How religious is Iran, really?
Ever since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to launch a religious revolution in his home country more than four decades ago, a central tenet of the clerical regime he established — and the source of its power and legitimacy in the Muslim world — has been its role as the mouthpiece for the world’s Shi’a. That claim, in turn, is underpinned by the unquestioning affiliation and faith of Iran’s own domestic population.
This contention, however, appears increasingly flimsy. New data compiled by social science researchers earlier this year suggests that religious identity within the Islamic Republic is far more complex than commonly understood — and of much greater diversity than Iran’s theocrats would like the world to believe.
An online survey carried out during the summer of 2020 by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN), a European think tank, uncovered an “unprecedented” level of secularization in contemporary Iranian society, as well as a growing variety of beliefs among those respondents who characterize themselves as religious.
The study of nearly 400,000 Iranians, which was carried out via various digital platforms, found that nearly a third of respondents (31%) either declared themselves to be outright atheists or said they did not have a defined faith. Of those respondents who did, less than a third (32.2%) self-identified as Shi’a, with the rest making up a broad mix of belief sets, from “mystical” to “humanist.” In all, just 40% of Iranians polled by GAMAAN classified themselves as Muslim.
The GAMAAN findings also confirm a growing secularism among ordinary Iranians. More than half (51.8%) of respondents aged 20-29 said they “went from being religious to non-religious,” and nearly as many (46%) of 30-49-year-olds surveyed said the same. That trend was more pronounced among urban respondents than rural ones, and higher among university graduates than those with remedial educations — but not by much. In all, 46.8% of those surveyed by GAMAAN disclosed a migration away from their faith in recent years.
That statistic, the authors note, is all the more striking when compared to figures compiled in the mid-1970s, before Iran’s revolution, when more than 80% of the population conformed to religious customs. It also stands in stark contrast to official regime claims. Following the country’s last national census, which was conducted back in 2016, authorities proclaimed that 99.5% of the country’s population of nearly 85 million was both Shi’a and practicing Muslim.
This shift finds its roots in several likely causes. One is the persistent governance failures of the country’s ruling regime, which have led to widespread disaffection with its policies and ideas among ordinary Iranians. Another is that, although Iranian authorities would have the world believe otherwise, the country they govern is in reality a multi-ethnic conglomeration of identities, which are only barely held in check by religious rule.
Whatever the reasons for the current trend toward religious diversity and secularism in Iran, its practical effects are profound. “We found that societal secularisation was also linked to a critical view of the religious governance system: 68% agreed that religious prescriptions should be excluded from legislation, even if believers hold a parliamentary majority, and 72% opposed the law mandating all women wear the hijab, the Islamic veil,” the study’s authors note.
“Iranians also harbour illiberal secularist opinions regarding religious diversity: 43% said that no religions should have the right to proselytise in public. However, 41% believed that every religion should be able to manifest in public.”
In other words, the Islamic Republic, now approaching its 42nd anniversary, is suffering a pronounced crisis of legitimacy, as more and more Iranians either tune out of religious discourse completely or reject Khomeini’s extreme interpretation of it. That, in turn, should provide another reason for optimism among its opponents that Iran’s radical regime isn’t destined to last forever. In fact, if the growing rejection of its religious authority is any indication, the Islamic Republic’s demise may be closer than many conclude.
• Ilan Berman is senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.