In the early years of the Iranian Revolution, an obscure cleric named Ayatollah Gilani became a sensation on state television by contemplating bizarre hypotheticals at the intersection of Islamic law and sexuality. One of his most outlandish scenarios -- still mocked by Iranians three decades later -- went like this:
Imagine you are a young man sleeping in your bedroom. In the bedroom directly below, your aunt lies asleep. Now imagine that an earthquake happens that collapses your floor, causing you to fall directly on top of her. For the sake of argument, let's assume that you're both nude, and you're erect, and you land with such perfect precision on top of her that you unintentionally achieve intercourse. Is the child of such an encounter halalzadeh (legitimate) or haramzadeh (a bastard)?
Such tales of random ribaldry may sound anomalous in the seemingly austere, asexual Islamic Republic of Iran. But the "Gili Show," as it came to be known, had quite the following among both the traditional classes, who were titillated by his taboo topics, and the Tehrani elite, who tuned in for comic relief. Gilani helped spawn what is now a virtual cottage industry of clerics and fundamentalists turned amateur sexologists offering incoherent advice on everything from quickies ("The man's goal should be to lighten his load as soon as possible without arousing his woman") to masturbation ("a grave, grave sin which causes scientific and medical harm").
Perhaps it's not entirely surprising that Iran's Shiite fundamentalists -- not unlike their evangelical Christian, Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, and Sunni Muslim counterparts -- spend an inordinate amount of time pondering sexuality. They are human, after all. But the sexual manias of Iran's religious fundamentalists are worthy of greater scrutiny, all the more so because they control a state with nuclear ambitions, vast oil wealth, and a young, dynamic, stifled population. Yet for a variety of reasons -- fear of becoming Salman Rushdie, of being labeled an Orientalist, of upsetting religious sensibilities -- the remarkable hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is often studiously avoided.
That's a mistake. Because religion is politics in a theocracy like Iran, uninformed or antiquated notions of sexuality aren't just confined to the bedroom -- they pervade the country's seminaries, military barracks, boardrooms, courtrooms, and classrooms. A common aphorism among Iranians is that before the revolution, people partied outside the home and prayed inside, while today they pray outside and party inside. This reverse dichotomy is true of a lot of social behavior in Iran. For many Iranians, this perverse state of affairs is now so ingrained, such an inherent aspect of daily interactions with Iranian officialdom, that it is no longer noteworthy. For those in the West who seek to better understand what makes Tehran tick, though, the regime's curious fixation on sex cannot be ignored.
Karim Sadjadpour is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The above article is part of a Foreign Policy special report entitled “The Sex Issue” -May/June 2012. Also featured: “Why do they hate us?” by Mona El Tahawy.