For the Iranian Shiites a religious title before one’s name brings prestige to a layman. Visiting an Imam’s shrine embellishes one’s name with the place of the shrine as a title. Thus, when Ahmad visits Karbala, he becomes Karbala-ï Ahmad or Kaleï Ahmad for short. The pilgrimage to one or several Imam shrines is something to hope for in one’s lifetime.
The greatest ambition of the Iranian ayatollahs has been to export the Islamic Revolution to the Middle-East and beyond. The defence of the shrine of Sayidda Zeinab (Ali’s daughter and Muhammad’s grandchild) in Damascus was a pretext to setting foot in Syria; the Holy Shrine Defender مدافع حرم title was devised.
The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the subsequent military and political failures of the USA and the UK in Iraq, created opportunities undreamed of for the ayatollahs to intervene.
Over the years, Tehran has provided significant financial support and advisors (elements of the Qods forces and IRGC) to the Shiite paramilitary actors. Persuading the locals of the noble aims of the mullahs, a propagandist machine (soft power), was much needed to ensure the cover-up of the military objectives in Iraq. Arba’een commemoration could not be missed.
Ashura, the tenth day of Moharram (the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar), commemorates the death of Imam Hussein in Karbala (680 AD). Arba’een is the observance of the 40th day of the mourning.
The Carnival of Political Tourism
After decades of abeyance due to the Iran–Iraq hostilities, in 2007, the time was ripe to reinvent and organise the mass arrival of pilgrims to the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala, Iraq. The Karbela-ï title was reborn. The carnival of political tourism during Arba’een has now become an important event on Tehran’s political agenda.
This year, the Iranian authorities and clerics had to organise the most eye-catching pilgrimage. They aimed to show their might, and counterbalance the effects of Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. Moreover, they wanted to highlight their presence in the region to the USA ally, the Saudi Arabian prince Mohammad bin Salman.
For the clerics, in fierce competition with the Saudis, to thumb their noses at them is of paramount importance. In their world, the fervour of a huge number of pilgrims during Arba’een should surpass the Hajj. Besides, in Mecca, the Iranian pilgrims are forbidden to express their political views, but the worshippers to the shrine of Hussein in Karbala are encouraged to mark their presence by chanting Death to the USA.
With the blessing of Ali Khamenei, the Arba’een headquarters ستاد اربعین with special funds and many branches in districts and institutions have been created to organise and pay for the pilgrimage to Karbala.
They provide resting facilities استراحتگاه with meals and beverages, transportation, the exchange of rial/dinar, telecommunications, and medical care.
In 2018, the Iranian Central Bank made provisions for 20 billion Iraqi dinars (USD16.7 million) for pilgrim spending in Iraq. Iraq’s central bank, following the USA ban on financial transactions, refrained from the business. The Iranian authorities had to bypass it by providing the pilgrims with covered and improvised street exchange stalls. Despite the trick, the pilgrims faced a shortage of dinars for their expenses. Simply put, if the Iranian pilgrims were two million, as claimed by the authorities, each would have had a little over USD8 to spend for a 3-5-day stay in Iraq.
Moreover, nothing was good enough for the political tourists of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The fall of the rial, which had started before the American withdrawal, was problematic. In September, as 200,000 rials bought one USD, the government announced that the USD exchange rate for pilgrims would be in the range of 80,000 rials, thus heavily subsiding the USD for the pilgrimage.
On the domestic scene, the population’s outcry was heard: why should every Iranian in their hardship, facing a 500% inflation rate, subsidise the pilgrims’ spending money in Iraqi dinars?
The government responded with more restrictions, repression and fear-mongering among the exchange bureaux owners and the currency brokers operating under the counter. In less than a week the rial came down to 135,000 vs the USD and has since kept to a 140,000 rial range. However, it looks like a nervous horse at the gate of a racing track. When the bell rings and the gates open, it will gallop to the skies.
The 20 million Propaganda
The political tourists, the pilgrims, are made of Bassijis and IRGC family members, and many civilians that would use the occasion to make some money with trading consumer goods on a small scale.
As long as the trip is totally free or comes cheap (subsidised) and gives an opportunity of escaping from life’s routine, it is welcomed and … who does care about being an extra on the political scene? Or manipulated by the regime?
The love for Hussein and the pilgrimage to Karbala has been overpublicised since August and the Iranian regime’s propagandists on the internet have done their best to spread the word.
In the run-up to Arba’een, the Iranian media fully covered the Ashura first and then continued with pages of reports, pictures and anecdotes on the national preparation for Arba’een. In Farsi, there is a single word for the media’s propaganda: بازارگرمی.
The brainwashers were busy pumping the political Islam sludge into the minds. To this effect, Ali Khamenei, on 24th September, chaired a fancy National Congress of Ashura’s Power همایش سراسری اقتدار عاشورایی in Azadi Stadium, in which even women were present in great numbers.
Ali Khamenei, in a meeting with the families of the martyred holy defenders, claimed the number of participants will be 20 million, a week before the pilgrimage taking place.
Thanks to the prowess of the Iranian Internet Halal – used not only for filtering the content, but also providing propaganda – websites, social media, blog posts, and trolling comments, the number of participants reported has steadily gone up from 10-12 million since 2010.
For the regime, the importance of Arba’een resides in the number of pilgrims.
Now, Arba’een is subject to an article in Wikipedia: List of largest peaceful gatherings. Although this article is flagged with Some of this article’s listed sources may not be reliable, its content has fed many subsequent articles written in mainstream media with similar forms and citations.
Later, from the Iranian media, we learned that out of 20 million some 1.9 to 2 million were Iranians. The remaining 18 million – where were they from?
On the internet, the sources of this number, for now, massively point to the Iranian domains. In a few days, this number will be repeated and the original sources dropped till it becomes a “fact”. Interestingly enough, some sources (.ir domain), for whom 20 million for 2018 was unsatisfactory, have updated the number to 30 million.
None of the numbers can be checked and verified.
Who would you believe in the Iranian context, the media, herald of the ayatollahs and the officials spreading lies for four decades?
When a number is uttered by the officialdom and printed in the papers, it should be divided or multiplied, depending on the context, before it has an appearance of a remote reality.
Or one could try to fit 20 million pilgrims into Karbala, a town of 700,000 inhabitants with poor urban infrastructure.
There are hundreds of pictures to emphasise the fervour of the Shiite Muslims in the shrine’s vicinity. There are almost none from accommodations and staying facilities for two million, let alone 20, except focussed pictures of food and beverage distribution.
What is the area needed to host 20 million people standing up? If five people were fitted in a square metre, then 400 hectares – bare, no buildings – are needed.
Grossly, an absence of 20 million or about would empty Italy, France or the UK of one third of their respective populations. Beijing (18.8 million) would be totally deserted.
It is the miracle from a censored media that 20 million people can visit the 40 hectares of the shrine in less than a week without creating a major urban crisis.
The organisation of the Arba’een pilgrimage, highly subsidised by the government, mobilised and stretched Iranian domestic resources. People travelled by cars or buses, or took a flight.
This year the focus of many reports written with lyricism was on the pious pilgrims on foot. The pictures were from the outskirts of a town, showing little groups of foot pilgrims leaving it or entering it. They were free of any bundle containing their luggage, and a large number of young pilgrims took selfies, as if they were having a good time in a park. No picture of the mass of marching pilgrims under scorching sun between two towns, in the dusty desert stretching to the horizon.
Far from us to suggest that the foot pilgrims were kindly allowed to board a motor vehicle in between two towns and their departure and arrival on foot were staged. A few areal pictures of some hundred people walking together would have silenced our cynicism.
On the day that the political tourism of Arba’een started, speeches were given, patrol motorists in full uniform paraded, and rows of ambulances and perfectly lined-up medical staff were on standby. We were intrigued by the reports and pictures of piles of carton boxes of medicine ready to serve the ailing pilgrims. Were the carton boxes really filled with what was written on them?
In Iran, the supply of medicine has been in disarray since 1979, and has reached a level of total shortage and chaos in recent months. Medicine is not part of America’s sanctions against Iran. However, the problems of bank transfers are major barriers to the imports.
Pretexting the sanctions, the government covers up the gross mismanagement of the healthcare, and the shortage of medicine. The profiteers, the Mafiosi of the medical supply market, are in the close circles of regime that they were before the JCPOA; goods worth of billions of US dollars have been sold under the counter since 1979, most originating on Nasser Khosrow street – Tehran, the starting point of the trades.
If the Iranian central bank could provide a partial exchange mechanism for the pilgrims and bypass the sanctions on the banking system for the monies needed for the nuclear facilities, surely it can devise means to fill the shelves of the pharmacists and hospitals. But this can be counterproductive in their propaganda against the USA and must be avoided at all costs.
In the Kermanshah province, hard hit by an earthquake last year, many will spend their second year of misery under makeshift tents. Hundreds of protesters claiming their unpaid wages – teachers and factory workers, to name some – are imprisoned. The ayatollahs have never been worried about the children who rummage through the rubbish to feed themselves, or find something worth selling for a couple of rials. There is no money to attend to the health and education systems or push the domestic investments, because of the Americans’ evil doings, insists the officials.
To show off the military might, set up religious headquarters and lavishly pay for the Shiite clerics that suck public money like a leech sucking blood, just to slap the USA in the face, there are monies.
To organise an over-exaggerated 20 million political tourism trip to Karbala, money is aplenty.
The Naughty International Media
The international media did not cover the magnificence of the lessons of love in the desert of Karbala مشق عشق در صحرای کربلا – i.e. the pilgrimage – complained the clerics. Their views were emphasised in orotund op-eds.
Pity for all the wasted money invested in political tourism to impress the West and subdue the population.
The Hojjatol-Eslam va Moslemin, Alireza Panahian, one of the fascistic intellectual stars of the regime and a leech among many, denounced the role of Google in censoring Arba’een. He said a special Zionist design has been carried out to organise the news censorship.
The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), hammered the point a few days later, after the pilgrimage: بغض استکبار رسانه اي از اجتماع حسینی /The conceited spite of [international] media on Husseini Gathering.
In a long article mixing lyrical prose, complaints, and a rambling rant, it accused the international media of unprofessionalism, imperialism, and obeying the Arab reactionaries.
As long as the Iranian editors, journalists and reporters lick the boot of the regime and use an irresponsible vocabulary just to please people like Alireza Panahian and the Bassijis that filled the Azadi Stadium, as a nation, we will not move forward.
No wonder that Iran has the rank of 164 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index. It is slightly better than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but worse than Libya and Egypt.
The Bitter End of Arba’een
The grandiose and imposing departure of the pilgrimages was met with a pitiful return for many political tourists. The papers who still had journalists on the border area between Iran and Iraq reported of annual نابسامانی, which translates to disarray, disorder, and messy. There were fewer buses for the return journey from Karbala and the drivers of available transportation were selling seats at a racketeer’s price.
The penniless pilgrims, the instant celebrities feted by the Iranian media on their way to Karbala, spent the nights on the roadsides, warming up with makeshift campfires.
The Iranian clerics had forgotten the love and care teachings of Imam Hussein. The pilgrims were on their own.
An Iranian official had this to say: We do not allow such drivers to oppress the beloved pilgrims.
The final say was from Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, Interior minister. He declared: 2018’s Arba’een ceremony, based on the lessons learned from the past editions, has been held in the best conditions.
Later, it was reported that the air travellers had also been overcharged, but could claim back the difference between what they paid and the original fixed price, as published by the government.
The journey to Karbala is a metaphor of the Islamic Revolution. It had an impressive and glorious start but finished with a makeshift campfire on deserted roadside.
Lassitude and Stagnation
The dust of the Arba’een’s pilgrimage had not yet settled when the media went on publishing reports of another magnificent mass of pilgrims – 2.5 million – making their way to the shrine of Imam Reza, in Mashhad. 319 ایستگاه صلواتی, prayer-resting stations, would care for their needs.
In the Iranian Shiite there are 12 imams and a few dependents. The regime could mobilise the population for magnificent pilgrimages and political tourism all the year round.
Adding to these would be the anniversaries of the events of 1979. The ayatollahs, never short of extras, had enrolled a few thousand extras for their street show in front of the former USA Embassy in Tehran to mark the anniversary of the hostage taking on the fourth of November.
The next day, the USA had reimposed the secondary sanctions that were lifted on all Iranian individuals and organisations after the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA).
The bigoted Trumpian administration plays its part in fuelling an explosive situation in Iran. However, forty years of anti-USA and West propaganda, generating enmity and spreading hatred, together with greedy mismanagement and corruption have largely contributed to rotting the situation.
Today, the Iranians pay the price for the dogmatic views of their autocrats and their own adaptation to them. There is no easy and quick solution out of it since there is no domestic internal force to oppose the theocratic regime.
No cleric and his circle will suffer from the perversity of the sanctions and the worries of making their ends meet. The Leader, Ali Khamenei, can always claim that America’s decline افول آمریکا has become a reality.
The realities contradict him; the Iranians’ conditions deteriorate. Rouhani boasts that we will bypass the sanctions with pride, but he has neither the political credibility nor the financial might of backing his statement.
When Khamenei witnesses America’s decline and Rouhani bypasses the sanctions with pride, they hyperinflate a war of words that might give the illusion of power as long as they are uttered, but the illusion vanishes as soon the microphone is shut.
There is no pride left when one begs to feed one’s family. There is no pride left when only flattery and boot-licking keep an underpaid or unpaid job.
We had forty years to think about the theocratic policies that we helped to implement by being apathetic, apolitical and silently accepting. With the exception of a number of human rights activists and writers, the Iranian diasporas, weak and without substance, have formed the regime’s battalions of apologists.
The dynamics of the sanction effects today, despite the dangerous climate that they create in Iran, are part of a much broader international panorama, in which we cannot be an influential element on our own. Like a feather we will dance with the winds. We need allies and we cannot trust our leaders to choose them wisely for us. Our leadership is in competition with Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to gain the upper hand. None of them really care about the welfare of its nation or other countries that they fuel their proxy wars in.
The desire of the mullahs to free themselves from international alliances, and their obsessional enmity of the USA, have bonded us to the raw deals between superpowers more than ever.
Our salvation and release comes from ourselves. We have to overcome self-censorship and shatter the censorship, learn to listen before uttering unfounded peremptory arguments and false accusations. We have to kill off domestic despotism before being able to stand up serenely to the political despots. In short, we have to swim against the ideologies we falsely call noble traditions and culture that have plagued our social fabric, and have welded us to generations of despotic leaders.
We have to convince each and every political tourist that being manipulated by the ayatollahs will not buy them a place in paradise.
If we were born to live, we have to mature fast. Finding the right wording to convince the political tourists to think for themselves falls on the shoulders of all of us. The Imam Hussein epic and its misuse by the lies and manipulations have not the same value.