Islamic Martyrdom Holds Iranians to Hard Line

A moderate president extended a hand to US last week. But will the fervent faithful follow?

The routine is the same for Zahra Abdulrahimi every Friday, the Muslim holy day.

The Iranian mother from south Tehran first pays obeisance at the gilt tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Then she moves to the nearby martyrs' cemetery to mourn her son and the seven other family members who died fighting Iran's war with Iraq in the 1980s.

Finally, she goes to the mosque for prayers.

Mrs. Abdulrahimi is a "true believer," a staunch supporter of Iran's most-conservative ruling clerics for whom the Iran-Iraq conflict was a holy war sanctioned by God, for whom the sacrifice of 1 million lives, including many of her family, was "worth it to defend Islam."

Such heartfelt emotions justify the unbending religious nature of Iran's theocracy - the bedrock support for the regime that springs from poorer neighborhoods of south Tehran and villages. That contrasts sharply with wealthier, more sophisticated Iranians who dismiss such emotions as an "illusion."

Abdulrahimi voted in the May presidential election for parliament Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, the choice of the religious establishment. He was soundly defeated by the reform-talking Mohamad Khatami, but everyone she knows voted the same way.

A divided society

Today the tension between those who fought and died in the war - who aimed to become martyrs - and nonbelievers who did not, underlies a deep split in Iranian society.

The split also mirrors deep political division between hard-line conservatives and the moderates who voted for changes promised by Iran's new President Khatami. Referring to the "great American people," Khatami last weekend went further than any other post-revolution Iranian leader in hinting at a possible dialogue with the United States.

In many ways, the actions of each side are incomprehensible to the other.

"For us, the war may as well have happened in another country, to another people," says one well-educated Iranian from north Tehran. "People who were rich didn't fight and ran away. These [martyrs] were the ones who threw themselves on the mines, and believed they died for something. But those who came back got little respect - it's why they hate us."

The martyrs' graves are marked with faded photographs of Iranian men so young that they could be snapshots taken from a high-school yearbook. Hints of velvety-soft new beards and innocent eyes blend with the hard icons of the revolution: photos of the stern Imam Khomeini, Iranian flags and banners painted red as if with blood, and dog tags hanging from chains that tell of life cut too short.

Mourning in the vast expanse of the cemetery, Abdulrahimi offers a visitor pieces of chocolate toffee from an orange plastic dish, keeping her black chador tightly clasped around her face with her other hand. Iranians adhere to the minority Shia sect of Islam, for which mourning and sacrifice are nearly forms of art.

Offering food is a tradition too, so mourners wander among the gravestones with buckets of hot soup and candy. Even women sobbing for sons lost a decade ago give out cake to passersby.

An open pomegranate sits on the elaborately carved marble grave of Abdulrahimi's teenage son, Akbar, its bright-red fruit ready for eating.

"This will always be new for us," says Abdulrahimi, pondering the photo of her son, which is affixed with an Islamic green headband and stands beside a small Koran in a glass case at the grave. "Every day I tell God I want to be loyal to this revolution and this Islamic way of life. We are fighting the same jihad [holy war] as waged by the prophets, and that is not going to change."

Maintaining memories

The mother walks from one grave to another, pointing out family members, or neighbors. All are men lost in the war Iranian leaders still call "The Holy Defense."

Proud that her family provided so many martyrs, Abdulrahimi says that the sacrifice is timeless: "It's important - not for today or tomorrow. It is fighting to defend Islam. These are the wars described in the Koran."

The grip the conflict still holds over the Iranian psyche remains intense, evoking tears and passion. By any standard, it was fought in a most brutal way, from trenches like World War I, with Iranians launching human wave offensives that were cut down by Iraqi artillery, gunfire, and deadly chemical weapons.

Chanting Allahu Akbar (God is great), with red ribbons pinned with portraits of Khomeini to their chests, asking to be martyred, these were Iran's youth marching unto war. A museum and theater on the edge of the cemetery makes clear the scale of suffering - and why it continues to fragment Iranian society today.

Scratchy film footage shows violent hand-to-hand combat and pitched battles in which lives are lost and nothing of substance is gained.

The dark music amplifies the sheer terror that these soldiers must have endured. One image shows a soldier alone, on his hands and knees on the leeward side of a mound of earth, looking anxiously at the camera as the morning sun reflects off his bandage-bound face. In the background, a forest of palm trees has been decimated - testament to a serious artillery battle.

"They all died, for an illusion," reminds the Iranian from north Tehran. Such wealthy students then enjoyed the periods during major offensive operations, when all students would be taken out of class for one or two hours to pray for the soldiers.

To find peace - or the cinema

"We used to love those hours, because we were not studying," the Iranian says. But here in the south such a sentiment strikes mourners as a treasonous betrayal.

Conscript soldiers insist they fought for Islam, to preserve the Islamic restrictions on women's dress from the Iraqi "infidels." One man carefully unwraps a cloth to produce an old fragment of bone.

"This is all that we found," he says. "We will bury this martyr."

Children, too, come with their families - a right of passage for many "true believers."

"They bring their children to teach them about the history of the martyrs and the war," says Davoud Rahimi, a photographer who survived the war and "regrets" not fulfilling his "dream" of becoming a martyr.

Still today, eight years after the war came to an end with a cease-fire, Mr. Rahimi visits the area of the battlefront.

During the war, "it was as though my spirit was there. I had to be there, because being in the war zone one day was like being in the city for a year. I can't put it into words," he says. "My friends died there, and now I go purify my soul, to find peace," he says. "The people of north Tehran go to the cinema or the theater, but this is the only place I find peace."

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