A turban in a shelf (February 2024)

Declining Trust In Clerics Reflects Shift In Iranian Politics

Wednesday, 02/28/2024
Majid Mohammadi

Contributor

One of the oddities in Iranian elections over the years is the dwindling presence of clerics in parliament, while the regime shifts towards greater ideological rigidity and less tolerance.

When questioned about the absence of clerics on his candidate list for Tehran, Ali Motahhari, a former deputy speaker of the Majles (parliament) and current candidate, responded candidly. He explained, "There was no deliberate exclusion of clerics from our list. However, among the nominated clerics, we couldn't find anyone who would add more depth or interest to our lineup."

Motahhari, the son of Morteza Motahhari, a prominent ideologue of the Islamic Republic and a cleric himself, has long been known as a staunch defender of the regime's policies, including obligatory hijab. However, he has recognized a notable shift in the preferences of voters participating in the sham elections, indicating a declining demand for clerical representation in parliament.

The diminishing support for clerics as parliamentary representatives has been a persistent trend in the Islamic Republic over the years. In the early years of the regime, during the first Majles (1980-1984), over 50 percent of the seats were occupied by clerics.

However, this proportion dwindled significantly to just 5.5% (16 out of 290 seats) in the tenth Majles (2016-2020). This decline has been evident irrespective of whether the majority voted for the reformist or principlist camp or how the Guardian Council handled candidate disqualifications.

(Sources: Tabnak and Tasnim)

Why is this phenomenon occurring in a regime where clerics hold significant sway in politics and are pervasive throughout society? Several social trends may shed light on the declining representation of clerics in parliament.

Firstly, government incompetence plays a significant role. Across various facets of life, public services and infrastructure development have faltered and deteriorated. According to a confidential survey conducted by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture in 2023, a staggering 73 percent of Iranians, in a confidential survey conducted by the government, expressed the view that clerics should retreat to their mosques and relinquish their involvement in government affairs.

This marked a notable increase from about 31 percent recorded in 2015. This shift in public sentiment has been a gradual trend within Iranian society spanning over four decades.

Another trend is the de-Islamization of society. Despite the regime's efforts to enforce Islamic practices through incentives and penalties, society has moved in the opposite direction.

The Mahsa Movement of 2022 can be seen as a national and social response to the stringent imposition of Sharia law in the public sphere. Iranians are holding Shia clerics accountable for these stringent regulations and oppressions, and as a result, they advocate for reduced clerical influence in the government.

Two clerics preparing a turban for a ceremony where new mullahs are officially given the right to put on a turban, Gorgan, Golestan province, northern Iran (February 2024)

The third trend involves the gradual erosion of public trust in Shia clerics. Prior to the 1979 Revolution, clerics enjoyed some of the highest levels of public trust compared to other societal groups. However, according to the same confidential survey, approximately 56 percent of respondents now express little to no trust in the clergy, while about 25 percent still hold some level of trust in them. Another 18 percent fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Even in Qom, the primary base of Shia clerics, 51 percent of individuals exhibit limited or very limited trust in this group. This marks a significant decline.

On the top of the list for public trust now are physicians by 73 percent and public school teachers by 60 percent.

The fourth trend pertains to an increasing disillusionment with government propaganda permeating every aspect of life. The religious establishment spearheads the government's indoctrination efforts across various sectors including sports, arts, public education, universities, media, and governance. This propaganda campaign, funded by billions of dollars annually allocated to the Shia clergy, has left the public weary of being force-fed such rhetoric.

In response, wherever possible, the public vehemently expresses its disdain for this manipulation. During election periods, this sentiment manifests in two distinct ways: a significant portion of the population opts to abstain from voting altogether, while those who do participate tend to favor non-clerical candidates. Unfortunately, the regime has yet to heed this message.

However, the composition of the Majles, whether predominantly clerical or not, holds little sway over its function within the system governed by the Guardian Jurist. With its oversight powers effectively neutered, the Majles has been relegated to a ceremonial role, while authority lies with 15 councils such as the Expediency Council and Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, which regularly legislate.

Consequently, the dwindling presence of clerics in the Majles has negligible impact on the performance of this beleaguered institution. What truly matters is the shift in public sentiment: not only are people disillusioned with clerics' ability to improve their lives, but they also harbor a conviction that their influence may exacerbate their circumstances.

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