For Iranian politicians, public weeping can be a virtue

June 14, 2013

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cries during a visit to the tomb of Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic. (AFP/Getty Images)

Ali Akbar Velayati, the former foreign minister of Iran and one of several candidates in this week's presidential election there, recently released a campaign video that might have been seen as a touch too personal even in the U.S. political context, where personality and performances rule all. The video showed him sitting in a darkened theater, weeping over archival footage announcing founding leader Ruhollah Khomeini's 1989 death.

Velayati is not the first candidate in this Iranian presidential race to cry in public. According to Radio Liberty's Golnaz Esfandiari, former vice president Mohammad Reza Aref was recently asked during a state TV appearance about drug policy. During his answer, as he discussed the country's high rate of drug addiction, he wept right on camera. (Aref has since dropped from the race.)

"Iranian politicians often cry," Esfandiari explained, noting that it helps to humanize them and signal their concern for the now-significant plight of normal Iranians. In that way, they're not so different from politicians in any country. But, as Esfandiari and others have  noted, the trend is especially pronounced in Iran, with politicians crying with unusual frequency. Even confrontational President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has wept publicly, most recently at Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez's state funeral.

One Iranian blogger, writing about the practice, wondered if it might be an effect of the "mourning nature" of Shi'ism, the branch of Islam to which most Iranians belong. Mourning is a central element of that sect. One of the religion's major holidays, Ashura, is meant to be a day of mourning for all Shi'a over the death, in 680 A.D., of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Many Shi'a communities still gather for elaborate public mourning ceremonies on Ashura that include crying.

That doesn't mean that Velayati's weeping is really a subtle reference to Shi'a doctrine, of course. But Shi'ism's emphasis on the importance of public mourning and weeping may have played a role in both eroding the taboo against the practice (which is much stronger in the West than in many other societies) and in emphasizing the perception that it can be virtuous.

The blogger who discussed Shi'ism's "mourning nature," an anonymous Iranian who writes as Talented Moron, recounts this story about Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, the shah of Iran during the late 19th century. I can't verify whether the story is true, but the fact that it's been passed on says something about Iranian perceptions about what it means for a public leader to cry. It's translated into English by Radio Liberty's Golnaz Esfandiari:

It is said that Naser al-Din Shah Qajar went to Karbala, and before entering the shrine of Imam Hussein, he said to his prime minister: Find me a person who delivers good sermons on the tragedy of Karbala so I can weep over it. In pursuance of his instructions, the prime minister went to find a few good ones. Whatever they recited, the shah did not weep!

 

The prime minister was afraid and told the clergy of Karbala that if the shah did not weep, things would go badly. They went and brought an unknown speaker. He was an old person, but one who was an expert and experienced. He told the prime minister, "I will make the shah weep."

As soon as he approached the shah, he turned toward the grave of Imam Hussein and said: "Oh Hussein, when you had lost all companions and were standing alone in the Karbala desert, you raised your voice to say, 'Is there any naser [helper in Arabic] to help me.' Now this Naser [the shah's name] has come, but it's too late."

 

Upon hearing this, the shah burst into tears. His prime minister feared that something might happen to the shah, so he signaled to the speaker to stop.

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Max Fisher | June 13, 2013