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Iran's 'city of mullahs' has a surprising side

Shashank Bengali and Ramin Mostaghim, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

QOM, Iran -- Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, this city was pious and sedate.

The late Iranian American poet Nader Naderpour once listed as its main features "women with scarves over their heads, men clad in clerical robes, a single golden dome, old storks in the sky, one spiritless garden, a handful of lonely trees."

Qom became the bedrock of Iran's theocracy and remains one of the country's holiest places -- home to 200,000 religious scholars, a destination for Shiite Muslim pilgrims and a center of Islamic thought in a country whose political system is controlled by the clerical establishment.

But the city of about 1 million is no longer single-mindedly religious, and its clerics are not immune to the anxieties bubbling beneath the surface of modern Iran.

One sign of a more complex side to Qom comes upon leaving the vast underground parking structure beneath the golden-domed shrine to Fatimah Masumeh, sister of the eighth imam in Shiite Islam. The exit leads to a multi-story shopping arcade whose brightly lighted shelves are lined with Disney stuffed animals, snacks and other not particularly religious souvenirs.

Above ground, Sayed Sadeq Mousavi, an elderly cleric wearing a black turban, was blunt about his politics: "At the beginning I was a revolutionary, but I have become disillusioned."

Mousavi, a cleric for 40 years, said the theocracy had not fulfilled the promises of the revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who spent time in Qom studying religion. It had failed to end corruption, ensure Iran's oil wealth is shared equitably and create a more egalitarian society, the cleric said.

Iran today is an economic basket case, with most of the 80 million people struggling with unemployment or stagnant wages while a tiny elite -- including family members of top clerics and politicians who enjoy control of state-owned industries -- lives in extreme comfort.

Mousavi said it was little surprise that clerics had slipped in popularity and attendance at mosques across the Islamic Republic seems to dip lower and lower.

"Clergymen have no role in the hearts and minds of people as they did 38 years ago," he said. "The leaders of the revolution overpromised and under-delivered."

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