Of Adultery and Earthquakes
by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran
24 Apr 2010 01:09
Recently, as Iranians were finally returning to their homes and workplaces after this year's exceptionally long holiday recess, they were treated to one of President Ahmadinejad's trademark "media strikes."
While inspecting an emergency operations center on April 6, Ahmadinejad said, "If, God forbid, something terrible does happen and an earthquake hits Tehran, many of the thoroughfares will be blocked; water, gas, water networks will blow up; and many of us will not be able to report to work to help with the situation." He subsequently requested that 5 million of the city's residents quit Tehran to avert disaster. "I ask all those who have the ability to relocate themselves to do so," he warned ominously.
As for the timing of this startling statement, he said a high-ranking member of the clergy had recently asked him to relay his earthquake fears to the country: "One of the great ulama of Tehran has sent me a message to ask everyone to take this threat quite serious." To back up the assertions, several pro-government papers and news services as well as the sycophantic IRIB, the state broadcasting network, were filled in the ensuing days with horror stories of what might befall the capital in the event of an earthquake. It wasn't immediately clear, even for the regime's most hardcore supporters, what had motivated the volatile president or the nonymous holy man to indulge in such alarmism at this particular moment. After all, it is hardly news to anyone that parts of the country, including Tehran, sit along geological fault lines. The answer wasn't long in coming.
While delivering his weekly address, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, Tehran's hardline
Friday prayer leader -- the man who replaced Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the role -- revealed what had caused the strange prognostications. "Adultery causes earthquake," explained Sadeghi. "The incidence of sin has proliferated. Sins -- such as the laxities of some women or the way some young people harass and ogle on street corners or some families don't observe religious values and practices while they are traveling -- have mushroomed," he told millions of television viewers on April 16. "These allurements that some women and some girls apply to themselves outside their homes, the young people who are tempted and turn to promiscuity and commit sin -- all this increases adultery. According to our sacred transmitted texts, this is one reason for the incidence of natural calamities. When sin proliferates, earthquakes become common."
Sedighi then alluded to the authority of the same anonymous holy man who had advised the president on the matter: "One of the servants of God who has received a chalice from the hand of Imam Ali in one of his mystical communions and acquired special knowledge of the Qu'ran, asked me to inform the public that they need to be doing mass repentance. Calamities may be near."
The Mysterious Cleric
Wild speculation about the identity of the unidentified clergyman spread among regime loyalists and the merely curious alike. Was it the hardliners' favorite Grand Ayatollah, Hossein Noori Hamedani? Was it the theoretician of religious violence, the fire-breathing Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi? It turned out that the mysterious cleric was none other than Ayatollah Aziz Khoshvaght, for years the cabinet's anointed "moral teacher" who regularly lectured its members -- including the president -- on how they should lead a virtuous and pious life. Those in the know were also aware that the ayatollah's youngest daughter had married Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's eldest son, Mostafa. Some opposition groups claim that Khoshvaght was connected to the serial murders of intellectuals in the 1990s, but such charges have never been proved. The identification of Khoshvaght as the ayatollah warning about the adulterous etiology of earthquakes was first made by the Neo-Rightist Jahan News. Published by Alireza Zakani, a member of the election committee of the Majles (parliament),
Jahan News has become an important source of information about activities within the government and among the hardliners. Zakani is no neophyte in the conservative firmament. As a war veteran and leader of the student Basij during his university years, he has the requisite hardline credentials. He was an avid supporter of Ahmadinejad until the last election. Zakani broke with the president over differences on personnel and policy matters. Ever since, he has become one of the administration's most trenchant critics. His grilling of Hamid Behbahani during the minister of roads and transportation's confirmation hearings was especially memorable.
Most people have only a vague picture of Khoshvaght's past. Further detail on the ayatollah was furnished by the Azkhabar weblog. (Azkhabar is another important source of news and information about the hardliners. Its publisher sits on the editorial board of the influential far right website RajaNews.) Azkhabar reports that, for years, Khoshvaght has been the prayer leader at Imam Hossein Mojtaba mosque, controlled by the Motalefe Eslami, at the heart of Tehran Bazaar; that he had lobbied intensively on behalf of Ahmadinejad's electoral campaigns; and that he is such a harcore conservative that he had severed his ties with a long-time friend, Ayatollah Mahmood Amjad, who allowed a few Reformists to attend his services.
Fire and Brimstones
Despite the ludicrousness of the earthquake claims, there was little attempt to vigorously debunk them. The position of the reformist outlets is too precarious for them to challenge Ayatollah Khoshvaght's politico-theological prognostications, while the pro-government papers confined themselves to interviewing physicists and geologists to support or critique the statements. The one exception to the rule was Tehran Emrouz, controlled by the city's mayor, Mohammad Ghalibaf. The cold war between the mayor and the president is common knowledge. Like the other presidential candidates in the 2005 race, Ghalibaf did not appreciate being swept away at the polls by massive vote rigging and fraud. Ghalibaf held a much higher rank than Ahmadinejad in the Revolutionary Guards, and he is intimately familiar with the venal, mendacious behavior of the administration. Finally, Ghalibaf's position and conservative bona fides give his media outlets a degree of protection that the reformist papers lack. On June 16 of last year, it was Tehran Emrouz that ran the headline "2.5 million Greens march through Tehran."
On April 19, a Tehran Emrouz editorial by staff writer Ruhollah Tabatabi opened by acknowledging that the Qu'ran alludes to the possibility of natural disasters occurring as a result of divine retribution. But it went on, through pointed observations, to devastate Ayatollah Khoshvaght and Ahmadinejad's hokum claims. Tabatabai noted that, according to the holy text, such calamities as earthquake and storms descend on tribes and nations that have routinely questioned God's existence, wiping them off from the face of the earth. "There is not one incident where a God-fearing and monotheistic nation (presumably like Iran) has suffered such a fate."
If the prevalence of sin is a plausible cause for earthquakes, why was it, he asked, that those nations most plagued by sin, such as the United States and the countries of Europe, avoided large-scale geological catastrophes, while "a pious country like Iran should be held responsible for the sins of a few wayward individuals"?
"One of the missions of the great clerics and spiritual leaders," he added, "is to show the right path of righteousness.... That we should take an event like an earthquake that ordinarily devours everyone and takes more victims among the poor than others as divine retribution is highly questionable.... Wouldn't it cast doubt on the righteousness and validity of Islam and Shi'ism for an earthquake to descend on millions of pious Muslims at the highest bastion of Islam?"
As usual, none of the criticism seemed to sway Ahmadinejad from his position. Reinforcing it, he promised to augment the salaries of government employees that relocated by up to 50 percent. As elucidated by a presidential aide, the plan involves breaking up the gargantuan government functions into various regional centers and divisions. For example, administrative functions would be assigned to Parand, 35 miles southwest of Tehran; education would be assigned to Pardis, 25 miles east of the capital. "If I were to report to the relocated minster of education from Pardis to Parand and back," said a bemused school teacher to Tehran Bureau, "that would take me two days minimum given the traffic conditions."
We may never know what motivated Ahmadinejad to highlight Khoshvaght's comments in such a high-profile manner, but judging by the public's utter indifference and his own past record, it will probably soon be forgotten.
Hamid Farokhnia is a staff writer at Iran Labor Report. He covers the capital for Tehran Bureau.
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