Iranians and the Cult of Death

Mundane spectacle of executions coupled with morbid fascination with sacrifice and retribution.
January 30, 2011
Fences hold back crowds at the execution of a convicted murderer in Shahrak-e Gharb, western Tehran. (Photo: Mehr News Agency)
Fences hold back crowds at the execution of a convicted murderer in Shahrak-e Gharb, western Tehran. (Photo: Mehr News Agency)

Of the dozens of executions that have already taken place in Iran so far in 2011, all were overshadowed by one case that – at for a moment at least – captured the public imagination.

The public hanging was scheduled to take place before dawn on a square in Shahrak-e Gharb, in the heart of the Iranian capital Tehran. The location was chosen as it was the scene of the crime for which the condemned man was being put to death.

He had killed another man in broad daylight in what was described as a crime of passion. The case received massive publicity because passers-by filmed the murder and uploaded it to video-sharing sites like YouTube. Meanwhile, no one thought to step in and stop it happening – not the onlookers, and not even police officers who were in the vicinity.

Many Iranian journalists attended the hanging in Shahrak-e Gharb Square, although they knew they would probably be barred from taking pictures. Asked about the moral ambiguity of being present at an execution, one female photographer said that “as journalists, we mustn’t be too sensitive about these things – they happen all the time”.

Recent months have seen an acceleration in the already shockingly high number of executions. They receive little coverage, and most of the efforts directed at fighting death sentences are focused on high-profile cases like that of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiyani, convicted of killing her husband on what many argue is false evidence. While she waits for clarity on her fate, thousands of other prisoners languish on death row.

Open an Iranian newspaper on any day this week, and you will be certain to find news of more hangings.

If public executions are so frequent that they numb the senses of those who witness them, they are also part of a wider culture in which the spectacle of death is accepted as normal.

Anyone who has ever attended an Iranian Shia funeral will realise death is a big deal. Even securing a burial plot in one of the sacred sites of Iran can cost many times more than a home for the living. Mourning ceremonies are numerous and elaborate, so that the death – irrespective of the circumstances – appears to be an epic tragedy.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of ceremony, and some would argue that the high emotion surrounding funerals has therapeutic benefits for the bereaved.

The larger question is whether Iran makes a cult out of death, and whether this inures people to loss of life.

It would be an oversimplification to pin this phenomenon on the Islamic regime, as westerners do when they suggest a causal relationship between this fascination with death and the danger that Iran poses to the rest of the world.

At the same time, the regime’s slogans of “death to America” and “death to Israel” – and on the other side, opposition protesters who denounce President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the words “death to the dictator” – cannot be dismissed as mere words.

It is important to note that while the Islamic Republic’s propaganda is rooted in death rather than life, it is death itself that is idealised, not the act of killing.

Key dates on the Iranian calendar commemorate the deaths of religious figures centuries ago, and also of people who have died since the 1979 revolution. Reminders of those killed in the eight-year war with Iraq are everywhere.

The general impression all this creates is that death, not life, is the main event – so you’d better make it count.

Surprisingly for such a devout society, it is clear many people see killing as an acceptable form of retribution, and are not overly worried that it merely perpetuates the cycle of violence. Such attitudes also apply among opponents of the current regime, who believe that it if it falls, the only route to justice will be to execute the top officials, just as the Islamic regime did to its predecessors after 1979.

In such an environment, there is no grassroots movement to end capital punishment, and no Iranian statesman has taken a credible moral stand against the practice. The only time there is any discussion of the death penalty is when there is an international outcry over a prominent case.

Asked about Mohammadi-Ashtiyani’s case during his most recent visit to New York, President Ahmadinejad said he personally opposed the death penalty, in general, but that such cases were for the judiciary, not him, to deal with.

One cannot conclude from this that social attitudes in Iran are static. The social and political upheavals of the last couple of years have proven that is not the case. But for the moment, there is little sign that people are prepared to address the moral questions surrounding capital punishment.

Majid Habibi is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Tehran.

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