Iran’s Ashura Rituals Have Become a New Form of Protest

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In the city of Yazd in Iran, a large gathering of men gathered at a mosque to commemorate Ashura, the most sacred ritual in Shia Islam. However, this year’s Ashura was different from previous years. The mourners unexpectedly used the religious ballads as an opportunity to protest against the government, expressing their suffering and grievances. They sang about the country being in ruins, innocent lives being lost, and the government’s corruption and theft. The crowd shouted chants against the government, deviating from the traditional script of grieving for Imam Hussein. This unexpected politicization of Ashura has alarmed the authorities, as it challenges the legitimacy of the theocracy and signals widespread opposition to their rule.

For centuries, Ashura has served as a celebration of Shiite Muslim identity and a symbol of resistance against oppressors. It has inspired social and political movements in the Muslim world, including the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Green Movement in 2009. In Iraq, Shiites were banned from publicly commemorating Ashura under Saddam Hussein’s rule, and Afghanistan’s Taliban government recently implemented a similar ban. In Iran, the tradition has typically included mild criticism of the government, but this year the protesters openly targeted the rulers of the Islamic Republic.

The unexpected rebellion during Ashura presents a challenge for the authorities, who have always viewed devoutly religious Iranians as a loyal power base. The government’s attempts to deny or downplay the protests are futile, as the opposition to their rule has now spread even among religious Iranians. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, had encouraged Muharram ceremonies to be more political, but he did not anticipate that they would turn against the entire leadership of Iran, including himself.

Last year, Iran witnessed nationwide protests demanding an end to clerical rule, triggered by the death of a young woman in the custody of the morality police. The government responded with violence, resulting in the deaths of over 500 people, including children, and the arrest of tens of thousands. As a result, many Iranians have distanced themselves from ceremonies connected to the regime and have started private mourning ceremonies at home. Some Iranians have boycotted the Muharram ceremonies altogether, while others have found ceremonies that do not promote the government or have turned them into platforms to remember the protesters who were killed.

In conclusion, this year’s Ashura in Iran was marked by unexpected protests against the government, diverging from the traditional script of mourning for Imam Hussein. The politicization of the religious ritual has alarmed the authorities and challenged the legitimacy of the theocracy. Despite attempts by the government to deny or suppress the protests, opposition to their rule has spread even among devoutly religious Iranians. The rebellion during Ashura serves as another obstacle to the government’s claim to be the global spiritual leader of Shiite Muslims.

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