Hardly a day passes without a claim by the leadership in Tehran that the regime is facing yet another conspiracy. One day, the threat comes from the Kurds who demand autonomy. Another day, it is the Baluch doing mischief in their corner. On yet another day, the bazaar is at the centre of conspiracy. And, what about industrial workers whose fight for independent trade unions indicates a penchant for plotting?
The list is as long as the days in a year.
However, the latest claim, coming from no less a dignitary than Heydar Moslehi, beats previous ones.
The claim, which is the talk of the town in Tehran, has attracted attention for two reasons.
The first is that the man who made it is an ayatollah who heads the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and controls at least some of the Islamic Republic’s secret services.
The second reason is the nature of the claim.
Here is what Moslehi says: Foreign missionaries are targeting the best, and the brightest, Shi’ite students of theology, especially in Qom, and have already succeeded in converting some of them to Christianity.
Moslehi does not reveal the nationality of those ‘ foreign missionaries’ but asserts that Turkey has become a base for the conversion attempt. Thus, students of theology from Qom travel to Turkey to receive baptism along with further instruction in Christian doctrine. The freshly baptised students, known as tullab, return to Qom and other Shi’ite seminaries in the Islamic Republic, as secret Christians charged with trying to convert fellow-students.
The ayatollah-cum-secret-police-chief, does not say what he intends to do about this ‘calamitous development.’ After all, the young seminarians of Qom receive enough instruction in the art of ‘ taqiyah’ (dissimulation) to be able to hide their conversion with relative ease.
So far, the Ministry of Intelligence has done nothing more than asking Christian churches in Iran not to admit anyone before ascertaining his or her ‘ religious identity.’
The task of trying to do something about the tullab seems to have been reserved for another mullah, Ali Khamenei, the ‘Supreme Guide’ himself. Less than a week after Moslehi issued his warning, the ‘Supreme Guide’, who rarely leaves his bunker in Tehran, rushed to Qom to sermon the tullab on the virtues of sticking to the faith of their fathers.
In a speech, extensively reported by the state-owned media, Khamenei warned against what he described as ‘cultural invasion’ which, he claimed, was more difficult than warding off a military attack.
Moslehi and Khamenei are not the first mullahs who fear the siren sounds of Christianity. In the 18th century, at a time that Shi’ism had not yet struck deep roots in Iran, mullahs frequently called for Jihad against ‘ the internal Infidel.’ In most cases, that led to the massacre of some Christian villages. (Jews and Zoroastrians were spared because they have no proselytising ambitions.)
According to some scholars, the tullab may be receptive to the Christian message because of similarities between the two faiths.
Like Christianity, Shi’ism, especially in its duodecimal version, fosters a cult of martyrdom. The martyr Imam Hussein is often seen as a Christ-like figure, a defender of the right who is betrayed and ultimately put to death by a tyrannical ruler.
The concept of the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure who comes at the end of times, is also comparable to that of the second-coming of Christ.
Like Christianity, Shi’ism is a cult of saints. In Iran alone, we have more than 7000 locations designated as places of saints. Some places have become saintly because they are supposed to bear footprints of a horse once ridden by this or that imam. Some trees have become saintly because this or that ancient ‘saint’ is supposed to have rested under their shadow. The latest of these saintly places is the village of Jamkaran, southwest of Tehran, where the Hidden Imam is supposed to maintain a line of communication with the faithful. Every year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Cabinet travel to the village to ‘ report’ to the Hidden Imam. The government’s programme for the following year is thrown into a well through which it is supposed to reach the Lord of the Times
Every year an estimated 20 million people go on what they call ‘ pilgrimage’ to these places to beg for a cure for an ailment, demand a better fortune, or simply ask to be pardoned. Those who know Christian places of pilgrimage, such as the one in Lourdes in southwest France, would feel at home in some of the ‘saintly’ locations in Iran.
The French specialist in Shi’ism Henry Corbin discovered numerous similarities between Christian passion plays and the Iranian religious theatre known as ‘ ta’aziyeh’ which depicts the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his 71 companions.
The presence of a professional priesthood in both faiths and the concept of ‘ infallibility’ of the imams or the popes are other common features that might attract the wayward tullab. For example, Moslehi and Khamenei believe that whatever the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini said is valid for ever thanks to the infallibility that he had supposedly inherited from the imams.
Ali Shariati, a lay preacher who attracted a following in Iran in the 1960s, was aware of these similarities and campaigned for major changes in which Shi’ism was organised. He advocated the abolition of the professional clergy as an institution. He was also opposed to the cult of the saints and pilgrimages to places of doubtful authenticity. However, he fell for another Christian concept, that of the cult of Mary which he dubbed into a poetical call for putting Fatima at centre of the faith.
Were Shariati alive today he would realise that history has moved in the direction opposite to what he had preached. In 1970, there were an estimated 50,000 mullahs and tullab in Iran for a population of 30 million. Today that number is closer to half a million for a population of 73 million.
Moslehi and Khamenei might not know it, and Shariati is not around to know either, but it is possible that the wayward tullab, whose exact number and identity remains to be established, may simply be unhappy about a system that uses, and often abuses, religion for political purposes in the service of a small percentage of the clergy and its military partners.