“El pasaporte,” demanded a very large Iranian, wearing a white turban like every other teacher in the Al-Mustafa University of Qom, in the heart of theocratic Iran. I had just arrived at the university, after a long journey from my home country in South America.
Just like that, my passport was no longer in my hands. I would have never come to Iran if I suspected that could happen. I already knew that the country’s human rights track record was abysmal, but the lack of rule of law was something that would only slowly creep up on me during my stay. Maybe it is hard to understand why I just handed over my passport, but the best way that I can explain it would be the sunk cost fallacy. I had come so far to get here that I was not going to throw everything away at the first inconvenience. I later learned that a Mexican student had escaped during the night and reached his embassy in Tehran and made a huge scandal about his experience. “He was lying about the course,” the teachers told us, implying that he was probably a spy. I was to learn that everything he said and more was true of the institution we both studied in.
I was in this isolated and authoritarian institution because I had been invited by the Iranian government as part of a delegation of Latin American religious students. It was not a shady deal, nor was it secret in any way: Iran has good relationships with several Latin American governments and operates openly in these countries. The course even had a Facebook page, where Iranian teachers promoted the regime’s ideology through hundreds of videos and daily reminders in excellent Spanish, directed mostly toward Muslim converts native to South America, like me.
Often, their propaganda is a mixture of nationalist and far-left rhetoric, with echoes of the official narratives of leftist governments in the region, including those of Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba. HispanTV, for instance, is the main channel used for religious and political outreach in Latin America. The tone and message are similar to the Russian state channel RT in Spanish: The root of all evil in our region is the United States and its allies. This is identified as a leftist viewpoint, since it’s the same political line as the Venezuelan state media, teleSUR, which in fact would often promote content and share resources with HispanTV.
Most Latin American nations host cultural-religious organizations that work as a bridge between the host country and Iran. Iran looks for organizations to be managed by locals, so that it appears less like the open political activism that it conducts in the Arab world. The Iranians typically look for young, idealistic men, with the type of education and academic interests that will allow them to reach “influencers” in the media, universities and even politics. I was the perfect candidate.
I was still relatively new to Islam and was struggling to make sense of its different sects and groups. I was particularly curious about Shiism, both from a philosophical perspective, which I was exposed to through reading the French Orientalist Henry Corbin’s work, and from a political perspective. The strong calls for justice coming from Iranian thinkers like Ali Shariati resonated with me in a way that mainstream Sunni thought did not. I was looking for any book on Shiism in Spanish and, in the same way that most Spanish books about Sunni Islam lead you to Saudi Arabian narratives, every book about Shiism is written from the vantage point of Iran.
Out of curiosity, I searched for a Shiite organization in my country and unexpectedly found a website. I was amazed and wasted no time sending them an email. Almost immediately, I received a phone call and an invite to dinner with a religious scholar, who was coincidentally going to be visiting our capital that week. It was my soon-to-be recruiter; let us call him Sheikh Gray Beard.
We connected almost immediately, spending countless hours speaking in depth about theology, philosophy and politics. I was impressed by his rigorous academic background and, given that I was still not sure how I felt about Iran’s ruling ideology — Khomeinism, named after the Islamic Republic’s first “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — I queried and challenged him, to test him. He was surprisingly critical of Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and certain aspects of the Iranian regime, but in a vague way, so you could think he was agreeing with you, without compromising his own opinions. His general response to any criticism of Khomeinism was that it was secondary to Shiism and that the Iranian system was an Iranian matter that shouldn’t affect Muslims outside of Iran. I understood that he was saying exactly what I wanted to hear, but I always tried to test the limit. He never broke once.
After a few weeks, Sheikh Gray Beard asked to meet again and, once we were sitting together, told me that I had been chosen to study in Iran for four years, fully paid for by the Iranian government. I was shocked and didn’t understand what would have earned me this opportunity, particularly since I did not hide the fact that I was highly skeptical of both Khomeinism as a political ideology and some of the core tenets of Shiism. I was fascinated by Iran, however, and felt like it could be an amazing life experience. He told me that I would learn both Persian and Arabic, study philosophy and could become a scholar. Yet I had a career in my country and felt bad about leaving my wife for such a long period, so I politely declined.
His tone then shifted and he started to be very manipulative. He tried to subtly shame me for my choice of pursuing a career instead of religious education, going as far as to blame my wife for preventing me developing to my “true potential.” It was a long back-and-forth struggle, using religion and the general theme of a “higher call” to try to convince me to leave my “mundane” goals. I was clear that I couldn’t leave my wife for that long, so he found an alternative: a two-month intensive class that would serve as an introductory course, which would prepare me for the complete course, should I wish to continue.
I told him that I still couldn’t leave my wife for four years to study abroad, so he said that the Iranian government would pay for her study as well. I was shocked and disturbed at the amount of effort (and money) that was being thrown about, but it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I accepted a place on the two-month course, thinking that, even if it was terrible, it would only be for a short time.
Between the time I met Sheikh Gray Beard and the time that I agreed to go to Iran, we had countless hours of discussions about the course. Not once did he mention that the classes would have any political or ideological content or that being a student would imply that I would work for Iran.
I received my ticket and visa only three days before the departure date. I was stunned by the price: It was more than double I expected and paid for entirely in cash.
My travel companion was another Latino convert from my country, and a somewhat important political figure locally. We had met a few months earlier and became friends over the course of the long plane ride to Istanbul. It was very easy to connect, since we already had a lot in common: the longing for a spiritual life not unconnected from social justice, added to the often lonely and misunderstood experience of being a Muslim minority in Latin America.
When we arrived in Istanbul, we were stopped by two Turkish plainclothes officers who checked our passports and searched our bags in the middle of the crowded Ataturk airport. I could feel some tension from them as they asked us some questions, beginning with, “Why are you going to Iran?”
“We are going for cultural exchange,” we responded, following instructions from our recruiters.
This was a time when many foreign jihadists were passing through that same airport to fight for the Islamic State group and other militant factions in Syria and elsewhere. Now, we know that some of the same people who were on the Iranian course went on to Syria to fight alongside the Bashar al-Assad regime. (The U.S. Department of State sanctioned the university I attended because of this.)
After a few hours, we took off from Istanbul to complete the last leg of our trip to Tehran. As the plane began its descent, an announcement came over the loudspeaker, instructing women to put on their hijabs. I was struck by the fact that 99% of women, almost all of them Iranian, hadn’t elected to wear them from the start of the journey.
As soon as we disembarked, my travel companion kissed the Persian ground. It had been his dream for the last decade to come here. I was happy for him but couldn’t help noticing that many of the Iranians seemed weirded out by his enthusiasm.
My first impression of the Imam Khomeini International Airport was that it was old and grim. We went through passport control rather quickly and made our way toward the exit, where we were told that we would be met by someone from the university. At that moment, I realized how stark the airport felt. There were no advertisements on the walls, and bleak white lighting made everything look depressing. Portraits of the late Khomeini and his successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, glared down at me from every direction.
“Salam aleykum, brothers!” shouted a tall and elegant man enthusiastically, wearing a tieless suit, as is customary for Iranian officials.
We piled into the car and started driving down a dark highway toward the city of Qom, where we would be studying, some 70 miles to the south. At one point, we stopped at a gas station and our contact offered us a glass of what I would soon learn was the ubiquitous Iranian tea, black with big shiny sticks of sugar floating in it. It felt comforting in the middle of this dark, foreign place. Before long, the sun started to rise and revealed the desert expanding around us, cut in the distance by a majestic mountain range.
After an hour on the road, Qom began to emerge, crowned by its shiny golden dome. It was an exciting moment. After more than two days of travel and long waits at airports between flights, I couldn’t wait to explore this new world. We entered the city and, after 20 minutes, reached the university or, more precisely, the university annex. Once we got out of the car, we realized how chilly it was, especially given that we were coming from summertime in South America. For many of us, it was the first time in our lives that we experienced snow and freezing temperatures.
We entered the university annex through a double door and realized that the tall walls surrounding it made it feel more like a police station than a school. Inside, it was immaculately clean, with every room decorated in the exact same manner. Every corridor featured one or two Khamenei portraits, and I started to feel uneasy when I realized there were closed-circuit TV cameras covering every angle of the building, except the dormitory rooms and bathrooms.
This was where my passport was demanded and taken.
Would it be suspicious to ask for my passport back? Why would I feel under suspicion if I were a legitimate student? Here I met doublethink for the first time, after being in the university for all of 10 minutes.
Next, we had to meet with Sheikh Gray Beard, close to the Fatima Masumeh shrine.
“Why has my passport been confiscated?” I asked him. I felt like I could lower my guard around him as we already knew one another. “For security reasons,” he responded. “Can I have it back?” I asked. “Sure,” he responded, before adding, “but you would need to pay us back the plane ticket.” So the same plane ticket that was worth double or triple its normal price should now be paid upfront just to have my passport back. In other words, I was stuck.
It didn’t feel like a big deal at the time, since I hadn’t planned on leaving early. Sixty days is a short time if you are doing something interesting. Yet I started to have a strange feeling. Sheikh Gray Beard, who had been so affable back in my country, now turned completely cold and was constantly unavailable, even though he lived very close to the university. In fact, I would see him just three times during my entire stay. At that point, I understood that his mission was over. He must have received his commission for recruitment and moved on.
So we went back to the university. It was our first lunch break: chicken kebab, rice and soup. It was all right at first, but it would also be my meal, twice a day, for the next 60 days.
At the end of the day, I went back to my room that I shared with four other students. There were two bunk beds and two single beds side by side, with a TV hanging in the middle of the room. The only channels available were religious state TV programs, though they were available in many different languages. Of course, a portrait of Khamenei hung on the wall.
Our first seminar was an introductory session about the course. It took place in a very long and narrow room, filled with cinema seats, turned toward the stage where the lecturer was sitting on a desk surrounded by flags of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the regime’s powerful military force. He was young and charismatic — let us call him Sheikh Comic, since he was always making jokes, often at the expense of another student. He described the different classes we were going to take and the rules we would need to follow. Nothing felt out of the ordinary until a student raised his hand during the Q&A period. “Sheikh, how much of the Muslim population in the world are Shia?”
“Well, I don’t have an exact number, but around 40 to 50% of the ummah,” Sheikh Comic replied, using the Arabic term for the global Muslim community.
Anyone who spends a few minutes researching Islam knows that Shiites actually represent somewhere between 10% and 15% of the ummah. But, since the goal was to present Islam to Latin Americans, it was better to make them believe they were receiving mainstream Islam, not a subsection of a subsection. One day at the university and they had already lied about the most elementary facts. No one said anything. What could be said? Rise up and correct the teacher in a way that could only be accusatory?
Another refrain that was constantly repeated was that Khamenei was the leader of all the Muslims of the world: not just Shiites, or Iranians, but every Muslim. “Do Sunnis also recognize him as such?” asked one of the students. “Of course,” a teacher responded, even though not even the majority of Shiites acknowledge Khamenei’s authority, let alone non-Shiites.
It is a very strange experience to keep silent and acquiesce. We really did start to develop doublethink, walking the line between what we truly believed and what we pretended to believe. After some time, the distinction between both started to crumble, and we no longer knew what was true anymore. Another example was the relationship we had with the internet. Iran lives behind a national proxy, where most of the internet is replaced by a rather kitsch website that invites you to read religious texts from Khamenei. No Wikipedia, BBC, Facebook, YouTube, Sunni pages or even alternative Shiite websites.
But one of the first things our new teachers showed us was how to download Tor, allowing us to bypass the national proxy. What was the logic? Khamenei wanted to “protect us from Western satanic influence on the internet” and yet his direct representatives immediately taught us how to circumvent these rules, giving us access to everything the “satanic West” has to offer. Apparently, every Iranian uses Tor or satellite dishes to access forbidden content, and the authorities mostly turn a blind eye. But it is kind of a curse in disguise, as it technically gives the authorities a pretext to arrest anyone, putting the average citizen at risk of interacting with the state as a suspect, simply for watching video clips or reading a “forbidden” text.
Navigating a totalitarian space requires you to quickly learn how to separate your private self from your public self. Everything is a constant negotiation, and it is even suspicious to not enjoy the small gray area of freedom conceded by the authorities, knowing that it could very quickly come back to haunt you. You can’t understand those types of government if you think they depend on popular support. What they really need is absolute faith that there is no other alternative to the current regime: Everything that threatens it will be cut, so why bother?
The first days of classes were promising. I met Muslims from every Latin American country, and we met our new teachers. But after the third day, I realized that none of the subjects had any academic or religious value, except the Quran recitation classes, which were the only positive aspect of the degree. Everything else was either extremely basic, completely insane or ludicrous and obvious propaganda. Often, it was all of the above.
Even though our classes were a complete waste of time, they were rigorous. We were left with little time to visit the city, since we had to be back before 9 p.m. or risk being locked outside.
Some students quickly started showing signs of exhaustion. A typical day involved waking up at dawn for prayer, before Arabic reading class and Quran recitation, followed by classes throughout the morning. While we had time for a short nap after lunch, we had classes for the rest of the afternoon until dinner, and then a seminar afterward, before going to bed. The goal of the course was to obtain the diploma, which in turn served as a key for the “real deal”: the “hawza” or Shiite seminary course, conducted in Persian, and then, after four years covering the basic curriculum, become a sheikh.
While I was mentally prepared for it to be intense, I was not prepared for the boredom or the pervasive presence of doublethink, the pressure to perform a set of beliefs, as compared to my actual beliefs, and the margin of freedom in between.
Since we had very little time outside the classes, I used most of the breaks to go out and stroll around Qom with other students. It was a much-needed breath of fresh air and formed some of my best memories. Outside our floor, there were many more students, divided by languages, so I met people mainly from West Africa and Central Asia. Since they came from a Muslim background, they were far more jaded than their Latin counterparts, and I felt like I could speak more freely with them.
Going through the content of each class could be an essay on its own, so I’ll get straight to the point: It gave me a unique window on how the Islamic Republic of Iran perceives itself and its worldview. But, as someone who was expecting a religious foundation, I quickly sensed that I was getting half-brainwashed. In fact, they made a joke about it on the first day, saying, “We wouldn’t need to brainwash you if they didn’t poison you so much!” It felt as if they were teaching us that only appearances matter; the cynicism was extreme. In the class on Islamic law, for example, I learned about how you can use the service of a sex worker while on the road, disguising it as a “temporary marriage” (or “muta,” literally meaning “pleasure”) with the dowry being the money paid for the “service.”
Nevertheless, they were constantly warning us not to get involved with Iranian women. “They are unbearable!” our teachers would say. “Too different! That would be an absolute catastrophe.” The teachers drove this point into us so much that we often spoke about it among ourselves. Coming from Latin America, interracial families are normal, so it felt offensive, particularly since the teachers didn’t refrain from flirting with and marrying converted Latin American women who were studying at the university, though segregated from the men. The hypocrisy was open.
To scare us, they mentioned the case of some Latin American students, a few years prior, who had become the talk of the town because they had “dared” to flirt with an Iranian woman in a shop. They were arrested by the police and expelled back to their countries. To avoid a similar scenario, they organized a kind of speed dating event between us and the women’s group. It felt like the broader goal was to keep us from ever ending up with “their” women (though some marriages did indeed occur after the course as a result).
At one point, Sheikh Comic brought up “limitless Latin American sexuality,” as he postulated that, in our countries, “nobody really knows who is the son or daughter of whom.” I confronted him and he pretended that I had misunderstood him. After that, I became his personal nemesis.
Much of our Islamic history course was like an inflammatory pamphlet about the view of the principal “brother adversary” — in other words, the Sunnis. This was shocking to me, as it went against the official Iranian stance of a “celebration of unity” across sects. Instead, throughout every class, revered figures of Sunnism such as the first caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar or even the Imam Abu Hanifa were mocked and degraded. It was particularly painful as someone who came to know Islam first through a Sunni education. The constant displays of hatred went against everything that I knew from the Quran, which espouses that smearing and hatred are not the Muslim way. It started to become extremely taxing to go to class every day and listen to what was essentially organized hatred. Even though most attendees had no idea who those long-gone religious figures were, our teachers would scream about them as if they were in the room in front of us.
More shockingly still, the class I was most enthusiastic about, Islamic mysticism, was nothing but a relentless attack on what they called “Sunni spirituality,” or, as it is more commonly known, Sufism (“tasawwuf”). According to this class, the whole goal of Sufi orders (“turuq”) was to “obscure the light of true Islam” (represented, of course, by the Shiite imams) and give the masses a “fake spirituality” so they would obey Sunni rulers.
It was pretty clear that the main goal was to indoctrinate us into little sectarian soldiers, so we wouldn’t feel the ideological pressure of being a very tiny Shiite minority within our already tiny Latino-Muslim community.
The exact same thing happened in Shiite doctrine class, where we were taught that we were what the Sunnis — or, as they were called in class, “Wahhabis” — are not. Of course, the word was completely emptied of its original meaning, as most of the smearing centered on Imam Abu Hanifa, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani and other figures who lived more than a millennium before the 18th-century Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
I constantly clashed with teachers, particularly when they mischaracterized what I knew for a fact was Sunni belief. During lunch breaks, I took extra sessions with an Iraqi scholar who was trying to make me reconcile my love for the Prophet Muhammad’s companions (as claimed by the Sunnis) with my love for the prophet’s family members (mostly claimed today by the Shiites). He finally gave up and reached the conclusion that, in order to fully love the prophet’s family, I would need to reject the companions who had supposedly harmed them. It marked a breaking point for me and led to my eventual divorce from Shiism.
This was not all. We also had a more openly ideological subject, the history of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, taught by the oldest scholar in the university. Let us call him White Turban.
White Turban had known Khomeini personally, so the class was mostly a hagiography of the late cleric and a recounting of the “dark days” under the rule of Iran’s pre-1979 monarch, the shah, as well as the glory days of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. This was the only subject, alongside Quran recitation, that we had every day and, since it touched directly on the subject of Khomenei, there was little room for critical discussion.
We were taught that, under the shah, Iranians were horribly oppressed because there was no political freedom and the secret police were always around (although this was nothing compared to present-day Iran). The Islamic Revolution was presented as if the people rose together as one around Khomeini (whose democratic and leftist opponents were mere “hypocrites at the service of CIA and Mossad”). We learned nothing about Khomeini’s promise to not take part in politics after the revolution. Instead, he was revered as a saint-like figure, the “insan-e-kamil” or “perfect man,” God’s shadow on earth, that the people had simply put into power. Those who criticize the supreme leader, we were told, systematically end up in prostitution and adultery.
During the Iran-Iraq war, we were told, Khomeini had an encounter with a mysterious figure, who pushed the great imam to call for the counteroffensive and give the order to take Baghdad. It was the first and only time I heard a teacher assert directly that Khomeini had been in direct contact with the Mahdi, the revered 9th-century imam who some Shiites believe is still alive, in a state of occultation. This was always implicit but, if you asked the question directly, they would give an extremely vague answer that neither confirmed nor denied. The entire country was ruled like a cult.
We heard hundreds of anecdotes about Khomeini’s life, including how he lived humbly and devoted himself to prayer and love for all of humanity. We learned everything about his youth, family and various miracles. The rest of the course was about how advanced modern-day Iran was in securing the rights of women and minorities, as well as its world-leading position in the arts, sciences and peace. It was like a prolonged infomercial, with no concrete facts.
Our last subject was called the “Origins and Reality of Zionism.” It was puzzling to me that we had an entire course about Palestine, with so little time devoted to actual religious study. In reality, it was a complete worldview that was taught during the class. The teacher had inordinate amounts of free time on his hands. Let us call him Sheikh Conspiracy, even if he was far from the only staff member to hold these kinds of views.
I thought that we might start this class by studying the man generally acknowledged as the founding father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, but that was incredibly naive of me. According to Sheikh Conspiracy, Zionism began not in 19th-century Europe but as far back as the time of the pharaohs, in ancient Egypt. I will never forget the first slide of his PowerPoint presentation, which started like any conspiratorial video on YouTube: pyramids in the background, disturbing music and satanic symbols swirling around. What, then, was the relationship between Zionism and the pharaohs? According to Sheikh Conspiracy, the first Zionists were the clerics of the pharaoh, the same ones who conspired against the Prophet Moses and monotheism. Their symbol was the pyramid, the symbol of social hierarchy, with the lowest social classes at the bottom and the clerics near the top, just below a man claiming to rule in the name of God. Nothing at all like contemporary Iran.
I was able to erase most of it from my memory, but I do remember that Palestine was hardly mentioned in this conspiratorial retelling of the last 3,000 years or so of human history, a picture where “Zionists” were always in the shadows, subjugating humankind. In this worldview, Palestine was simply a step toward world domination. Meanwhile, Sigmund Freud was often mentioned as the main culprit of the moral decay of the Western world, since he “reduced everything to sexuality.” Albert Einstein was laconically described as “mentally ill.”
During one of the classes, a student mentioned that there had been “a lot of Jews on the plane” during his flight to Istanbul and that this had been a “disgusting experience.” The teacher just nodded, with a concerned look on his face.
I have already mentioned the surveillance cameras in every corridor of the facility, but there was another layer of surveillance, which I was starting to realize was far more perverse and intrusive. One group of students, all from one particular country, had special access to the teachers and enjoyed special privileges; they could wake up late, miss classes and even stay on the teachers’ floor.
We caught them taking pictures of us several times, and a fight almost broke out when one of them took a picture of one of the students sleeping during the class and reported it to the teachers. They recorded our conversations, and I would often see one of them idling around us, listening to whatever we were saying. It created a very oppressive atmosphere in our everyday interactions; the only way we could relax was to take our discussion outside the university. Even then, we couldn’t be sure if the person we were talking to was on our side or in cahoots with the teachers.
But the biggest taboo of all was Khamenei. We could sometimes criticize aspects of the course between ourselves, but we would never, ever speak about him, his role in Iran or the Iranian regime. It was really strange to see his Orwellian portrait everywhere without being able to speak about him. They never even had to tell us, we just knew.
After some time, I realized there were two types of students: the ones who were directors of an Islamic center affiliated with Iran, and those who were hoping to become one. The latter could jump the queue by denouncing a “hypocrite.” Denouncing someone could have consequences, and I quickly realized that I should keep my opinions to myself. I couldn’t even speak freely to people outside of Iran, because I knew that if I was ever suspected of something, I might be forced to share these conversations.
Yet, even then, given my sympathies for Sunni Islam, I quickly became known as “the Sunni” in my classes. People started avoiding me, and the “spies” were always breathing down my neck, trying to corner me into admitting I was an undercover Sunni, once in a menacing, almost violent way. It quickly became a daily occurrence and I felt hopeless. What if the teachers started to think it was true? I knew the clerics had legal authority over us. One time, they told us that if we insulted another student’s mother, even as a joke, we would be lashed. But I had to vent somehow; I was increasingly clashing with the teachers when they were misrepresenting Sunnism and was feeling more isolated every day. I started having nightmares about getting expelled during the night or wondering if I would be thrown into jail. I wondered if I would even be able to leave Iran.
The sectarianism took an even uglier turn during a holiday established during the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736), which celebrated the murder of Islam’s second caliph, Umar, one of the figures most revered by Sunnis. Even though it is officially forbidden to celebrate it in Iran, one of the students tried to provoke me by saying he would buy me a cake and started singing “happy birthday” every time he would pass by me in the corridor.
A striking anecdote: In the midst of all this sectarian rage, we received a visit from a Bosnian Sufi order, and I saw all the students and teachers greeting them like brothers, and we all prayed together.
I wasn’t Sunni, and I did not express a Sunni point of view. However, even showing doubt about certain elements of Islamic history and the way in which it was transmitted was enough to make me an enemy. What really shocked me was this kind of “pious hatred” on display. Perhaps it was my Christian upbringing, or maybe I had been very lucky with my Sunni teachers, but I was utterly disgusted to see this display of hate and rage, particularly from the teachers. I never heard Sunnis spending their time cursing Abu Lahab or celebrating the assassination of Musaylima; we were always focused on the message, how to become closer to God and be a better person. Yet here in Qom, we couldn’t spend one day without hearing something horrendous against Sunni historical figures or “Wahhabis.” Most of the hate came from one teacher, Sheikh Comic, but the fact that he was never criticized or corrected by other teachers was equally problematic. The course was supposed to be an introduction to Islam for Latin American students — we did not want to bring this sectarianism back to our countries.
We also experienced sexual control. While no one expected a Khomeinist university to be particularly progressive, I still was shocked at the amount of paranoia and policing around our sexuality. One time, I saw a student standing up in front of his class, his face red and in tears. I thought there must have been a serious fight and they were punishing him. Then, one of the teachers started speaking: “Brothers! It’s a very serious matter! We learned that one of the students was making others uncomfortable, especially around the showers.” In a country where homosexuality is punishable by death, this was a serious accusation. I felt horrible — this student was one of the kindest students in the class, always very affectionate, as was the custom in the Caribbean, which stood in stark contrast with the cold and distant manners I encountered among Iranian students at the seminary. The incident reminded me of Maoist-style self-criticism, putting a student on the spot, in front of the group, with no proof aside from an anonymous accusation of being a “deviant,” to turn him into a cautionary tale.
A few weeks later, one student raised his hand during our Islamic law class: “Sheikh, what is the punishment for homosexuals?”
The professor replied, coldly, “There are three solutions: stoning them, throwing them from a high place or the fire.” The whole class burst into laughter and applause. The student next to me, one of my compatriots, was ecstatic. “That’s perfect!” he said. “That’s what we must do!” The person clapping and laughing the hardest was the one who had been accused of being gay earlier. After the class, I talked about it with my compatriot next to me, as I knew his own daughter was a lesbian. He couldn’t explain why he clapped.
My fellow students were all products of liberal Latino American societies, most of them recently converted. If somebody had told them before their visit that, in Iran, homosexuals were sentenced to death, they would have sugar-coated the issue or blamed Western media propaganda (as Sheikh Gray Beard did to me at the beginning). Yet, in the right setting, in a moment, most of them became supporters of a measure that didn’t conceptually exist in their own countries. I don’t know what conclusions are to be reached about human nature or the strength of social pressure, but it was one of the events that had the most profound effect on me and made me deeply wary of groupthink.
Around the end of the course, I was dining with one of the older students and was intrigued by the fact that he wouldn’t touch the food. I asked him if he wasn’t hungry and he told me he wouldn’t eat because “they put a product in it, to cut our libidos.” I thought he was just joking with me, but then it was confirmed by other students, who didn’t mind, since it was “only temporary,” they said. The thought of drugs in the food really upset me and, from that moment on, I got all my lunches from outside the university. Again, it was shocking that almost no one cared, as if everything the institution decided was for our own good.
Now, let’s go back to one of the main features of my experience in Iran: doublethink.
During one of the classes, a teacher confessed that the goal of the course was to determine the “true believers” and weed out the rest. It was a trial by fire. He added that 80% of the students would return to their countries and leave Islam altogether. It is logical to think that, if that were the case, they would have stopped the course after the first year, since it was obviously counterproductive. However, exporting the Khomeinist model is apparently more important than Islam itself.
What I was able to observe from Iranian society confirmed the impact of Khomeinist ideology on a broad scale. Sheikh Gray Beard told me that when the clerics go to Tehran, they have to disguise themselves as civilians; otherwise, people would throw stones at them.
Anyhow, we were approaching the end of the course and I started to vent more and more, and clashed with the teachers in almost every class. Maybe I was unconsciously looking to get expelled as a means to escape and shorten this ordeal. In the final week, everyone was intensely studying for the final exam, including me, probably out of pride, because at this point, I wanted to be as far away from this place as possible. I was concerned about my growing inability to keep my frustrations to myself, and I even vented out on my final essay, using the customary Sunni mark of respect after mentioning the second caliph, Umar. I realized what I’d done after submitting the essay and felt an intense anguish about what the consequences might be of this meaningless act of childish rebellion. Would they finally become fed up with me? Would I end up in jail or a ditch? It sounds crazy now, but the intense level of suspicion and arbitrary rule can make you take things out of proportion.
The day of the result came. We had all passed with perfect grades. They didn’t even read our essays. They gave us our diplomas and we officially graduated in Shiite theology.
They called me into White Turban’s office. I was prepared to be punished or reprimanded, but they offered me a position as director of an Islamic center in my own country. Everything would be paid for and I would receive my salary directly from them. I was astonished: How could it have been clearer that I wasn’t a Khomeinist believer? I thanked them because I felt like it was expected of me, and left.
It felt like the whole endeavor was pointless, but at least it was finally over. They gave me my passport and, in the middle of the night, I was taken back to Tehran. I had never felt such a rush of freedom as the moment I left the university, even if I was still in the same country with its propaganda at every turn reminding me of the regime’s control and militias guarding barracks with AK-47s, even in the city center.
What I saw in Tehran confirmed what Sheikh Gray Beard had told me about the hatred people felt against the clerics, which manifests as a hatred against Islam itself. What struck me first was the absence of the call to prayer; it is not broadcast by megaphone as it usually is, because neighbors complain about the noise. Even in Istanbul, after more than a century of intense Kemalist secularism, the adhan still resonates proudly in every street, five times a day. But in the heart of the “Islamic Republic,” under the shadow of the supreme leader of the ummah, the call to prayer is not heard.
Mosques are often empty. During my afternoons in the city center, I was the only one praying. (It should be noted that Tehran has a special reputation in Iran, and the countryside is more religious, but this is still significant.)
In the city of Shiraz, more than 500 miles south of Tehran, I was wandering in one of the bazaars when one of the sellers called to me: “Where are you from? But you converted to Islam! You, you want Islam, while us, we want to leave it!” He shouted at me in a bazaar full of people, in English, knowing full well that the morality police were never far away.
Another day, as I was searching for my bus to go to Isfahan, a young man offered to help me. During the bus ride, he started chatting with me about how he was fed up with the government here, despite having just met me, and that he was doing everything he could to leave. He openly identified as an atheist.
On the night train to Mashhad, I struck up a conversation with my neighbor and, as one thing led to another, he gave me to understand that he was hoping the regime would fall.
In Qom, while eating a kebab, I met another religious student, who was Iranian. He told me he was highly disappointed by the classes and that he wasn’t learning anything except brainwashing and lies to defend the government. He had been expelled from seminary after seminary because he was constantly clashing with teachers.
As I reached my hotel in the city of Yazd, I greeted the woman at the counter with a “Salam aleykum!” She jumped when she saw me and told me, “Ha! With your beard and your way of greeting, I thought you were from the Basij [religious police].”
During my three months in Iran, studying and traveling, I never met anyone (except for the university staff) who showed any kind of support for the regime. I never took the risk to share my opinion, but those were the opinions I encountered. I’m not saying the regime doesn’t enjoy any form of support from any sector of the population (which would be an absurd claim). My stories are merely anecdotes. I don’t speak Farsi, and it’s mostly the well-off classes that speak English, but this was my experience, nevertheless.
The same people that, 30 years before, had overthrown the shah, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” had become incredibly apathetic, hostile even, toward religion.
I have written this under a pseudonym, as I’m still wary, even scared, of the possible repercussions. And there’s another reason for this secrecy: I don’t want this experience to come to define me or my faith. The experience shook me to my core, reshaping not only my fundamental political values but also my spiritual beliefs. I’ve lost the kind of religious innocence that converts often display during their first years, since you don’t easily recover from exposure to such hypocrisy and cynicism under the name of what you hold most sacred. Thank God, I’m still a Muslim, unlike many people who went through the experience, but certain aspects of my faith remain under a healthier veil of doubt. I felt an exhilarating and liberating moment during my stay in Iran, when the whole mystique around the institution was shattered, and I came to the realization that I can simply take the good and leave the bad wherever I encounter it, instead of being lost in the marketplace of competing truths.
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