Iran's moral guardians are concerned: while Islam is increasing in political importance throughout the Arab world, people in the Islamic Republic of Iran are leaving the mosques in droves. As Ali Sadrzadeh found out, young people seem especially susceptible to the attractions of sects or Christianity
"Baztab" ("Echo") is the most widely read and quoted news portal in Iran. It has increased I prominence as a result of the presidential electoral campaign which is now under way, but it also benefits from the fact that it enjoys the protection of Mohsen Rezai, who is campaigning to become Mahmud Ahmadinejad's successor as president.
Rezai, who's a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, doesn't have much hope in the election, but he's thrown his hat in the ring nevertheless, as he has done in the past. His "Baztab" portal provides an echo, as its name implies, of almost all the topics which are relevant to the current campaign.
The site reports surprisingly openly and critically on many of the problems which face Iranians in their daily life. It crosses red lines and breaks taboos: recently it even looked at "Atheism in the Islamic Republic".
The article said that atheism, superstition and adherence to sects were breaking like a tsunami over Iranian youth. "Baztab" argued that this "shameful phenomenon" was due to the abuse of religion by the government.
The short article seemed like a mixture of analysis, editorial and warning – but more important than the article were the many commentaries in which readers described their experience of the daily abuse of religion. Some of the readers suggest their explanations for the fact that young people are turning from religion; some have even admitted that they don't believe in God.
Elements in the Iranian opposition find this "phenomenon", which "Baztab" describes as "shameful", easy to explain. And the debate reveals a notable discrepancy between Iran and other Muslim countries. In the Arab world, Islam is becoming more important, both privately and politically, but in Iran, the people are leaving the mosques in droves.
Many people are on a spiritual search for meaning which may take them to Christianity, the Muslim order of Dervishes, or new age sects. In any case, the security services have a existential and complicated fight on their hands as they try to deal with followers of any confession which calls into question the theoretical basis of the Islamic Republic.
According to that theoretical basis, on the one hand religious minorities have to be tolerated, while at the same time anything which is religiously "offensive" has to be fought back firmly, since it's not just a matter of religious conviction, but a threat to national security. And every time some foreign organisation or government protests against the persecution of religious minorities in Iran, Mohammed-Javad Larijani, the chairman of the Iranian Human Rights Commission, repeats, "Nobody is persecuted in Iran because of his beliefs."
New age sects popular
But the claim is heard more frequently these days, following the arrest of eleven housewives in Shahrud in north-eastern Iran for their membership of the Interuniversal Mysticism sect.
The women held a weekly six-hour learning session which their teacher, a lawyer from Isfahan, who travelled 700 kilometres just to attend. The Fars news agency reported on 20th December 2012 that they were involved not only with "obscure mysticism", but also with a damaging psychotherapy, the so-called "meta-therapy".
For some, Interuniversal Mysticism is an attempt to become one with the world and to find one's inner peace. For the religious and moral guardians of the state it's a false mysticism, a subversive and dangerous tendency which manipulates the young and undermines Islam.
The sect offers a mixture of a search for meaning and a system of psychotherapy. As well as offering an explanation of the world, it also offers a therapeutic method called "Faradarmani" or "meta-therapy".
The sect began to grow five years ago among students and the urban middle-class, but quickly began to spread throughout the country, as the cases from Shahrud show. Its members believe that the world has consciousness and radiates energy. According to the sect's founder, Mohammed Ali Taheri, who has been sentenced to seven years in prison and 70 lashes, the task of the faithful is to turn aside the negative energy in the world.
The sect's members focus on the unity of being, as do Rumi and other great masters of Iranian mysticism: everything is just a form of God's presence. When the sect started up, it received the support of the authorities, since it referred back to Islam and Iran's traditional mysticism.
Believers were able to publish books about their faith; seminars were held at universities. The sect's teachings were publicised abroad, in Armenia, Turkey or South Korea. Taheri travelled abroad and boasted of his two foreign honorary doctorates. Even state television praised his commitment.
But since Ahmadinejad was voted back into power three and a half years ago, the focus has been on the "wide-ranging struggle" against "any form of false mysticism", which is being led by the highest level of the country's political and religious authorities. The Seminary for the Purification of the Faith at the theological university of Homs puts the number of people in the Interuniversal Mysticism sect at around 300,000.
On the websites which are leading the fight against the sect, that figure is said to be too low. The sect is no longer just a harmless mystical circle but a dangerous movement, almost a small mass movement, which calls the principles of the Islamic Republic into question.
No more pussy-footing
The official campaign against "false mysticism" was started more than two years ago personally by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. He spent a week in the holy city of Ghom in October 2010, where he met with a number of Grand Ayatollahs.
On the last day of his visit, he gave a keynote address to theology students in which he said, "The prevalence of licentiousness, the propagation of false mysticism, and the so-called house churches are attempts undertaken by the Zionists and other enemies to fight against Islam."
As soon as he left the city, which is seen as the main centre of Shiite scholarship, one Ayatollah after another issued a fatwa against "false mysticism", declaring that the propagation of its teachings meant apostasy and sacrilege.
In spite of repression, the numbers who seek their salvation in sects or other religious minorities continues to grow. The number of New Christians who organise themselves in underground churches is believed to have increased significantly in recent years. According to the website of the evangelical organisation "Open Doors", the number of Christians in Iran has risen from 300,000 to 460,000.
There's no evidence for the figures, but the trend towards faiths other than Islam is unmistakable. The well-known Iranian theologian and philosopher Mohsen Kadivar believes that the version of Islam propagated by the state has caused most Iranians to move away from their religion. But the search for a spiritual path never ends, and Kadivar says that this leads people to try to find their salvation in Christianity, Buddhism or one of the sects instead.
© Qantara.de 2013
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de