Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Digital Confession to an Ayatollah

In The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, the author Hooman Majd visits Qom, the religious center for Shia learning. He tries to talk to the Grand Ayatollah Hajj Sheikh Mohammad Fazel Lankarani but is dismissed rather brusquely. Instead, Majd is taken to the “library and nerve center of his Web operation”. This is what he finds:
At a nicely air-conditioned building, a pleasant and self-taught computer-literate young man gave me a tour of the library and explained how Lankarani’s website [Google says visiting it is "dangerous" for software reasons, so proceed at own risk] operated in seventeen languages, including Swahili and Burmese, for all of his followers. It was updated daily with the Ayatollah’s proclamations, fatwas, or religious commands, if he’d issued any recently, and general information, but, most important, it was a place to ask questions: e-mails poured in every day in all seventeen languages and were carefully printed out, one by one, and arranged according to language in mailboxes for Lankarani’s Iranian and foreign talibs (Arabic for “students”, and where the word “Taliban” comes from) to translate, so that they could be answered by one of his senior staff, such as his son, but always reviewed by the Ayatollah himself. I was shown e-mails in English, translated into Farsi, where the Ayatollah had crossed out an answer and written his own, to be retranslated and transmitted back electronically. Most of the questions in the emails I saw related to sex; for example, a sixteen-year-old boy from England had written about his friend who had had oral sex with a fourteen-year-old boy and was worried that his prayers would be nullified and that he might be punished by God. The Ayatollah’s answer was refreshingly short and simple: repent and don’t do it again. No mention of homosexuality, no judgments -- who said the conservative Ayatollahs weren’t compassionate? I read the same thing, “repent”, page after page, for almost without exception the questioner had committed some kind of sin, or at least thought he had, or claimed to have a “friend” who had. I looked around at the banks of computers and the dark, highly polished wooden mail slots filled with printed emails: Digital confession, I thought. The Vatican should get into this.

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