Asked about atheism in Iran, a group of women at the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran said that they were unfamiliar with the concept. Eventually, an amiable elderly lady in a black headscarf said in a puzzled tone, “Maybe, there are people like that abroad. We wouldn’t know”. There’s no faulting her, given that atheists and agnostics don’t exist in Iran… officially. A 2011 nationwide census put the share of Muslims in the country at 99.4 percent, with Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians making up another 0.2 percent, and the rest… about 300,000 people… fell under the “other” and “unknown” categories. Yet, there were some doubts about the reliability of these statistics, and, certainly, there appear to be Iranians who question God’s existence… although they don’t speak about it openly, for a public coming-out to embrace Christopher Hitchens and his ilk could land them on death row.
Milad, an Iranian IT professional now living in London, said, “There are quite a lot of [Iranian] atheists, including myself to some extent”. Like all people interviewed for this article who acknowledged the existence of non-believers in Iran, he asked to have his name changed, fearing persecution. Milad is right to be cautious, despite residing abroad, because the government isn’t above cracking down on dissenters’ relatives, said Cyrus, also a native Iranian, who works in the American media. Cyrus said that he knows of at least one case where police arrested the Iran-based father of an émigré who ran a pro-atheism group on Facebook, releasing him only after the group was shut down. He gave no details. Nevertheless, arrest can amount to getting off easy, given that punishment for apostasy under Sharia… the prescribed standard for Iranian judges… is death for male apostates and life imprisonment for females.
One problem is that Iranians must spell out their religious affiliation in numerous official documents, such as college applications, relatively early in life. For the majority, that means formally-identifying themselves as Muslim. Once that’s done, there’s no turning back to embrace any other belief system. There have been no executions of atheists reported from Iran in recent years. However, apostasy is often cited among régime opponents’ crimes, lending extra weight to the accusations against them. In a high-profile case in 2002, a court convicted Professor Hashem Aghajari of apostasy just for criticising Iran’s theocracy and gave him a death sentence, later replaced by three years’ imprisonment.
Tempting Fate on Facebook
The administrator of the Iranian Atheists and Humanists group on Facebook (not the one that was shut down) wrote to RIA-Novosti in response to questions last month, “If you try to lie, or don’t say anything about your beliefs, no one will do anything to you”. None of the self-proclaimed Iranian atheists reached by RIA-Novosti agreed to in-person interviews. One of them quipped, “This would make me a very dead Iranian girl”. The administrator of the Facebook group, who wouldn’t even give his/her gender, added, “[But he] who dares, wins, so we’re acting anonymously”. There are several Iranian pro-atheism communities on Facebook, run in either English or Farsi, mostly focused on aggregating pictures poking fun at religious figures (not limited to Islam… for example, the recently-resigned pope also got skewered). The groups have anywhere between 2,000 and 40,000 likes each, although many supporters seem to be foreigners. This form of protest may seem toothless by Western standards, but it amounts to something more daring in the Iranian context. Whilst the apostasy punishments are by far the scariest stick in the government’s arsenal, there are more-mundane reminders of the risks for Internet activists… Iran blocks Facebook and local authorities don’t take kindly to irony; they’ve even banned toys based on Simpsons characters as “Western propaganda”.
Take Off That Scarf
Online dissent may be just the tip of the iceberg, the nameless Facebook administrator said, noting, “We aren’t alone. The population of people who’re atheist is growing”, adding that there are many atheists and agnostics in Iran among well-educated residents of big cities. These middle-class urbanites were the driving force behind the 2009-10 opposition protests in Tehran that, at their peak, brought three million people to the streets of a city with 12 million residents, according to Time magazine’s estimates. The protests… brutally suppressed by the authorities… were aimed against alleged election fraud believed to have robbed a reformist candidate of victory, and were the biggest civil unrest in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The protests had no outright religious agenda, but they called for more freedom… including personal freedom. In a telling gesture, female protesters removed their headscarves when camping out in Tehran’s city squares… a move that, under normal circumstances, would have likely led to immediate arrest for defying the country’s strict Islamic moral code.
Live and Let Doubt
Although no reliable studies exist, all the Iranians and Iran experts interviewed for this article (those who admitted familiarity with the concept, that is) said that explicit atheism appears to remain a rarity in Iran. Lana Ravandi-Fadai, a researcher in the Iran section of the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said, “I’ve heard some friends say that they’re atheists or agnostics, but they don’t admit it publicly”. American-based Cyrus shared similar observations, saying that those who admitted atheistic views even in their own social circle could face a judgemental response. Nevertheless, several émigrés and Iran-based atheists said that religious practices have shifted, with more people giving up active worship whilst still embracing Islam as part of their cultural identity. According to London-based Milad, who said that he still keeps in close contact with relatives and friends in Iran, “Many have never even set foot in a mosque despite identifying themselves as Muslims”. Ravandi-Fadai said, “In my personal view, the local mosque often serves social and even psychotherapeutic functions in addition to its spiritual significance. For instance, I know many women who spend their days at the mosque in order to socialise and talk over problems with others”.
Nonetheless, politicians for whom Islam is dogma stir up more public ire than the little-discussed atheists, Cyrus pointed up, and others agreed. Ali, a native Iranian living in Moscow, said, “Some claim there are fewer true believers in Iran now than before the Islamic Revolution. People are put off by being forced to believe”. It seems, judging by a smattering of conversations at least, that ordinary Iranians’ identity-over-ideology approach to Islam leads to a spirit of live-and-let-live when it comes not only to other religions, but also even to the lack of any religion at all. None of the half-dozen religious Iranians interviewed by RIA-Novosti, including two Tehran clerics (they said they were unfamiliar with the concept of atheism), expressed any hostility toward non-believers. Reza, a 30-year-old taxi-driver from the southern city of Bushehr, said, “I’ve never met such people, but I’d just want to speak with them and understand them. I’m really interested in them. I’m not thinking I’m better than them just because of my religion”. He was visiting the Khomeini mausoleum with his wife and toddler son. Reza came to the shrine to “enjoy the calm and peace” (an effect to which his child seemed immune). Later, the family strolled along the enfilade of stores that ring the tomb of Iran’s great religious leader offering snacks, carpets, Parker pens, and other items as appealing to the religious as to atheists, if any happened to pass by.
19 March 2013