By law, all public buildings in Iran must have prayer rooms. But travelling around the country you will find few shoes at prayer time outside these rooms in bus stations, office buildings and shopping centres. “We nap in ours after lunch,” says an office manager. Calls to prayer have become rare, too. Officials have silenced muezzins to appease citizens angered by the noise. The state broadcaster used to interrupt football matches with live sermons at prayer time; now only a small prayer symbol appears in a corner of the screen.
Iran is the modern world’s first and only constitutional theocracy. It is also one of the least religious countries in the Middle East. Islam plays a smaller role in public life today than it did a decade ago. The daughter of a high cleric contends that “religious belief is mostly gone. Faith has been replaced by disgust.” Whereas secular Arab leaders suppressed Islam for decades and thus created a rallying point for political grievances, in Iran the opposite happened.
The transformation of Shia Islam into an ideology undermined both the state and the mosque. The great irony of the Islamic revolution is that inadvertently it did more to secularise the country than the tyrannical shah, who ruled Iran after a coup in 1953 and persecuted clerics. By forcing religion on people it poisoned worship for many. They are sick of being preached at and have stopped listening.
Some have found salvation in materialism. Ever more shops and malls have sprung up. In the words of Saeed Laylaz, a noted economist, “You can’t shower a trillion dollars in oil money on a society in a decade and expect it to stay pious and revolutionary. People get comfortable.” This is not unique to Iran. “The country is Islamic in much the same way that Italy is Catholic,” says a southern European diplomat. “Everyone professes to believe, but in private we cheat on our taxes and our wives.”
The clerics’ power has waned and is mostly indirect. Many of them have withdrawn to seminaries and retain little say in the day-to-day management of the economy and foreign affairs, though they are still consulted on matters of principle. Western negotiators in the nuclear talks report that their Iranian counterparts often shift positions after trips to Qom, the cradle of the Islamic revolution. The clergy also has vast financial resources and thus economic influence. And Iranians remain a spiritual people who see Islam as part of their identity.
What many have moved away from is institutionalised religion—as far as they can. Women still have to cover their hair in public. They are banned from sports stadiums, and buses are segregated, with women sitting in the back behind a barrier. Yet female Arab visitors say they feel freer in Iran than at home, where misogyny is “less organised but more ingrained”, as one puts it. Female students outnumber men by 2:1 at many Iranian universities, leading to calls for male quotas. A recent survey of young adults by Iran’s parliament suggests that 80% of unmarried women have boyfriends.
Nowhere is change more apparent than in Qom, the religious capital. Pilgrims throng the shrines and listen to anti-Western sermons given by turbaned ayatollahs. But this is mostly a veneer. Government offices and seminaries on Martyr Street, which the locals call Time To Have Fun Street, are dwarfed by the multi-storey Pearl shopping mall, where the female mannequins wear tight jeans. In the past 15 years Qom’s population has risen tenfold, to 1.5m. Tidy suburbs line new ring roads and an elevated monorail.
The city has grown rich on the pilgrims, as have the clerics. Restricted in their choice of robes and obliged to spend many hours studying every day, they splash out on expensive glasses, says the owner of an eyewear shop. Some sport bright yellow slippers, a sign of virility, according to an obscure religious text. “Relations between the unmarried are tumultuous,” ventures a former seminary student. “Private lives are full of vice. We have the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the country.”
Men and women mix openly in cafés that once closed early but now stay open into the night. Face veils used to be common among women but were banned after three men wearing them entered a local school and groped the girls.