Faith and the coronavirus
Omnipotent and omnipresent: at breakneck speed, the novel coronavirus in Iran has eliminated everything that makes up the Islamic state – Friday sermons, pilgrimages, visits to mosques, gatherings of mourners, seminars by the ayatollahs and state-organised street parades, both religious and political.
Yet the Islamic Republic is unimaginable without these highly symbolic mass events. Indeed it virtually no longer exists, at least not in the way it has presented itself to the rest of the world for 41 years. Even the clerics have disappeared from the streets. They are either in domestic quarantine or in hospital.
Since last Sunday a YouTube clip has been causing a furore in Iran: at the airport on the island of Kish in the Persian Gulf, a crowd of people are demonstrating against the arrival of 300 mullahs from the city of Qom who want to escape the virus and seek refuge on the warm island.
Plague in a holy place
After all, Qom – the "holy" city and pilgrimage destination of twenty million believers annually – was the starting point of the coronavirus epidemic in Iran. The first two deaths occurred in Qom. For weeks, images and reports had been making the rounds on social media, showing how the virus was spreading rapidly throughout the city. Travellers from Qom reported full waiting rooms and overcrowded hospitals in the city.
The first official reaction was that this was just fake news, trumped up by enemies seeking to sully Islam. That Qom of all places, the centre of Shia scholarship, should be the hotspot of the COVID-19 epidemic, that this plague should have started in this haven of holiness? Impossible, unthinkable. Such a lie – an insult to faith, God and conscience – could only have been invented by enemies of the Islamic Republic. But regardless of the denials and the clericsʹ holier than thou attitude, Iran's Qom is now on a par with Wuhan province in China. An explosive issue, politically and religiously.
Today Qom may be in the news because of the coronavirus epidemic. But the city was and remains – for the time being, at least – the beating heart of political Shia. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini taught in this city for decades. It was in Qom that the Islamic revolution began, and it is here that those clerics who hold key positions in the Islamic Republic are trained today.