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Iran's International Propaganda Machine: Friday Prayers

December 14, 2020
Ali Akbar Ebrahimpour
9 min read
When the Shiite clergy came to power in Iran, they were already well aware of the function of oratory as a propaganda tool
When the Shiite clergy came to power in Iran, they were already well aware of the function of oratory as a propaganda tool
According to Ayatollah Montazeri, the appointment of Ali Khamenei as Tehran's Friday Imam in 1980 came about solely due to his rhetorical skills
According to Ayatollah Montazeri, the appointment of Ali Khamenei as Tehran's Friday Imam in 1980 came about solely due to his rhetorical skills

The history of the propaganda apparatus of the Islamic Republic is as long as that of the republic itself. Its output was intensified during the Iran-Iraq war in an effort to mobilize the public to play their part in fighting the war, and its expansion has been consistent over the years.

Many media outlets in the Islamic Republic are tools for propaganda, so driven by ideology that they cannot be considered to be media in the proper or normal sense.

In this series, IranWire will study the propaganda apparatus of the Islamic Republic, from satellite channels to Friday prayer pulpits to the so-called "educational and research" institutions like Al-Mustafa Al-Alamieh [Al-Mustafa International University], which have both domestic and international functions and use missionaries and “training experts” to deliver their messages.

The second article details how Friday prayer services in Iran, which were not an organized phenomenon before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, are controlled by the state and used to amplify pro-regime messaging.



The fundamental task of the news media, in any political system, is to inform. Media outlets in democratic countries have the freedom to hold elected leaders to account and publish the facts regardless of government doctrine. They can stand up against official policies and demand better in the public interest. But in authoritarian systems the situation is very different.  

In authoritarian societies, both state-controlled and supposedly independent media – as well as the education system and even the cultural arena – are often forced to disseminate information in line with the goals of the state. Those institutions not officially obligated to censor their output may choose to self-censor for fear of reprisal. They all thus form part of a more or less consistent and co-ordinated propaganda machine. This is certainly the case in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The propaganda apparatus of the Islamic Republic has a wide and at the same time complex structure. Its constituent parts are not limited to audio, visual and written media platform. Because of the nature of the Islamic Republic’s establishment and how it operates and seeks legitimacy, the propaganda machine also encompasses religious institutions, such as seminaries, mosques, shrines and religious rites.


What is Propaganda and What are its Goals?

Propaganda is not the same as publicity. Propaganda, in its simplest definition, involves an attempt to shape and direct public opinion using special techniques such as appeals to emotion, generalization, labelling and the denunciation of rivals, honestly or dishonestly.It operates like a loudspeaker, aiming to elevate one set of worldviews or arguments above all others, an seeks to instil a kind of dogmatic assent in its target audience.

By its very nature propaganda cannot be impartial. On the contrary, it aims to direct the minds of the general public in order to force a certain outcome through a selective presentation and interpretation of the facts. Authoritarian states often make use of propaganda tools to mobilize public opinion.

The intention is not to persuade audiences, but to subconsciously coerce them. Persuasion still allows room for questioning and doubt. Propaganda, meanwhile, from Hitler’s Germany to the Soviet Union, has sought to restrict its audiences’ understanding of the “known” and shape its belief system and responses to achieve the state’s goals.


Propaganda in the Islamic Republic of Iran

The Islamic Republic of Iran was the result of an in-part religiously-motivated uprising, and derives much of its supposed legitimacy from appeals to religion. The two most important driving elements of the Islamic Revolution were the clergy and market forces. With the victory of the revolution, a third element was introduced to pioneer and enforce the newly-established system: that of the security and coercive apparatus, most importantly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.



The Clergy and Propaganda

Before the revolution, Iranian Shiite clerics were not only familiar with the concept of propaganda but highly skilled in religious propaganda, extending their specific reading of Islam even to the furthest rural parts of the country and beyond. They used this skill to communicate with and influence the general public through what – in other religions such as Christianity – might be best described as missionary work.

A missionary is a member of a religious group who is sent to different areas to encourage non-believers to convert. The Shiite clergy, which was an independent institution in the Pahlavi government and as a result had no source of income other than what lay in the pockets of the people, was well-acquainted with this phenomenon. Especially during the days of Muharram and Safar, missionaries were mobilized to help assure the Shiite establishment an income. There were also a few clerics who preached abroad, such as Mohammad Beheshti, a member of the Revolutionary Council, and Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president, who had been stationed at the Islamic Center of Hamburg before the 1979 revolution.


Organized Friday Prayers as a Propaganda Tool

The Shiite clergy had used eloquence in speech and sermonizing as a means of directing public opinion on the past. So when the clergy came to power in Iran, they were already well aware of the function of oratory as a potential propaganda tool. At Al-Mustafa International University, which attracts students from all over the world and will be discussed at length elsewhere in this series, religious rhetoric is taught to foreign students as part of the syllabus.

According to Ayatollah Montazeri, the appointment of Ali Khamenei as Tehran's Friday Imam in 1980 came about solely due to his rhetorical skills. In all other aspects he did not have a brilliant record, nor a strong reputation for pre-revolutionary struggles, and was not a member of the Revolutionary Council. It was his eloquence alone that led to his rise to the leadership of the Islamic Republic, along with the connections he went on to establish with the military forces.

From the very first days of the Islamic Republic, the importance of Friday prayers as a propaganda device was recognized and seized upon. It was not without reason that Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the first Friday prayers to be held on July 27, 1979 in Tehran, and subsequently strategically positioned imams to lead Friday prayers in cities great and small across Iran.

The National Friday Prayer Headquarters was established in March 1993 by decree of Iran’s second Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. The secretariat of this council is located next to House of Leadership. Prior to this, there was no formal umbrella institution to manage the Friday Imams, and any one of these preachers might – wittingly or not – have spoken against the Islamic Republic in sermons. The creation of the Headquarters therefore marked a new era in the use of Friday prayers as a mouthpiece for the Islamic Republic. So much so, in fact, that a document published on its website states: "The Friday prayer announcements merely reflect the positions of the leadership and the ruling Islamic system." It also states that its own duties include "to preserve and strengthen the discourse of the Islamic revolution, the principles, and pillars of the Islamic Republic". Friday prayers were thus cemented as a pillar of the political system, far beyond mere gatherings for worship.

According to the Headquarters’ website, Friday prayers are now held at 780 different locations across Iran, and in 40 cities in Tehran province alone. Every week, the Friday Imams work to foment a direct connection between the local population and the regime through sermons and powerful rhetoric. They are guided in these efforts by the Friday Imams Policy Council, which each week sets out a framework for the positions Friday Imams should adopt and the subjects they should promote to the people during prayers.

The National Friday Prayer Headquarters and the Friday Imams Policy Council are two propaganda arms of the Office of the Supreme Leader. The former provides management and the latter directs the content. Until recently, the Policy Council was also responsible for the selection of Friday Imams, but from 2017 onwards Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has done this himself. The first directly-appointed Friday Imam by the Supreme Leader was a young conservative cleric named Mohammad Javad Haj Ali Akbari.

Unsurprisingly, there are no reliable records on the current expenses of the offices of the Friday Imams nor on the monthly salaries they receive. The Headquarters does receive specific provision in Iran’s annual budget and in 2018/19 received close to 400 billion rials (US$1,600,000). But regardless of their direct earnings , Friday Imams usually also play an important role in their local economy and on several occasions, news of their involvement in big business has leaked out to the wider public.

Since the 1990s there have been practically no incidences of Friday Imams failing to toe the state line. Two notable mutinies took place, however, in the aftermath of the contestd 2009 election result. Seyed Jalaledin Taheri, the then-Friday Imam of Isfahan, resigned in protest against the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who voiced his support for the protestors, was permanently barred from performing Friday prayers in Tehran. He later died in suspicious circumstances in 2017.


Politics Eclipses Religion in Today’s Friday Prayers

Regular Friday prayers were not an organized feature of life in Iran before the Islamic Revolution. Scattered clerics might sporadically perform Friday prayers in some cities, and with a variable number of worshippers in attendance, but these were not overseen by the state and did not have a political dimension.

From the outset of the Islamic Republic, however, Friday prayers were afforded special importance and attention as a means of broadcasting the views of the state. Both the National Friday Prayer Headquarters and the Friday Imams Policy Council are under the control of the Supreme Leader and funded from state coffers. They can therefore co-ordinate propaganda in the name of worship, on a weekly basis, in all corners of the country.

At these mass weekly gatherings, religion is subordinate to politics, and sermons are given over to advancing the goals of the state rather than to worshipping God. Many of these are broadcast live on the radio and given a privileged platform in state-controlled media reports. The words spoken from the pulpits on Fridays have little to do with Shia Islam but everything to do with legitimizing the regime anew.


Read other articles in this series:

The Imam Khomeini Educational Institute

The Masaf Institute and the Apocalyptic Worldview



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