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Where what you wear can cost your life

Iran’s political unrest shows a deeper religious dissatisfaction

Kurdish women hold portraits of Iranian Mahsa Amini, during a protest in Qamishli, northern Syria, condemning the killing of Amini in Iran. of Hawar News Agency via Associated Press

Where what you wear can cost your life
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Iran’s current political unrest is fueled by religious dissatisfaction that reflects theological dismay among Iranian Muslims. It also reveals why Iranians are abandoning Islam in droves.

The resent unrest erupted with the murder of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, last month. She was traveling to Iran’s capital, Tehran, and the Islamic morality police arrested her after accusing her for “improperly” wearing the hijab, the required headcovering and extension for women and older girls. This police branch—known initially as the Islamic Revolution Committees—serves as vice patrols, aiming to maintain a proper Islamic lifestyle in the streets.

When the police apprehended Amini in a van, she was reportedly beaten severely before they led her to an Islamic “re-education center” for not adhering to Iran’s hijab rules. Because of her injuries, she went into coma, which led her to be admitted to a hospital. Three days later, she died from her injuries.

The Islamic hijab is mandatory for women in Iran. According to Iranian law, there are three ways of wearing it: properly, acceptable, and improperly. The Iranian religious authorities stipulate that the “proper” hijab must cover a woman’s entire head and arms, all the way to the wrist. It also has to ensure the covering of legs, all the way to the ankle. The decision on whether the hijab is properly worn is totally based on the judgment of a morality policeman.

The rules for hijab wearing were enforced gradually after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In 1983, by a decree of the Shiite Muslim parliament, the hijab became legally obligatory for all females over the age of nine—violators are to pay fines, get imprisonment, or 74 lashes. Last year, shortly after taking power, Iran’s Shiite conservative President Ebrahim Raisi insisted he would double down on enforcing the hijab laws. He also raised the number of morality police on the streets. Before the Islamic Revolution, Iranian women were free to choose whether to wear the hijab or not. Some wore it for cultural preferences rather than religious convictions, while many women followed styles of European modern clothing. Decades ago, when Iran’s leaders were attempting to “westernize” the nation, the wearing of the hijab was forbidden, but that was before the Islamic Revolution of the 1970s.

The sad and unjust death of Amini has rightly drawn international condemnation. It also ignited protests from Iranians against the ruthless regime who controlled the country for over four decades.

The protests reflect that many Iranians are done with following Islamic rules. Arguably, many women may welcome wearing the hijab on their own, but they have become adamant against government enforcement of religious rules. For over 40 years, Iran’s regime promised an Islamic paradise where Islamic law is strictly enforced. Not only did no paradise emerge, but Iran’s people became increasingly uninterested in the religion itself.

Recent research shows droves of Iranians abandoning Islam.

While Iran is counted as the most influential Shiite Muslim country in our day, recent research shows droves of Iranians abandoning Islam. In a country that claims to be 99.5 percent Muslim, one expects a genuine adherence to the religion of the land. However, a September 2020 academic study highlighted a sweeping secular shift among Iranians, estimating that only 40 percent now claim to be Muslim. This is huge and, if true, Iran is no longer—at least theoretically—a Muslim-majority country.

Islam, politically and theologically, no longer appeals much to Iranians.

The Iranian case is an example of a larger phenomenon of apostasy taking place in the house of Islam.

A 2019 study appeared in The Telegraph [London], asking the question: “Why are young Muslims leaving Islam?” The report indicated a “crisis of unbelief” among many “educated” Muslims who have become dissatisfied with Islamic claims and rules. Similarly, The Guardian reported a 2019 study, conducted by a Princeton University-based research group. That report also highlighted the fact that Arab Muslims are quitting Islam as never before.

We might point out that this dissatisfaction with Islam has resulted largely from the remarkable access to original Islamic texts offered by the internet in our day—an access that was not easily available in past generations. Moreover, with Ayatollah in Iran, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Taliban in Afghanistan, today’s Muslims have been witnessing firsthand what the strict application of Islam’s original texts and religious rules actually means.

The protests after Amini’s death may be political on the surface, but they clearly reflect the vacuum in the hearts of Iranians after decades of living under Islamic rule. The lives of many Iranians have reached a tipping point after suffering for years from political dictatorship that produced economic isolation and social gloom.

Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution promised Iranians a utopian dream based on applying and adhering to Islamic law, only for the Iranians to experience exactly the opposite of a utopia. Evidently, the Iranian people are getting the message.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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