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The Politics of the Hidden Imam

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

27 Jul 2011 03:40Comments
2_9004230491_L600.jpgAs Shiites celebrated the Hidden Imam's birthday, festivity details signaled a major shift in Iranian political dynamics.

[ comment ] For a long time, 15 Sha'aban has been celebrated joyously in Iran. In every city, bazaars would be cleaned and dusted and decorations and flags would go up. The elders of the Tehran bazaar recall those days fondly. Haj Mehdi, a jewelry seller and third-generation bazaari, told Tehran Bureau, "There used to be a banner across the bazaar reading something like this: 'We celebrate the birthday of His Majesty of Our Times: Imam Qa'em [The One Who Shall Rise Up].'" Haj Mehdi's memories were tinged with nostalgia. "They would clean the whole bazaar, and bring out benches and red carpets. There were tons of sweets and candies. It was jubilant, it was real." He sighed.

Haj Mehdi is not the only one who misses the dignity of those bygone celebrations. Abbas, an American-educated engineer with very strong religious beliefs, agrees. "Last year, the banners said things like 'You are the man!' or 'We are your boys!' It was an outright disgrace to address an Imam, whom we believe to be alive and waiting to reemerge, with slang used by criminal gangs and low-life street hustlers." Referring to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Abbas says, "Since this guy has come to power, the official language has become a version of street slang." Ahmadinejad's tendency to use populist tactics has not helped his standing in religious circles and traditional households such as Abbas's.

Still, Ahmadinejad has made political use of the belief in the Hidden Imam with great skill. He declares his cabinet to be the Hidden Imam's government. The gossip has it that some high-ranking administration officials, particularly chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, consider themselves linked to the Hidden Imam through intermediaries. The recent arrests and the attacks on his person and his associates, accusing them of being superstitious, have confirmed these rumors. Ahmadinejad has convinced himself that he is connected to the Hidden Imam, and is acting as his agent.

This conviction has many consequences, some artistic. A documentary film, The Appearance Is Imminent, based on stories surrounding the Hidden Imam and the supposed signs foretelling his reemergence, was distributed widely earlier this year. The filmmakers imply that he will soon return and that the presidency of Ahmadinejad -- described as one of his most faithful followers -- is paving the way. Of course, one wonders if the film was actually meant to pave the way for Ahmadinejad to achieve more power despite the opposition to him amid conservative religious circles.

A political analyst who wishes to remain anonymous believes the whole story shows how shrewd Ahmadinejad is. He told Tehran Bureau, "The Hidden Imam is the highest authority in the Shia faith. If Ahmadinejad convinces the populace that he is acting as an agent of the Hidden Imam, then he can and will defy the Supreme Leader." That would be a political triumph for the president, though "so far he has not succeeded." One way in which the resistance has manifested is the frequent quotation of a particular hadis (authoritative utterance of an Imam) from the last letter written by the Hidden Imam: "Whoever claims to know of our return or to have spoken to us while we are in hiding is a liar and a scoundrel."

Ahmadinejad's political opponents used the opportunity offered by the Hidden Imam's birthday this year to remind people of this hadis. There were banners adorned with the quotation across the city of Tehran, along major highways and in the central business district. Other banners expressed joy and happiness as well as hope for the advent of the Hidden Imam in more traditional terms. It seemed that municipal authorities were determined to maintain a dignified appearance. There were celebrations in public parks, and hundreds of stations distributed candy and lemonade to drivers and pedestrians, causing traffic jams.

There were other notable events. Statements issued by seminaries in Qom condemning The Appearance Is Imminent forced Ahmadinejad to criticize the producers. Almost all of the clerics who were quoted in the movie denied talking to the filmmakers. In April, the authorities felt obliged to arrest the film's director; nothing has been heard of him since. At the same time, it seems that Ahmadinejad has toned down his enthusiasm for the Hidden Imam. He denied that there is any similarity between himself and any of the personalities in the traditional story of the Hidden Imam's return. Still, the political fight is far from over. Last week, Ahmadinejad was away from the capital, attending the opening of a new factory. He referred to the Hidden Imam in his speech and hailed his birthday. However, he avoided referring to his administration as the Hidden Imam's government. The language of his speech was very official, the tone cautious.

At the moment, it seems that the ayatollahs are on the offensive. On Saturday, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi told an audience in Mashhad, home to the Eighth Imam's shrine, "Many deviations from the true path of Islam have begun by the false claim of being connected to Imam Zaman [the Hidden Imam]." He added, "We should not accept anyone's words at face value, even though he has performed some services." Not long ago, Mesbah Yazdi was considered Ahmadinejad's patron; now there is the strong suggestion that he means it is the president whose words should not be accepted at face value. Ayatollah Djavadi Amoli, another prominent clergyman, also spoke on the issue the same day: "We are sure that the advent will not happen as long as there are lies and deception."

For many people, the recent developments offer a bit of a dilemma. Abbas said, "The fact is the conservatives were silent when Ahmadinejad was making his extraordinary claims. Now the damage has been done. For one thing, Ahmadinejad can use their silence against them. He could claim that he in fact is in touch with the Hidden Imam and present the conservatives' silence as proof."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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