“Mullahcracy”: The Islamic Republic in Iranian Meme Culture

“Mullahcracy”: The Islamic Republic in Iranian Meme Culture

Whenever I look at my phone, WhatsApp and Telegram are sending me hundreds of texts, pictures, and videos from Iran. Blasphemous memes are among the most popular. They compare the ayatollahs with dinosaurs, poisonous mushrooms, and the Coronavirus, and don’t hesitate to ridicule Islam.

In a country that executes people for alcohol consumption, people find consolation in blasphemy, vulgar language, drinking, dancing, and singing. Their witty memes portray the Islamic Republic as a “mullahcracy”―rule by a band of corrupt, senile Shia clerics―and offer outsiders an entry point into a repressed society.

“The Corona virus under a microscope”. Meme the author received in 2020. Also see the author’s blogpost ‘On Secularization and the Coronavirus in Iran’, published in the Religious Matters Dossier Corona
“Mullahcracy”: The Islamic Republic in Iranian Meme Culture

“Who are thieves and eat up the people’s wealth?” Meme the author received in 2021.

I first encountered the English phrase “mullahcracy” in a 2006 essay by Iranian-American scholar of religion Reza Aslan. My initial response was critical. It absolved God from his part in unjust―theocratic―political systems. Yet, this term, in use already during the Islamic Revolution of 1979, is pretty accurate in the sense that it describes Iranian perspectives and sentiments well. It reduces the Islamic Republic’s governance form to rule by the “mullah,” a word with pejorative connotations in the Persian-language context. The clerical class, too, understands the jokes are on them. No other than Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of theIslamic Republic, responded to proverbs such as “it’s easy to become a mullah, but oh so difficult to become human” (mullā shudan chah āsān, ādam shudan chah mushkil). Moreover, these pejorative meanings usually don’t extend to God himself, hence “mullahcracy” may be a better term than “theocracy.” In fact, qualitative and quantitative researchers agree that the overwhelming majority believe in God (Bayat 2007: 444; Maleki and Tamimi Arab 2020; Kazemipour 2022). Regime-critical Iranians’ beef is mainly with God’s representatives on earth and the political system that makes them legal-supremacist guardians of Islam.

Take for instance Ayatollah Jannati, born in 1927. Right now he is the chairman of the Assembly of Experts―which appoints the new Supreme Leader―and secretary of the Guardian Council―a powerful body that decides who may run for president. Jannati’s old-fashioned views aren’t directly addressed in memes, which instead resort to simply ridiculing the cleric’s age. I recall being sent a picture of Jannati outrunning Death in a hurdling match years ago. Then came the hilarious Dinosaur memes that still circulate on social media. In a meme I received in 2020, Jannati is riding an Apatosaurus―from the late Jurassic―saying: “We had pets when it wasn’t fashionable to have one. Bless him, Apatosaurus, he was my only friend.” Not only does the joke make the ayatollah look old, even prehistoric, it also criticizes the fact that conservatives see pets as part of a Western lifestyle that contradicts Islam. As crisis after crisis hits the country―economic sanctions, widespread protests, floods, the downing of a passenger airline, the Coronavirus pandemic, and the list keeps growing―the Iranian parliament finds time to discuss banning dogs. The “Bill for the Protection of Public Rights Against Harmful and Dangerous Animals," presented in parliament in 2021, is supposed to set the Westernizing culture back on the correct path. These harmful and dangerous animals further include cats, rabbits, and turtles.

Ayatollah Jannati and Apatosaurus. Meme the author received in 2020.

Anti-mullah memes often target the clerics’ hypocrisy, especially their economics of corruption. The memes describe clerics and politicians as opportunistic thieves. This imagery aligns with the fact that, when anonymity is guaranteed and given a stark choice, the overwhelming majority of Iranian survey respondents today blame domestic inefficiency and corruption over sanctions as having the greatest negative impact on Iran’s economy (Maleki and Tamimi Arab 2021). These views are reflected in the memes that circulate on social media, but unfortunately, no digital-humanities studies have traced their movements. Qualitative methods could be used for hard-to-research private platforms such as WhatsApp, while big-data research methods may work for mapping the memes’ circulation on Instagram (which hasn’t been filtered by the Iranian government).

“Who are thieves and eat up the people’s wealth?” Meme the author received in 2021
“Mullahcracy”: The Islamic Republic in Iranian Meme Culture

Some memes go a step further by invoking religious texts and iconography. They use the medium’s anonymity and simplicity to combine the mockery of mullahs with blasphemous mockery of Islam. A meme I received in 2020 read, “Finally, the riddle of [the letters] ‘A-L-M’in the Qur’an has been solved. This code refers to God’s enemies. Out of fear, God wrote their names backward.” The reference is to Surahs in the Qur’an that start with the Arabic letters Alef, Lam, and Mim (2-3, 29-32). Read backward, they are suggested to be read as “M-L-A”, that is, mullah, as Persian short vowels are not written down. A lion and sun can be seen in the meme’s background, a symbol on the Iranian flag that was replaced with the emblem of Allah after the revolution. Indeed, according to our latest anonymous (and weighted) survey at GAMAAN―The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran―a large variety of Iranians with different social backgrounds and political views, 46%, prefer the flag from monarchical times. The flag of the Islamic Republic ranked second in popularity with 30%, and a flag without any symbols ranked third with 19% (Maleki 2022: 14). What this meme shows, then, is an instance of mostly clashing perspectives on religion and politics. This year’s protests confirm the survey results as people risked their lives in the streets, chanting in praise of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878-1944) who is known for his policies of anti-clerical modernization.

‘Solving’ the Qur’an’s mysterious reference to alef, lam, mim. Meme the author encountered browsing various Iranian social media channels, 2021.

Going back at least as far back as the 2009 post-election protests, Iranians combined calls for political change with uncompromising calls against mullah rule. Since the nation-wide protests and mass killings by the authorities in 2017 and 2019, the concept of regime change and the number of people who explicitly support “barandāzī,” the overthrowing of the Islamic Republic, appears to be on the rise. This can be observed in changes in Persian public debates and also in the private-public visual culture spread online. While God is mostly spared, Iranian meme culture crosses redlines by blaspheming against the founders and leaders of the Islamic Republic.

One such image shows the “Tree of the Islamic Republic.” The metaphor is taken from the internationally spread image of the Prophet Muhammad’s family tree (see, for example, this Egyptian print from the early 20th century). But instead of the Prophet’s lineage, we’re confronted with branches that grew from Ayatollah Khomeini’s tree. The branches have names such as “lies,”“unemployment,” “torture,” “suicide,” and “hunger”; the text captioning the meme states: “This [tree] must be uprooted and in its place planted a garden of trees and beautiful flowers,” ending with a period and a small question mark. The reference to a garden conjures an image of “paradise”―a word whose etymology goes back to ancient Persia, when the idea of an enclosed garden signified the power of the sovereign to give and take life, and which continued to play a role in Islamic-Persianate iconography and still widely read poetry. This imagined paradise is in stark contrast with Isfahan’s iconic river going dry, or with the emergence of climate refugees from the hot province of Khuzestan, where security forces fired bullets at protestors against water shortages.

“Mullahcracy”: The Islamic Republic in Iranian Meme Culture

The Tree of the Islamic Republic. Meme the author received in 2020

Despite their secularity, these memes’ language and visual culture do often rely on Islamic tradition and aesthetics and in that sense remain connected to the religion. Their visual content are modern expressions that transform or replace the Persian poetry that ridiculed mullahs with vulgarity. More than often, though, they are frowned upon or found to be embarrassing for educated elites who may laugh yet feel uncomfortable by such unsophisticated low-res images consumed by the society at large (a phenomenon of social distinction aptly described by anthropologistKonstantinos Kalantzis for the Greek context, 2015). In a culture where the values of being polite and honor are hard to overemphasize, and where language functions to sharply separate the polite from the unmannered, blasphemous memes contribute to the youth’s “loss of morals”―lamented especially by those born before the revolution (see, for example, Khosravi 2017 on changing family structures and generational complaints).

“He will crap on the nation after me”. Ayatollah Khomeini choosing Ayatollah Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader, after Shia images of the Prophet Muhammad choosing Ali as his successor. Meme the author received in 2020.
“Mullahcracy”: The Islamic Republic in Iranian Meme Culture

To say that these blasphemous Iranians are undergoing a secularization process is perhaps an understatement. Though people largely believe in God, millions are moving away from the concept of “religion” because of its association with political violence. The sociologist Abdolmohammad Kazemipur describes “tectonic shifts” toward secularity on multiple social and institutional levels. Not only does he argue that religious changes in Iran are like patterns observed worldwide, but that they “resemble some of the most extreme cases of secularization in the modern West” (2022: 7). Our quantitative online research at GAMAAN showed a similar sudden decline in religiosity, set in motion by the Islamic Revolution and its aftermath. Though there are debates among social scientists about the nature and extent of secularization, on how the relation between the secular and the religious should be conceptualized, and what political ideology is preferable in response to the population’s changing religiosity, there is little to no disagreement on the basic fact that the theocratic―or should I say mullahcratic―political system has failed utterly in its attempt to create a pro-regime Shia majority.

These changes are absent in the literature religious studies scholars read about Iran, religion, and visual culture. There are publications about the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideology and Shia visual piety (e.g., Dabashi and Chelkowski 1999, Flaskerud 2010, Khosronejad 2011, Elias 2018), but I have yet to come across compelling scholarly visual analyses of secularist, blasphemous, and anti-mullah sensibilities (please do send me any suggestions, to p.tamimiarab@uu.nl). My worry is that there is a reluctance, mainly for political reasons and perhaps sometimes also safety-concerns, to research blasphemy. The existing literature can then without intending to do so elicit an orientalist vision of religious Iran, especially to a Western audience that isn’t bombarded daily with blasphemous memes. Research on secularization and non-religiosity, with blasphemous visual culture as one of several foci, will therefore be crucial to prevent exaggerations of Iranians’ religiosity as the Islamic Republic refuses to yield in the fifth decade of its blood-stained existence.

“Mullahcracy”: The Islamic Republic in Iranian Meme Culture

Dr. Pooyan Tamini Arab is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University. He is the author of Why Do Religious Forms Matter?: Reflections on Materialism, Toleration, and Public Reason (Palgrave, 2022) and Amplifying Islam in the European Soundscape: Religious Pluralism and Secularism in the Netherlands (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Aslan, Reza. 2006. “From here to Mullahcracy”, in My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes: Uncensored Iranian Voices, edited by Lila Azam Zanganeh. Boston: Beacon Press, 24-29.

Bayat, Asef. 2007. Islamism and the Politics of Fun. Public Culture 19(3): 433-460.

Dabashi, Hamid, and Chelkowski, Peter. 1999. Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran. New York City: New York University Press.

Elias, Jamal J. 2018. Alef is for Allah: Childhood, Emotion, and Visual Culture in Islamic Societies. Oakland: The University of California Press.

Flaskerud, Ingvild. 2010. Visualizing Belief and Piety in Iranian Shiism. London: Continuum.

Kalantzis, Konstantinos. 2015. “Fak Germani”: Materialities of Nationhood andTransgression in the Greek Crisis. Comparative Studies in Society and History 57(4): 1037-1069.

Kazemipur, Abdolmohammad. 2022. Sacred as Secular: Secularization under Theocracy in Iran. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Khosravi, Shahram. 2017. Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Khosronejad, Pedram (ed.). 2011. The Art and Material Culture of Iranian Shi’ism: Iconography and Religious Devotion in Shi’i Islam. London: I.B. Tauris.

Maleki, Ammar, and Tamimi Arab, Pooyan. 2020. Iranians’ Attitudes Toward Religion: A2020 Survey Report. Online publication, gamaan.org: GAMAAN.

Maleki, Ammar, and Tamimi Arab, Pooyan. 2021. Iranians’ Attitudes Toward International Relations: A 2021 Survey Report. Online publication, gamaan.org: GAMAAN.

Maleki, Ammar. 2022. Iranians’ Attitudes Toward Political Systems: A 2022 Survey Report. Online publication, gamaan.org: GAMAAN.

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