In February, the Islamic Republic announced its first confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Within weeks, Iran became the epicenter of Covid-19 in the Middle East, prompting a serious health emergency. However, the current crisis is posing more than just medical and economic challenges that Iran has to cope with while under external pressure from sanctions. It also holds long-term socio-political ramifications for the Iranian state.
The corona outbreak took root in the city of Qom, home to significant religious seminaries and sites. It is not surprising that the virus spread particularly fast in pilgrimage cities such as Qom and Mashhad. The Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad alone attracts around 20 million visitors every year. Yet, nearly four weeks passed before spiritual centers in the country were closed down. Although the decision was made out of medical necessity, it was by no means self-evident. It was the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic that the government had to close mosques, cancel Friday sermons, and prohibit pilgrimages. The fact that a state which self-identifies as an Islamic republic is denying access to religious sites in times of a crisis has caused major grievances among its social base. Protesters gathered in front of holy shrines in Qom and Mashhad, where they were supported by local clerics. Some of them forcibly tried to gain access to the sites, clashing with the police. The corona crisis puts the theocratic state in an unfamiliar and rather uneasy position. It is forced to suspend religious rituals that are an essential part of its political identity and, what is more, it has to actively prevent people from performing those rituals. Due to corona, religion has been put into the back seat for the time being with the approval of the highest religious authority of the state, the Supreme leader himself.
The current crisis is having an impact on the status of religion in Iran, but it is also affecting faith. Closing down shrines that, for centuries, were considered places of immunity and healing, is tantamount to demystifying long-held Shiite beliefs. Amid the crisis, the trend toward alternative medicine, such as “Islamic remedies” that have been largely promoted by the state in recent years, had to give way to reality as well. The corona crisis has publicly exposed the clear-cut limits of faith and superstition. Some clerics already fear a theological crisis and are warning of an Iranian renaissance that would go hand in hand with people turning their backs on religion altogether. Supporters of a secular state, on the other hand, see the current situation as a chance for a gradual cultural transformation in Iran. This perspective is based on the notion that in Europe, too, a pandemic had once contributed to the disenchantment of religion, thus ultimately paving the way for the emergence of the Renaissance. Given the current conditions, the idea of secularism in particular is gaining new traction. A separation of the political and religious spheres would fundamentally contradict the ideational concept of the Islamic Republic, which categorically rejects secularist thought. Still, the current crisis gives rise to the question of what the relationship between religion and the state should look like – a topic that has preoccupied many Iranian philosophers, sociologists, and clerics alike, even before the Islamic Republic was founded.
Lastly, the current crisis has further exacerbated the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy problem. In light of the celebrations for the anniversary of the revolution and the parliamentary elections in February, corona cases were not made public for quite some time. But even in the aftermath of official reports about corona-related deaths, the Iranian state acted hesitantly. Domestic power struggles hampered effective coordination efforts and made crisis management much more difficult. At the same time, the level of public trust in authorities was low. This became evident when, after the outbreak of the virus, a large segment of the population was unwilling to comply with governmental instructions. The high level of distrust toward the state was not only based on the fact that Iranian authorities had withheld information and initially not taken the situation seriously themselves. The Iranian leadership had already lost a lot of credibility after a massive crackdown on protests in November 2019 and when the Revolutionary Guards shot down a passenger plane by accident only a few months afterwards. The initial handling of the corona crisis reinforced the perception among many that the state was not up to the challenges of the day. Opponents of the Islamic Republic, who reject the idea that the state had any legitimacy to begin with, see the corona crisis as yet another confirmation of clerical incompetence. At the same time, the cluster of crises in recent months and the ways in which they have been handled have also sown doubts among supporters of the system. As a result, the question of legitimacy has now reached the social base of the Islamic Republic itself.
The fact that the Iranian leadership has temporarily put religion into the background is not a new phenomenon. The Islamic Republic has always given priority to political requirements when deemed expedient for the system as a whole. Still, in the current crisis, religion has taken an unprecedented back seat. For the first time since 1979, religion in its institutionalized form has been largely removed from the everyday lives of the Iranian people. Although there will be access to religious sites again before long, faith has lost part of its social relevance. Moreover, many will remember significant Shiite shrines not as places of salvation but rather as symbols of the spread of a grave pandemic. As of now, infection rates are decreasing across the country, but in the aftermath of the corona crisis, the Iranian state will face a whole new set of socio-political challenges.