In Iran’s Holy City, Dissent Over Mixing Islam and Politics

The regime faces criticism from an unexpected source.

In Qom, clerics and others check the news before the March elections.

In Qom, clerics and others check the news before the March elections.

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Clerical criticism. Ahmad-inejad says that the Hidden Imam guides him in running the country, a claim to religious authority for his actions that doesn't sit well with some clerics. In May, for instance, a senior conservative cleric, Ayatollah Muhammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, publicly rebuked Ahmadinejad for claiming a bond with the Hidden Imam, pointedly urging that the president address himself to the nation's current social and economic problems.

One of the first acts of the government when Ahmadinejad took office in 2005 was a donation of the equivalent of $20 million to the Jamkaran Mosque near Qom, where it is believed the Hidden Imam will appear. That money is being used to turn the small Jamkaran mosque into a gargantuan complex of prayer halls and minarets .

Many Iranians—even among those who are devout—look at this extravagant government spending on religion as a waste of money. "The government spends more on enforcing religious morality than improving the economic conditions of its poor,'' says the senior official at a state-owned oil company. "If you need to construct a building, you hire a civil engineer,'' he says in his plush office in central Tehran. "And if you want to run a country efficiently, you need to appoint efficient, qualified people to run it, not clerics.''

With all its oil income, this could be a very prosperous nation, says the official, but it isn't one now. "Iran," he adds, "needs a government answerable not just to God but also its own people."