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Stop Your Sobbing: Iranian Minister Under Fire For Suggesting Islamic Mourning Is Depressing People

Worshippers beat their chests while mourning during the festival of Arbaeen, south of Tehran, in October 2018.

Black banners on the streets, crying men in dark clothing beating their bodies, somber parades, orators exhorting crowds to wail at the horrors the Prophet Muhammad's grandson suffered before being killed some 1,400 years ago.

Iranian Health Minister Saeed Namaki had seen enough.

“We have 14 birthdays in Shi’a [Islam] and 13 deaths [to mark publicly], but we always want to cry and wail and be sad,” Namaki was quoted as saying late last week at a conference of the heads of Iran’s medical universities in the city of Mashhad.

Such gloomy scenes of melancholy are common during state-backed religious festivals in Iran honoring -- and often mourning -- Shi’ite saints.

Namaki added that the “sad atmosphere” should be balanced and modified.

Health Minister Saeed Namaki: "We always want to cry."
Health Minister Saeed Namaki: "We always want to cry."

“This depression is the cause of suicide and [many] cases of social violence,” Namaki, who has since said that his comments were misinterpreted, added, according to reports by domestic media.

Hard-liners accused Namaki of insulting Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, a revered Shi’ite figure who was slain in a battle in Karbala in A.D. 680 and whose martyrdom is honored by Shi'a during the sacred month of Muharam.

Many said that Iran’s deteriorating economic situation was the real cause for depression in society and not official religious mourning ceremonies as suggested by Namaki.

Some influential eulogists with large followings, who are reported to receive generous fees for their performances aimed at making crowds cry, were among those criticizing the health minister.

Orator Seyed Majid Banifatemeh, who has performed in the presence of Iran’s highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on Namaki “to repent” while warning that the issue of “tears and mourning” for Shi’ite figures is “the red line of all people.”

WATCH: A video of orator Seyed Majid Bannifatemeh

Writing on Instagram to his more than 750,000 followers, Banifatemeh said that religious mourning ceremonies result in joy and excitement, instead of depression.

“The minister should not forget that the high costs of medical treatments are one of the reasons for depression,” said Banifatemeh, while adding that Namaki should focus on his job and serve the people instead of entering issues that could lead to his downfall.

Television presenter Amir Hossein Sabeti, a former head of Tehran University's Basij force, asked the health minister on Twitter why no religious scholar or religious orator had committed suicide due to religious mourning, while adding that “there has been tens of suicides among always smiling and carefree intellectuals, such as Sadegh Hedayat (one of Iran’s greatest writers).”

Hard-line cleric Ehsan Biazar Tehrani blasted Namaki for using the term “passing” instead of martyrdom in reference to the death of Imam Hussein.

“You have 48 hours to come and apologize in front of the cameras for your comments,” Biazar Tehrani, who is also a boxer, said in a video posted on Instagram to his 130,000 followers.

Others joined the chorus, including the Friday Prayers leader of Asalem in the northern province of Gilan, who criticized Namaki for not knowing “the difference between martyrdom and death.”

He added that mourning and crying for Shi’ite saints is not causing mental health problems in the Iranian society.

"Poverty and inflation created by these gentlemen is the reason for suicides and social ills," Hojatoleslam Mohammad Javad Bagheri was quoted as saying over the weekend.

Following the strong criticism, Namaki, who was appointed as health minister earlier this year, said he did not mean to offend or upset anyone, while suggesting that his comments had been misunderstood.

The daughter and son of former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani grieve beside their father's coffin during a mourning ceremony at the Jamaran mosque in Tehran on January 8, 2017.
The daughter and son of former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani grieve beside their father's coffin during a mourning ceremony at the Jamaran mosque in Tehran on January 8, 2017.

“My point was that while celebrating mourning ceremonies for [Imam Hussein], we should also pay attention to the birthdays of Shi’ite figures,” he said in a July 28 interview with the hard-line, semiofficial Fars news agency.

He added that by holding merry ceremonies during religious holidays, joy and happiness will be created in society.

Namaki’s call comes amid crippling U.S. economic sanctions that have contributed to the fall of the national currency and skyrocketing prices, which have made life increasingly difficult for ordinary Iranians struggling to make ends meet.

In recent months, government officials and media outlets have warned about the spread of depression and other psychological problems among Iranians.

Namaki also mentioned the issue of mental health problems among Iranians last month.

He said people were suffering due to the “unhappy atmosphere” in society -- not specifically blaming the religious mourning ceremonies.

“It seems that some currents in the country love to make people cry rather than make them happy,” Namaki said, without elaborating.

And before the current controversy erupted, Namaki claimed his opponents pay $4,000 to people to send tweets that attack him and his ministry.

He alleged then that he was being targeted because he's investigating corruption within the Health Ministry, adding that $1.3 billion earmarked for the import of medicine and essential health-care goods had "disappeared."

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.