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The Occult Chickens Have Come Home to Roost: Religious Superstition in Iranian Politics

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IRAN POLITICS
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Since early May 2011, charges of sorcery, witchcraft, and using supernatural powers to manipulate people and events for particular political ends have been leveled against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Chief of Staff, Esfandiar Rahim Masha'i. Masha'i is accused of employing witchdoctors, sorcerers and magicians, specializing in invoking the spirits (djinns) both good and bad, to further the Ahmadinejad-Masha'i political agenda. The state, as represented by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameneh'i and his loyal military, civilian and clerical followers, has suddenly become indignant about the superstitious hocus-pocus that is permeating Iran. But for six years (2005-2011) the Ahmadinejad government - with the complacent blessing of his political, religious and military mentors - systematically fanned supernatural and superstitious ideas in the country. Those very same powerful clerics and statesmen, who lauded Ahmadinejad's superstitious political culture as the international revival of Shi'i Islam, now brand his very same propositions as satanic and unIslamic.

On September 17, 2005, Iran's newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. During the president's speech, a paranormal event occurred. The president was enshrouded in a beam of light, his audience hypnotized and a mysterious hand held the delegates in a state of trance, their eyes glued to the 'chosen man' whose words pierced their hearts. The man who saw and reported this event to Ahmadinejad is said to have been Esfandiar Rahim Masha'i. From that day, Ahmadinejad, his entourage and his key clerical mentors gradually started to speak in two different languages belonging to the two parallel worlds in which they lived: the normal earthly and the paranormal unearthly.

Recurring accounts of highly unusual claims matched the reports of occult occurrences. A man called Seyyed Hasani claimed to be the representative of the Twelfth Imam. The Shi'i believe that the Twelfth or Hidden Imam who has been in occultation since the 9th century will appear in an unknown future to bring about world justice and peace. Establishing contact with the Hidden Imam is suspect, implying that a person can be in relation with the hidden world. So the news of a letter attributed to the Twelfth Imam and published in a religious weekly came as a shock. Bizarre reports followed. An entire soccer team was put under the spell of a sorcerer, forcing the famous Tehran team to incur a string of defeats. The spell was finally neutralized by appropriate prayers and the intervention of a highly prominent Ayatollah. A dog was seen entering Imam Reza's mosque in Mashhad, paying its respects to the holy shrine and leaving the mosque in tears. Where these signs of the coming of the Hidden Imam?

Ahmadinejad spoke of the imminent return of the Hidden Imam as though he was in direct connection with him. In his official speeches, he described the Hidden Imam's management of Iran and manifestations of his guiding hands in all affairs of the state. The president signaled to Iranians that he was simply a medium for the satisfaction of the Imam's designs. Books were published by clergy close to Ahmadinejad on how to contact the Twelfth Imam and be granted one's wishes. At meals, it was rumored that Ahmadinejad and his close associates would lay out an empty plate, spoon and fork, claiming that it was reserved for the Twelfth Imam who would be attending. It was also rumored that Ahmadinejad's cabinet would defer important decisions to Fridays, arguing that on this day the Twelfth Imam would be able to participate in their deliberations. An atmosphere of wizardry and abracadabra came to prevail among certain sectors of the Iranian population in tune with the president.

For some six years a small nucleus of politically powerful clerics unconditionally endorsed and approved Ahmadinejad's superstitious religio-political discourse. After President Ahmadinejad's confirmation ceremony, following the highly disputed June 2009 presidential elections, Mesbah Yazdi, the religio-ideological mastermind behind his ascent to power, claimed that "once the president is appointed and confirmed by the leader and becomes his agent, he will be exposed to the rays emanating from this source of light [Ayatollah Khameneh'i]. When the president receives his edict from the Guardian Jurist, obedience to him is the same as or on par with obedience to God." During the election campaign of 2009, the Supreme Leader set aside all pretences to neutrality and forcefully supported the presidency of Ahmadinejad. In his famous Friday sermon of June 2009, after the wide wave of unrest following the election results, Khameneh'i categorically rejected any wrong doing or fraud during the elections and lambasted those who accused Ahmadinejad of occultism and superstition as unethical and shameful liars and falsifiers.

As Iran became engulfed in cycles of widespread political protest and ruthless repression, the paranormal ambience thickened due to internal dissent among the besieged ruling class. While Ayatollah Khameneh'i's authority was challenged by the Green Movement and his popularity was nose-diving, Ahmadinejad, who had become president by the grace of the Supreme Leader, also began his second term of office by openly defying Khameneh'i. The confrontation occurred over Ahmadinejad's appointment of Esfandiar Rahim Masha'i as his First Vice President. After Khameneh'i's intervention, Ahmadinejad begrudgingly dismissed Masha'i and appointed him as his Chief of Staff.

Insecure about Ahmadinejad's agenda and his devotion to Masha'i, Ayatollah Khameneh'i's clerical and military partisans launched a new campaign to promote Khameneh'i as a chosen person connected with the Hidden Imam and the hidden world. From the beginning of 2010, increasing hints of Khameneh'i's supernatural status were dropped here and there. Ayatollah Mohammad Saeedi, the Friday prayer leader of the holy city of Qom, claimed that at the moment of his birth, Khameneh'i had uttered the name of the first Shi'i Imam. Ayatollah Ahadi divulged the secret that Khameneh'i had met with the Twelfth Imam. Khameneh'i was heralded as "Seyyed Khorasani", the Iranian who, according to certain Shi'i reports attributed to the Imams, is said to assist the Hidden Imam when he reappears from his occultation. In this same scenario Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is depicted as 'Shoayb Ben Saleh", the commander of Seyyed Khorasani's army. During this whole time, Khameneh'i and his proponents did not feel the growing aura of superstition and irrationality as politically or religiously threatening.

Among other things, playing between the earthly and unearthly and reaping the fruit of "unearned" power tends to create all sorts of delusions. Ahmadinejad, Masha'i and his ever-narrowing intimate circle were not immune to delusions of grandeur and invincibility, bravado and ranting. Ahmadinejad believes he has the natural and supernatural powers to see Masha'i succeed him as President in 2013. If that were to come true, then Khameneh'i, who has worked so hard to defeat the reformists, the Green Movement and the majority of his own people in order to consolidate all power into his own hands, would have to hand over power to Ahmadinejad, whom he always believed to be just a useful pawn.

Ali Rahnema is the author of "Superstition as Ideology in Iranian Politics" (Cambridge University Press; June 2011). He is Professor of Economics and Director of the Master of Arts program in Middle East and Islamic Studies at The American University of Paris.