Flirting youths outrage Iranian hard-liners
Outraged by scenes of young boys and girls using Shiite Islam's most sacred mourning day as an opportunity to flirt in public, Iran's religious hard-liners are calling on authorities to stamp out such "vulgar displays."
Failure to do so, some newspaper commentators said, would force pious citizens to take matters into their own hands.
"Let the officials realize that the heroic and passionate people of Iran can easily deal with a handful of hoodlums and promiscuous elements that ridicule our sanctities," the hard-line Jomhuri-ye Eslami daily said in an editorial last week.
The main focus of hard-line anger was a gathering of several hundred youngsters at Mohseni square in affluent northern Tehran earlier this month on the night of Ashura.
Ashura is the day Shiites commemorate the death of Imam Hossein in a 680 AD battle which cemented the schism between Sunni and Shiite Islam. In Iran, where Shiite Islam is the official religion, it is supposed to be marked by mourning.
"In the sunset of Ashura, women and girls in tight clothes and transparent scarves and guys dressed in Western fashion lit candles while laughing their hearts out," said the Ya Lesarat weekly, mouthpiece of the feared Ansar-e Hizbollah hard-line vigilante group, members of whom later dispersed the crowds.
Other newspapers printed pictures from the Mohseni square gathering, focusing on young girls wearing make-up, laughing and mingling freely with the opposite sex.
"In this disgraceful event which was like a large street party, women and girls ... as well as boys ... mocked Muslims' beliefs and sanctities in the most shameless manner," Jomhuri-ye Eslami said.
Public displays of affection between unrelated men and women are banned in Iran. Western dress, make-up and pop music are also frowned on by hard-liners upon as signs of moral turpitude.
"Some long-haired guys would openly cuddle girls creating awful and immoral scenes. Fast, provoking music ... nearby gave the street party more steam," it added.
Tehran residents said the Mohseni square Ashura gathering has swelled in size over recent years, attracting growing numbers from the generally more affluent parts of the city. But political analysts said the trend observed at Mohseni square was in evidence, to a lesser extent, elsewhere.
"In general, religious events like Ashura have become a way for young people to interact freely in public," said one analyst who follows religious affairs closely.
"The religious side of it is much less important to them than the social aspect," the analyst, who declined to be named, added.
Religious figures in Iran, including President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist cleric, have noted with dismay that Iran's disproportionately youthful population, around two-thirds of whom were born after the 1979 Islamic revolution, are increasingly turning away from religion.
Mohsen Kadivar, a mid-ranking cleric and philosophy lecturer whose views have landed him in prison, told Reuters in an interview earlier this month that young people in secular Turkey were more interested in religion than those in Iran.
"This shows that religion is voluntary. Forcing it on society has the opposite effect," he said.