There’s a new phenomenon in Iran: young men and women posting videos of themselves flipping the turbans off clerics’ heads. Their parents and grandparents, too old to do it themselves, proudly share these videos in person and on social media. In similar fashion, a few years ago an audio clip went viral in Iran: a father recorded his son, maybe not even a teenager, asking to go to mosque. The father wouldn’t let him, responding “go drink alcohol instead.” A nation that wished for the integration of mosque and state four decades ago got its wish and has come to hate it.
Iran is not an Islamic society anymore. Octogenarians who performed their religious duties for decades are embracing atheism, and Islam is the fastest-shrinking religion. Underground churches are instead popping up, mostly due to the attraction of “the West” and anything associated with it. People are calling themselves Zoroastrian, not because they believe in it but to disassociate themselves from Islam and instead embrace the one Persian religion. It’s less an expression of religiosity as much as an embrace of national heritage. But, according to the only public opinion survey available, nones—atheists, agnostics, spiritual, and irreligious—now form a plurality at 44 percent. Shi’ites, once the predominant majority, stand at 32 percent. Mosques are the emptiest since modern Iran embraced political Islam. In sum, the Iranian national character has ceased to be Islamic.
This turn against religion isn’t merely personal, but also political. Two in three Iranians reject religion as a basis for law in any form. But perhaps most telling is Iranians’ attitudes toward political figures, the most popular of whom today is Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, who brought enormous progress to Iran while also brutally cracking down on the clergy—Iranians believe with good reason, that, in this case, correlation is causation. Once condemned for banning the hijab in public, he is now the most celebrated Iranian since Cyrus the Great. While the 1979 revolutionaries were grieved by Reza Shah’s assault on public Islam, the 2022 revolutionaries chant: “Reza Shah, may your soul be happy!”
The reaction against Islam has also turned Iranians away from what American conservatives call family values. The fertility rate is 1.7, below replacement. Fewer people are getting married each day. Instead of traditional religion, the growing nihilism among younger Iranians has made pagan ideals popular. Just for a couple of examples, orgiastic sex parties are popular, and the public attitude toward out-of-wedlock birth is in transition from openness to celebration, both expressions of “the Western openness” of Iranian minds.
In sum, trends American conservatives worry about as signs of a declining civilization are being embraced by increasingly secular Iran as a demonstration of their “open-mindedness” against “rotten” religious mentality. The logic is as follows: whatever Islam stands for is bad, and so the opposite must be good. The integration of Islam and government has meant that Iranians associate the religion with totalitarianism. They don’t just see Islam in its political form as problematic, but rather Islam in itself.
The Roman Catholic integralist movement in the United States must be careful about what it seeks. Is it sheer power or a religious revival? If the latter, particularly given that a leading member of this movement, Sohrab Ahmari, is a fellow émigré from Iran, the integralists would be wise to consider the Iranian nation as a cautionary tale.
The integralists are correct to say that religion is an important ingredient for a well-functioning society. Indeed, many of America’s contemporary problems are partially the result of the decline in religious practice. The hope for religious revival is a noble one, but using the heavy hand of the state is the best way to accelerate, not reverse, current trends toward secularism. In Iran, religion became the ideology of a failing and oppressive state. Therefore, Iranians want to punish the mosque because it is a symbol of tyranny.
The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks articulated why politics and religion cannot be integrated: in politics, compromise is a necessity, while in religion it’s a sin. The integration of politics and religion in Iran has led to absolutism in government and compromises in the mosque, making the former tyrannical and the latter corrupt and hypocritical, ultimately making both unpopular and unjust. Religious people believe that their religion is incorruptible because it is divine, yet everyone can agree that the clergy are not because they are men and flawed. This tale is hardly exclusive to Iran or Islam; indeed, little differentiates it from the fall of L’Ancien Régime and the rise of laïcité in France.
Some degree of interaction between religion and politics is not only inevitable but also desirable. Every political question is inherently an ethical one. Therefore, the formation of a moral citizenry, most commonly done through religion, is a necessary feature of a functioning democracy. But, as Greek philosophers taught us, moderation is a virtue. Too much religion in politics becomes repulsive and leads to a society that blames religion for the shortcomings of the state and adopts nihilism to punish the clergy.
For 22 years, I grew up in a place where religion was corrosive; where stupidity and religion, rotten minds and piety, had a direct relationship. It took almost a decade of observing religious practice in the United States to realize that religion is not intrinsically malformative, and that piety and enlightenment can coexist. Even so, though I have changed my position and become pro-religiosity, the scars of those 22 years have made me irredeemably irreligious. I don’t wish this curse upon my fellow Americans and will never understand why the integralists seem to.