Qom, Home of the Mullahs (Book Excerpt, Iran 5)

Home of the Mullahs – Qom

(Day 16) I’d been told by one Iranian that, “an American in Qom is like an Al Qaeda in the White House.” So I was a little nervous about this stop, and I could tell Professor was too. Qom (rhymes with ‘gnome’) is home to one of Iran’s (and Shia Islam’s) holiest sites. The city itself is a stronghold of the current conservative government and served as Khomeini’s base for the revolution in 1979. No liberals or opposition groups here; this is the center of mullah control over the government, culture, and politics of Iran. From this city spreads Iranian religious and political influence into Iraq, Lebanon and Hezbollah, Palestine and Hamas, and a host of other organizations and countries around the world. While most international attention focuses on the nuclear program down in Natanz, or the politicians in Tehran, it’s the clerics living in Qom that actually control the fate of Iran.

From guidebooks, media, and talks with people along the way I rolled into Qom with a sense of dread. The nervousness reminded me of how I felt boarding the plane into Iran a couple of weeks previous. Then the sense of the ominous was quickly displaced by the man on the plane doing his giant book of puzzles and mazes. Pulling into Qom, all darkness and seriousness, the spell was broken when the first thing I see from the exit is a giant Ferris wheel sticking out over a gaily-painted amusement park. I actually laughed out loud, getting a weird look from a still-nervous Professor, at the incongruity of my preconceptions and the happy little carnival.

Still, I was entering the heart of the beast, so to speak, and judged not a lot of people around these parts would be too enthused over my nationality and objections to their nuke program. Whether due to the buildup or not, the place felt sterner and colder than any we’d visited before. Unlike other cities there were no light headscarves or chirpy jackets on any of the women here – all were in full headgear and body coverings, of course colored mainly in black and more black.

The shrine we were heading towards is one of the holiest, and due both to its location in Iran and its recent history, also one of the most conservative, in Shia Islam. Shia pilgrims and religious scholars come from all over the world to visit the Shrine of Fatima but, everyone plus the guidebooks told me, non-Muslims are never allowed inside. This is not a recent rule – even some of the historical accounts I’d read of non-Muslims visiting Persia tell how people outside of Islam are prevented from entering the grounds of the shrine. We can view it from close-by, and take pictures from outside the walls, but under no circumstances are we allowed inside the actual complex.

After parking the car nearby, Professor and I, feeling somewhat self-conscious, walked down the street toward the shrine. Around us the city went about its business, which in the case of Qom is heavily related to religion. As we neared the shrine we could see groups of pilgrims ahead of us.

The shrine’s attraction to these pilgrims, some of whom stay in Qom and study for months and years, strengthens worldwide Iranian influence over Shias and related groups – some perfectly harmless charities, others like Hezbollah, very far from harmless. For the first time since Daniel’s Tomb I actually felt nervous.

Golden Dome of the Shrine of Fatimeh
Golden Dome of the Shrine of Fatimeh

Walking the small causeway leading up to the shrine I apparently didn’t stick out as much as I thought – a couple of people called me ‘hajji’ (‘religious pilgrim’) as we walked by. Again confirming the decision to grow the beard. As we approached the outer gate and first set of guards Professor asked how much further a non-Muslim could venture. The guard just smiled and waved us through.

At the next guard post Professor again asked if this was a far as we could go. It was the last stop before actually entering the shrine and we both assumed this was the limit. I prepared to turn back, even getting my camera ready for a last picture. To our surprise though the guard said to wait a minute while he made a call. A couple of minutes later he got off the phone and said someone from the shrine’s international affairs office was coming out to meet us.

International affairs office? That sounded different. Professor and I stood there waiting, wondering what was about to happen. He’d been here dozens of times but had no more idea what was going on than I did. I just tried not to draw too much attention, as pilgrims filed past into the heart of the shrine.

While standing there viewing the multinational parade of pilgrims I watched as the guard prevented anyone from entering with a bag or backpack. Given that Iran is Shia, and most Muslims are Sunni; Iran, specifically including this shrine, has been targeted by Sunni terrorists numerous times. Due to previous attempts to blow up the shrine and all those inside the no-bag rule was being strictly enforced – even old women were being stopped.

A few minutes later a young man, apparently one of the many at the complex studying to become a mullah, came out and met us. He said he’d been told to escort us inside! Professor and I were shocked. Non-Muslims, probably really, really including non-Muslim Americans, never get admitted to this shrine (especially, one guesses, those wearing their GI-issue military boots from Iraq . . .).

The young man quickly escorted us to the international affairs office near the center of the shrine. Me gawking, but trying not to look like I was gawking, the whole time. Perhaps just as strange, I’d even been allowed to bring in my small backpack. Nasty American or not, I guess I don’t fit the terrorist wackjob profile.

Once in the office we were met by the old mullah in charge and asked to join him for tea. For the next hour we sat and talked, Professor very nervously (he figured the mullah spoke English and was testing him) translating the whole time. We talked about the U.S. and Iran, Islam, and, since he said I could ask anything I wanted, the taking of the U.S. hostages at the start of the revolution.

I was surprised at how forthright he was, saying their system had problems and inviting me to criticize and question it. I was also surprised by how much he disliked the Taliban and Al Qaeda; calling them terrorists and embarrassments to Islam. He explained that one of the first places the Taliban and Al Qaeda had attacked was Iran and the very shrine we were sitting in.

The talk had started with him asking if I had any questions about Islam. I countered with the standard, “tell me what you think I should know,” I ask everyone. He said first I should feel welcome here, as all true Muslims regard everyone as their brother, kind of like a giant extended family. After an introduction to Islam he asked if I had any more questions; saying he’d be happy to answer those of an international nature as well.

Spires of the Shrine of Fatimeh

Spires of the Shrine of Fatimeh

I took him at his word and asked, if we are all supposedly brothers, why the Iranians had seized the U.S. hostages. Professor’s eyes about popped out of his head when I said that, I believe he literally pictured the cell doors slamming shut. But, to his credit, he interpreted the question, though probably making it sound much more delicate.

From watching the face of the mullah you could see he was using Professor’s interpretation mainly to confirm what he thought I said, rather than relying on it exclusively. Professor noticed this also and it made him even more nervous – I could see him literally willing me to be cautious.

The mullah thought about the question for a moment, then started talking for 30 minutes straight, pausing only for translation. During that time he even received a call on his cell, which he quickly took out from his robes, turned off, and went back to focusing on our conversation. Say what you want about his politics, that gesture of personal politeness impressed me.

His answer started by again stressing that true Muslims think of everyone as their brother; pointing out once again that people like Al Qaeda and the Taliban are terrorists, not Muslims. He brought up their lack of religious knowledge and the dangers this posed not only to the U.S.; but to the world in general. After pointing out that the first country they had attacked was Iran he went on to say that long before 9/11 Iran had been fighting “these people” (i.e. Bin Laden) – even while they were being trained and supplied by the U.S. during the fight against the Soviets.

Next, still sticking with the brotherhood analogy, he said since even close family members can disagree it’s natural for people from a family as extended as Iran and the U.S. to criticize one another, “All thinking people have a right to disagree.” He then went on to apologize for saying anything that might offend me or the States.

Finally he got down to the hostage-taking. On the day of the hostage taking (4 Nov., 1979) crowds of students were already planning to gather in front of the embassy for a protest. Many of those protesting were angry at the U.S. for allowing the Shah, recently deposed, to enter the States for medical treatment. Plus the Shah’s downfall had left the country and the Iranian government extremely fragile, with various groups vying for power.

At the 4 November protest, one of many that year, a group of Muslim students loyal to “The Imam” (Khomeini), following a pre-arranged plan, stormed the locked embassy gates. Interestingly, they were able to bring up bolt cutters unbeknownst to the Marine guards by smuggling them under the chadors of the women. Their goals were to embarrass the U.S. while strengthening the factional position of Khomeini. Once inside, the students re-closed the gates to keep out other factions and ensure their control.

According to the mullah; originally the Iranian government, including Khomeini, was against the hostage taking and wanted to arrest the students. However once inside the embassy students found radios, encoding devices, and documents (both shredded and otherwise) that showed U.S. ‘spying’ and plans for a coup. Once this became public Iranian anger against the U.S. rose to such a level that the government had no choice but to back the students.

The mullah’s description obviously did its best to put Khomeini and the Iranian government in a favorable light. While he said that Khomeini had no knowledge of the embassy attack beforehand, which by most accounts is true, he left out a first of November speech, among many others by Khomeini, that called for demonstrations against Americans, including at the embassy. Also unmentioned by the mullah was that much of the spying equipment and related items were for use against the Soviet Union, Iran’s northern neighbor, and not for any Iranian coup.

That said, I found no reason to doubt the assertion by the mullah, and in other research since, that Khomeini and the Iranian government were originally against the hostage taking. With so many factions vying for power such an aggressive plan could easily have backfired and harmed, rather than helped, Khomeini’s chances for control. However, once the, “spy material and coup documents,” were discovered, Khomeini shrewdly cast in his lot with the students.

After the long discussion of Islam and the hostage taking, we finished our tea and talked of simpler things. I told him how much I was enjoying my trip and thanked him for inviting us inside. The mullah even switched to English for a while during the more informal chat, telling me of his degree in Psychology and how much he enjoyed the writings of Dale Carnegie, of all people.

Once we finished, the mullah had the student take us on a personal tour of the Shrine, even allowing me to take a couple of pictures. As I mixed with the pilgrims the amount of staring was huge – though it seemed more curious than angry. I noticed that our student escort carried a specially-colored baton that signaled to everyone his official relationship with the Shrine – perhaps what kept people from attacking the infidel and his guide. The picture I have of myself standing in front of the Shrine, a place few non-Muslims have ever tread, is one of my favorites of the trip.

I guess it pays to go in the off season.

Shrine of Fatimeh

Shrine of Fatimeh


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