Across the street from the sprawling shrine to Fatima al-Masumeh, the revered sister of Imam Reza, the eighth Shiite imam, a group of campaign workers on a rooftop are busy unfurling wall-sized election posters for a conservative candidate in Iran’s March parliamentary election. We’re in downtown Qom, a city of 1 million about 100 miles southwest of Tehran. Qom is Iran’s religious capital, the wellspring for a host of fundamentalist clerics who’ve ruled Iran since 1979, and it is an eerie place. Unlike some other cities in Iran, where urban professionals, merchants and the middle class try to push back against onerous restrictions on freedom of expression and women’s dress, there’s little evidence of that in Qom. Women are cloaked head to toe in black garments, and turbaned mullahs on motorbikes are a common sight.
Under a brilliant blue sky, mourners are lining up to enter the shrine and pay their respects to Fatima, whose remains are entombed inside an Oz-like green-mirrored vault. Among the mourners, in formation behind a green banner, are a phalanx of grim-faced, muscled militiamen, members of the Basij corps, wearing black T-shirts and black headbands. The Basij is an estimated million-strong volunteer paramilitary force that serves as an adjunct to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and in 2005 the Basijis voted en bloc to help elect hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad president.
I’m standing in the inner courtyard of the shrine, a vast public space surrounded by vaulted enclaves, towering minarets and spectacular entrance halls bedecked in blue, green and gold tiles. With me is Muhammad Legenhausen, 55, a New York-born, ex-Catholic professor of philosophy who converted to Shiism, changed his name from Gary and moved to Iran in the 1980s. Legenhausen tells me he teaches philosophy at four universities and institutions in Qom. At the powerful Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute, he also serves as an aide to Ayatollah M.T. Mesbah-Yazdi, who is widely seen as the chief backer of President Ahmadinejad and who has even been mentioned as a possible successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iran’s next Supreme Leader.
It’s true, says Legenhausen, that Mesbah-Yazdi was the power behind Ahmadinejad’s 2005 candidacy. “He was concerned that the reformers had opened things up too far,” Legenhausen says, with an odd twinkle in his eye, in his distinct New York-accented English. “On that, he agrees with Ahmadinejad 100 percent.” But how, I ask, can you work for someone who supports a conference to deny the Jewish Holocaust? “Oh, that!” he says. “When we heard about that, Mesbah-Yazdi and I just rolled our eyes. That was all Ahmadinejad’s doing. We said to each other, ‘What can you do?'” He shrugs, as if to imply that this was just Ahmadinejad being Ahmadinejad.
To understand where the power in Iran lies–and where the money goes–it’s enough to glance at the gleaming new headquarters of the Dar al-Hadith Research Institute in Qom. Astride one of the main approaches to the city, the Dar al-Hadith, which translates roughly into “house of Islamic traditions,” is an imposing orange-yellow edifice with blue and green decorative tiles under a yellow tiled dome. It stands in sharp contrast to the dilapidated buildings that crowd the downtowns of many Iranian cities. Inside the Dar, a bustling staff of clerics and researchers, working in modernistic surroundings and aided by computers and a vast library, spend their time assembling and reassembling the medieval opinions of Muslim scholars, compiling them into compendiums that are published in Farsi, Urdu and Arabic. It’s a labor of love.