian adults” (notice the bias against “illiterates”) but the urban centers and its middle-classes are privileged.
After all, if the “youth” of north-Teheran—demographics already secularized under the Shah—are favored in such surveys as being somehow representative of the the entire Iranian population, it’s pretty obvious this would be biased.
With such a methodology, you could easily make any country look secular.
But for argument’s sake, let’s not even be that skeptical. Let’s say we accept the statistics at face value (as some did) and investigate whether or not there really is secularization.
Someone who had adopted this approach is Zafar Bangash, a political activist and writer based in Canada who identifies as Sunni but favors the Khomeinist revolutionary program.
In an article he authored, where he analyses the survey, we read the following:
If we combine the figures for people whose faith/religious belief did not change with those that moved from being non-religious to becoming more religious, the following picture emerges:
Age (50+): Religious to non-religious: 41.1%; No change/Non-religious to religious combined: 52.9%
Age (30-49): Religious to non-religious: 46.0%; No change/Non-religious to religious combined: 47.7%
Age (20-29): Religious to non-religious: 51.8%; No change/Non-religious to religious combined: 43.6%
Urban: Religious to non-religious: 48.3%; No change/Non-religious to religious combined: 46.5%
Rural: Religious to non-religious: 41.1%; No change/Non-religious to religious combined: 51.9%
The above figures hardly support the researchers’ claim that people in Iran are moving away from religion.
He then writes about the dubious organization behind the GAMAAN reports and its funding.
Other statistics also tend to undermine Khatiri’s conclusions.
For example, a 2012 Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) survey found that 31% of Iranian-Americans identify with Islam (see p. 14 of this report).
This is not that far from the numbers proffered by GAMAAN. However, the issue is that everyone knows that Iranian-Americans are in no way representative of Iranians in Iran; in the sense that liberal-secularists and religious minorities (such as Christians, Jews, and especially Baha’is) are heavily over-represented in America. They are the bulk of the Iranian immigration to the US following the 1979 Khomeinist revolution and thus are almost all staunch Shah loyalists (of course when the monarchy is secular-liberal though, they don’t care about democracy).
Another survey which opposes Khatiri and GAMAAN is one that was carried out by Pew Research, the most respected organization when it comes to statistics specifically in relation to religious demographics.
The survey – conducted between Feb. 24 and May 3, 2012 – also found that an overwhelming majority of Iranians (83%) say they favor the use of sharia, or Islamic law. Yet only 37% of Iranian Muslims think their country’s current laws follow sharia very closely. Most say existing laws adhere to Islamic law somewhat closely (45%), not too closely (10%) or not at all closely (3%).
These are among the key findings of a nationally representative Pew Research survey of Iranians.
Note the “nationally representative” survey from such a reputable organization in the field.
Certainly religious dynamics couldn’t change that much in a mere decade or so, especially when considering the funeral of Qasem Soleimani in 2020. As per the Times of Israel, which can’t really be accused of exaggerating or inflating the numbers, the funeral procession was even more significant than that of Khomeini’s in 1989, when “more than 10 million people took part” (Iran’s population back then was around 55 million).
And Soleimani was the symbol of the Khomeinist revolution (perhaps even more so than Khamenei)—not some moderate or democratic dissident—so the fact that the masses flocked to give him a final tribute is profoundly telling.
We can also present various other surveys which would make us increasingly more skeptical of the alarmist statements regarding Iran’s secularization, such as a 2015 Information and Public Opinion Solutions (IPOS) survey about the Hijab and how it shows that a significant number of women were in favor of making it mandatory (forget mandating it, after hearing the likes of Masih Alinejad the listener would probably conclude that no Iranian woman would ever even come near it even you offered them huge sums of money to do so).
It is also important to note that the main opposition to Khamenei is not secular but at least in theory religious: the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an “Islamic-Marxist” group. If Iran was truly so secularized, they would have adapted and subsequently dropped the Islamic tag for greater support and sympathy (which they had lost during the Iraq-Iran War when they sided with the Ba’athist dictator).
Anyway, manipulation of statistics in favor of a geopolitical agenda is nothing to be surprised about. In order to shape public opinion, just say Iranians are liberal-secularists who are oppressed by mullahs. This will then justify “liberating” them in the name of liberal-secularism through war, and it magically becomes morally acceptable, if not necessary.
The entire narrative surrounding the secularization of Iran also serves another agenda—that of linking secularization with “religious authoritarianism.” The claim is that Iran is supposedly becoming secular because the clerical class is “imposing” Islam. So the natural conclusion rendered is that Islam shouldn’t be “imposed.” In other words, Islam should not be political. As usual, it’s just a call towards secularization.
For those who allege that secularization is the result of “enforced religion,” the best counter to this would probably the example of the West, which is clearly becoming increasingly secular due to “mullahs” forcing religion on the masses.
But while Iran may not be secularizing at the rate, pace, and intensity as is claimed, it most certainly is being secularized.
Shi’ah Exceptionalism in Politics?
Iran’s secularization has been the focus of study within many academic publications.
And we’re not referring to the kind of sensationalist manipulated data that we just witnessed (as if practically no one in contemporary Iran would identify with Islam).
We’re talking of subtler forms of secularization, which could often even be mistaken as being seemingly “Islamic” in nature.
This is what Iranian political scientist Asef Bayat theorized as “post-Islamist.” To simplify it, he says that after Islamists have “experimented” with power politics they then experience a sort of post-sobriety depression at an ideological level. They thus abandon their earlier “revolutionary” proposals for more “moderate” and “reformist” propositions.
Basically, after an ideology’s “youth”—revolutionary and idealist—it becomes some sort of disgruntled adult who must “adapt to reality.”
In the specific context of Iran, post-Islamism is about embracing democracy or fighting the mandating of Hijab.
But such a process isn’t limited to Iran, nor just the Shi’ah world, as we can see with Rached Ghannouchi’s Ennahda Party in Tunisia.
It could be argued that this is the ultimate fate of all forms of “democratic” (i.e., liberal) Islamism: When you’re ready and willing to play by the rules (parliamentary democracy and so on) you pretty much become just another player in the game. Your “Islamist” party becomes like any other secular party, and it’s more about immediate materialistic promises (“jobs,” “the economy,” etc.) rather than the initial revolutionary goal.
But we do believe that there is a Shi’ah specificity or exceptionalism when it comes to politics.
In fact, when Khomeini launched his famous concept of Wilayat al-Faqih (“Rulership of the Jurist”), which is the cornerstone of the Khomeinist State, the first to (often vehemently) criticize him were Shi’ah clerics themselves, such as Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari.
They argued that, until the reappearance of the twelfth “Imam” there are no politics in Shi’ah Islam and that Khomeini took such a concept (basically an ayatollah as a temporary replacement for the Imam when it comes to worldly authority) from Sunni political theology—more specifically, from Mustafa al-Siba’i (d. 1964), the founder of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
And this is yet another issue with Shi’ism: Like other groups which are far from the straight path (Christianity for instance), it has no cogent perception of politics or coherent political theology, which in a sense means that it is a secular faith.
The Shi’as have always had a toxic relationship with the central Sunni powers, this is why you’ll rarely ever see them talking about the Khilafah. For them, politics is synonymous with oppression and injustice.
In the same way Christianity became political with Emperor Constantine destroying it from within (Jacques Ellul’s thesis), the Khomeinist revolution desacralized Shi’ism when it threw it into politics and mutated it into a State-ideology.
This is the thesis of Amélie Myriam Chelly, a French sociologist of Iranian origins.
She basically argues that the 1979 Khomeinist revolution secularized Iranian society, not by fighting religious symbols, but by perverting them.
She gives many examples, beginning with “Imam” Khomeini himself. Chelly argues that prior to Khomeini the title “Imam” was never used for any other individual than one of the twelve “Imams.”
“Imam” Khomeini basically “diminished” what was once a prestigious title. Chelly also analyses numerous other words in a similar manner (such as “martyr”).
Shi’ism was thus secularized from within by the Khomeinist revolution, but it was due to the “inadequate” nature of Shi’ism itself. Like Christianity, it was flawed from the onset and is thus unable to impact society on a larger scale. And when pushed to do so, it was destined to submit itself to the secular world.
While “post-Islamism” could be applied to Sunni Islamism—or what we consider an atrocious betrayal thereof—we believe that when it comes to Shi’ism, the secular tendencies are not so much a betrayal, but rather from its very nature when it tries to become political, like in Iran.
This is how we can make sense of the secularization of Iran, which again is nowhere near as dramatic and drastic as some would like people to believe.
Shi’ism can’t be political because it was never destined to rule or become a majority, which in effect is another way of determining that it is not the truth.