Why is Iran So Religious?
A few years ago, a polling organization asked people in more than a hundred countries whether religion was an important part of their daily lives. 83% of Iranians said, “Yes.” That may sound high but it actually put Iran right in the middle of the pack. Dozens of countries had a higher percentage saying yes, including Brazil, Egypt, Kenya, Romania, and the Philippines. Estonia, in Eastern Europe, had the lowest percentage at 14%. The United States was at 65%.
From a global perspective, then, Iranians aren’t that unusual when it comes to religion. But it’s understandable if you think of Iran as a land of religious zealots because that is how it’s portrayed in the media, especially in the US. Some of that is due to a long history of hostility between Iran and America, which doesn’t make for even-handed reporting. But the media does have some reason for portraying Iran as highly religious, and it has a lot to do with Iran’s government.
It’s hard to think of any country today whose government is as religious as Iran’s. There are elections and a president but the final say on almost everything lies with the unelected Supreme Leader. He’s in charge of the army and the courts. He makes the key decisions on foreign policy and the economy. He decides what’s allowed on television. And he must be a highly trained member of the Muslim clergy. The result is a deeply Islamic country.
This makes Iran very unusual. Most other countries where Muslims are a majority of the population aren’t run this way. Some are democracies. Until 1979, Iran’s government wasn’t Islamic at all. Then a revolution changed everything. So, to understand why Iran has the government it does, you need to look at what the country was like before 1979 and why and how it changed.
From 1925 to 1979, two men ruled Iran. Reza Shah Pahlavi and Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi were father and son and they were kings (that’s what the word “shah” means here). They tried to make Iran a successful, modern, secular state. They reduced the power of the Muslim clergy and made it illegal for women to wear a veil. They built hospitals and schools. They gave farmland to millions of peasants. They could pay for it all because of the country’s huge oil reserves.
The shahs remained deeply unpopular, however. They built hospitals in the cities, but health care was awful for the majority of the population that lived in the countryside. They gave people land, but it wasn’t enough to live on. They spent too much money on fancy weapons.
There were two other issues, however, that especially upset Iranians. One was Iran’s links to the West. Since the 1800’s, foreigners had dominated Iran. British and Russian troops spent a lot of time there, and Britain sent engineers to extract Iran’s oil. Iran received only 20% of the profits. After the Second World War, the United States became a major player. CIA agents helped overthrow a politician who was interfering with America’s access to cheap Iranian oil. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, America helped fund the shah’s government and in return the shah ran the country with a view to American interests. Iranians who understood what was going on hated it.
The second issue that caused deep anger was the shah’s determination to make the country secular. Most Iranians were Muslims, and they resented the constraints on religion. The last time Iran had been powerful had been in the 1500’s and 1600’s, when the Islamic Safavid Empire had ruled the land. They were successful warriors and artistic geniuses but their most important legacy was their profound commitment to the Shi’ite branch of Islam that is still the norm in Iran today. The Safavids provided historical and highly religious inspiration for Iranians who wanted their country to be proud and strong once more.
By the late 1970’s, most Iranians agreed that their country needed a change, although there was little agreement on what it should look like. The leader of the opposition was a Muslim religious figure, Ayatollah Khomeini. He began preaching against the shah in the 1960’s and then lived in exile for fourteen years. Supporters smuggled cassette tapes of his sermons back into Iran, where his call for an Islamic revolution to free Iran from the shah and hated foreign interference was exactly what people wanted to hear. They didn’t believe their society was being run in their interests any more.
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in 1978. Government troops killed hundreds of them. The shah fled. Then followed a contest to see who would determine the shape of Iran’s future—Socialists? Democrats? The clergy? The last of these groups, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, won. They had the most support in the country as a whole.
Iranians are no more religious than most people. In elections, hardline Muslim candidates generally lose. But the country isn’t called the Islamic Republic of Iran for nothing. The government continues to restrict people’s freedom to say, believe, and wear what they want. And a historical dislike for the US fuels its opposition to American policy in the Middle East.
In modern history, merging political power and religion has usually ended badly for religion. As Iran struggles to fulfill the hopes of its young and growing population, the same is likely to be true there.