Mashhad in the spotlight: inequality plagues Iran’s holy city

Source: The Guardian

By 

The wave of anti-government protests in Iran at the end of December began in one of the country’s conservative strongholds: its second city, Mashhad. Site of the huge Imam Reza shrine that draws more than 20 million Shia pilgrims a year, the city’s population has ballooned to around 3 million in recent years. After a proposed modernisation of the area around the shrine complex by architect Dariush Borbor was abandoned following the Islamic revolution, rampant development in the last two decades may have helped aggravate social forces hitting the streets today.

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It’s been rumoured that hardline rivals to Iran’s reformist president Hassan Rouhani orchestrated the street protests from their nationalist-religious base of Mashhad. Azar Tashakor, a 50-year-old urban sociologist whose father made pilgrimages to the city and who later studied there, thinks this underestimates a widening social gap.

Rising inequality

An elite – many connected with the Astan-e Qods charitable foundation that manages the shrine – are profiting from the cluster of luxury hotel and retail developments in the Thamen district surrounding the holy site. “The rapid rate of change has emphasised the inequality,” Tashakor says. “People can see the whole of commercialisation, capital accumulation and possibly embezzlement. But this kind of economic development is heaven for the conservatives who run the city.”

To the rural poor who flock to Mashhad as pilgrims and many of whom provide the workforce building it, such affluence in a sacred place may even seem hypocritical. “Many are religious, and they notice the inequalities in everyday life,” says Tashakor. “So I don’t think it’s the end of the protests.”

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