In an effort to inspire awe among Iranians, the government has decided to print a massive 22-carat-gold version of one of Shia Islam’s most important texts.
But instead of awe, the book project is sparking anger about government waste.
Back in October, the Iranian Ministry of Culture announced its plan to print the largest and likely most ornate ever copy of Najahe Balaghe, one of the most significant tomes in Shia Islam. It is a collection of the sayings of Ali, Muhammad’s first cousin and son-in-law. The book is infused with 22-carat gold on each of its giant pages.
For months, the book’s printing went largely unnoticed, save for a brief press release by government-affiliated Fars News. Now, with the Rouhani administration set to implement cuts to longstanding fuel subsidies, the book has become a lighting rod for criticism of the regime’s frivolous spending.
Over the past several days, as the first day of cuts approaches, Iranians have taken to social media in droves to lampoon the gold-heavy project. Writing on the Facebook page No to Subsidy Cuts, one user commented “Unveiling of a 24 karat gold copy of Najahe Balaghe, but you [Iranians] better let go of your subsidies!” Another took aim at regime’s legitimacy as a theocracy calling the book “a tool to help [government officials] glamorize their business.”
This isn’t the first time the Iranian government has combined gold and Islamic text. Back in February of 2012, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was presented with a giant gold-inked Quran, photos of which were later posted photos posted by government news agencies. Many Iranians see this focus on ornamentation as distracting from the true morality of Islam and its key figures. One Facebook user commented: “Gold Nahjol-balakhe, gold Quran, gold dome, the world’s largest Quran and the world’s smallest Quran… Is your religion so petty that you are trying to make it [better] by varnishing it? Meanwhile, you have bragged and shouted about Ali’s just ways and his care for orphans.”
That Iranians are angry over what they see as “vanity” projects during times of need should come as no surprise. Many Iranians have been struggling financially for the last few years, as prices of fuel, utilities and groceries have jumped in the first wave of subsidy reforms in 2010. As the Guardian recently reported, subsidized gas prices shot up 75% last week, while heating fuel prices were already up 25% from earlier this year. The second wave of those reforms is set for this week, and they are expected to hit hard in an economy already battered by U.S. sanctions and stagflation.
So far the government has placated unrest by continuing to doll out cash subsidies to the neediest Iranians, a practice put in place during the Ahmadinejad administration. But this policy has spurred inflation and created a culture of dependency among the destitute that the government wants to end. The subsidy cuts—some $16 billion in aid will be cut—will likely have the greatest impact on lower income Iranians who rely heavily on their cars for work.
In that light, people aren’t happy about the gold book project. As one user pointedly asks: “Najh Al Balaghe made of gold, who was this made for?”