"Knocking off Turbans": One Manifestation of the Protest Movement in Iran
IraniX No. 9 | November 2022
By Dr. Raz Zimmt
In recent weeks we have seen a new phenomenon that is part of the ongoing protest movement in Iran: young Iranians approach clerics on the street and knock the turbans off their heads in contempt, as an expression of hostility towards the Islamic regime and the clerical establishment. The expansion of this phenomenon has given rise to dispute on social networks: while some are in favor of these actions, calling them rightful expressions of protest, others express reservations, claiming they are disrespectful towards clerics. Although at this stage the magnitude of this phenomenon shouldn't be overestimated, it is clearly gaining momentum as it reflects the continuing decline in the public status of the clergy in the Islamic Republic as well as a growing hostility towards them on part of the citizens - especially the younger generation.
One of the expressions of the protest movement that broke out in response to the tragic death of Mahsa Amini in mid-September 2022 is young people knocking turbans off heads of religious clerics in the public space. The turban (in Persian: Amameh, عمامه), a head covering for men, is considered one of the most important items of clothing for religious Shi'ite clerics in Iran. Since 2000, religious seminaries have begun conducting special ceremonies to commemorate the endowment of the turban (Amameh-gozari, عمامه گذاری) as part of the ruling elite's attempt to maintain its inner cohesiveness and religious authority.
In recent weeks there have been clips on social media documenting young men and women in a number of cities - including Tehran, Mashhad, Qom, Babol, and Dezful - approaching clerics on the street and knocking the turbans off their heads, as an expression of the hostility and disgust they feel towards the Islamic regime and the religious establishment. In some cases, the act of knocking off the turban is accompanied by insults and curses aimed at the cleric. This phenomenon and its distribution on social media has become a growing trend, accompanied by the hashtag "knocking off the turban" (Amameh-parani, عمامه پرانی), and is even portrayed as a kind of entertainment among young Iranians.
The expansion of this trend has given rise to a dispute on social media. On the one hand, those actions are supported my many Iranian users claiming that it is a part of the overall protest against the regime and an expression of the growing opposition to the clerics that rule the Islamic Republic. A website identified with Iranian monarchists opposing the regime has described the act as praiseworthy, justifying it with the many crimes committed against civilians by the regime since the Islamic Revolution with the support of the clergy, including executions, torture, and murder of protestors. Referring to critics of this act, the website claimed that there is no need to feel any concern for an old man in a turban, who lives as a parasite, contaminating the minds of young people.
Some proponents of the phenomenon justify it by quoting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, during his exile in Najaf, Iraq. In his speech in early 1970, Khomeini attacked the clergy who collaborated with the Pahlavi regime saying that Iranian youth must forcefully remove the turban from the heads of these clerics, as they were corrupting the Muslim community in the name of Islam. There was no need to kill or beat them, Khomeini said, but their turbans should be removed and they should not be allowed to wear them in public, because the turban was an honorary headpiece that not everyone was worthy of wearing. One Twitter user said that supporters of the regime had themselves taken similar action towards moderate Iranian clerics identified with the Reformist camp. As an example, he cited the actions of activists from the Right-Wing militant movement "Ansar-e Hezbollah", who during the 1999 students riots in Tehran knocked the turban off the head of Abdollah Nouri, the Minister of Interior Affairs in the Cabinet of Reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
On the other hand, the opponents of this phenomenon have claimed that there must be a distinction between a legitimate protest against the regime and disrespect towards clerics. Thus, for instance, in response to a clip depicting the knocking of a turban off a cleric's head by youths in Tehran, one user commented that this is unacceptable and reflects a lack of respect towards religious attire. He claimed such behavior on part of those who protest for freedom is unacceptable, as it does not express freedom but rather Islamophobia. Another user also decried the phenomenon and tweeted that the protest movement should shun the marginal extremes and unite everyone. Yet another Twitter user wrote that the knocking of a turban off an old man's head is not a political struggle but rather a climax of immorality and an expression of loss of humanity. Criticism also came from the pro-reform political activist Saeed Shariati, who condemned the phenomenon. Shariati tweeted that it was undignified to remain silent in light of the attacks on civilians on the street who wore religious clothing, especially as many of them supported the stances of the protestors. He claimed that a distinction should be made between "protest" and "assault", and between protestors and attackers.
In light of the growing phenomenon, Ayatollah Mohammad Pour-Mohammadi, a member of Iran's Assembly of Experts, , declared that the Shi'ite clerics are proud of their attire. In his Friday sermon on October 14th, the senior cleric said that the enemy's plan was to remove the veil from women's heads and the clothing from clerics in order to harm Islam, but the faithful women of Iran would not break the Divine command, and clerical students were proud of their religious clothing.
Although at this stage the magnitude of this phenomenon shouldn't be overestimated, it is clearly gaining momentum as it reflects the growing hostility towards religious clergy on part of the citizens, especially the younger generation. The ongoing decline in the clerical status in the Islamic Republic is not new. In the 1990's, Hojjat-ul-Islam Mohsen Kadivar (who was imprisoned in 1999 and forced into exile) complained that the vast majority of clerics suffered a growing lack of popularity and were perceived as collectively guilty of the offenses and wrongdoings of those in power.
Another factor adding to the clerics' decline in status was the regime's attempts to apply its authority on the scholarly religious establishment, which affected its independence and made it entirely dependent on the regime's support. The clergy's relatively wealthy status and their avoidance of close ties with their congregations also serve to distance them from civilians. The uncompromising positions of hardliner clerics, for example, their insistence on enforcing the Islamic dress code, pushes them even further away from the younger population, who claim that their extremist attitude does not suit the modern lifestyle, and they prefer to deal with petty issues instead of addressing the citizens' true problems.
In September of 2018, a number of Iranian websites published an editorial piece written by Mehrab Sadegh Nia, a cleric teaching at the religious seminary in Qom, who complained about the growing hostility expressed by civilians towards clerics in the public sphere. Sadegh Nia admitted that he usually refrained from walking the streets of Tehran in traditional religious attire in order to avoid confrontations and hostility from civilians. He described the harrowing experience he had when traveling, when none of the passengers offered him a seat despite his advanced age: "I tried to mask the pain in my knees, but it was impossible. Among the stares I got, I noticed some who were glad to see me fall."
To conclude, the demographic, social, and cultural trends , along with government policies since the revolution, have led to an ongoing decline in the historical status of Shi'ite clerics, who have been an important engine of all revolutionary movements in Iran since the late 19th century. This decline is apparent in the current protest in Iran, and will undoubtedly have a great effect on the identity of the Islamic Republic in the coming years, regardless of the development and the outcomes of the current protest movement.