Shia Chic: Meet The Qom Tailor Who Dresses Iran’s Clerics

Abolfazl Arabpour, 86, has been sizing up all the high dignitaries of the Iranian clergy for half a century.

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami voting in Tehran in 2009
Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami voting in Tehran in 2009
Louis Imbert

QOM â€" Abolfazl Arabpour, a tailor from this Iranian holy city, is simply the best in his field. At 86 years old, he has been dressing the cream of the Shia clergy for 50 years, supplying everything, "even the boxer shorts."

Ahead of February's elections for Iran's parliament and the so-called Assembly of Experts â€" a body of 88 theologians in charge of appointing the Supreme Leader â€" Arabpour and his five sons' workshop was feeling Qom's sacred bustle up close. The legendary tailor knows many of these public representatives: has touched them, sized them up, measured them from head to toe, always with the endless respect that they are due.

And as for Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic in 1979? The tailor delivered his clothes as early as the 1960s during his exile, in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. His successor, Ali Khamenei, who has been in power for 27 years? "His father was a very good man." This phrase keeps coming back. It is a reminder that the Shia high clergy is a family business.

Over the years, Ali Khamenei has gone from wearing the labbade, the item of clothing of the "chic mullah," to the qaba, the more old school look of the "ascetic clerk, who's left the attractions of the material world behind."

A fundamental choice

Here, it's more a technical question. The qaba is a loose item of clothing with two sides that cross each other in a "V." Arabpour closes them with three buttons, two of which are visible. The fabric is usually provided by the customer, even though the tailor and his sons have better fabrics from England, Yazd and the holy city of Mashhad. In their narrow shop, in a covered lane of the city center, rolls are piled up between the ceiling and three glass cabinet walls.

The labbade is the item of clothing worn by Hassan Rouhani. The moderate president of the Islamic Republic chooses it in dark blue or gray. The viewer's eye glides without stopping on a dark clerical girdle, up to that beard that has become grayer after two years in power, towards the sharp look and keen smile, and eventually to the dazzling white turban.

The labbade is meant to make the human body disappear into clerical dignity. The slightly asymmetrical round collar is adapted to the high-collar shirt favored by a revolution that rejects the Western tie. Its left side closes above the right side and forms a bulging shape on the torso. There are nine layers of fabric, one part of which is disappointingly made in South Korea.

Ultimate in clerical "chic"

Who wears it the best? Without any doubt Mohammad Khatami, according to the tailor. Not even Rouhani has replaced him in his heart. The only true reformist Iranian president (1997-2005) embodied, in his day, a new face of Iran. He advocated "dialogue between civilizations" while wearing immaculate clothes. He was the one who made Abolfazl Arabpour famous.

"The BBC came to see "Khatami’s tailor." They all came running after that," Arabpour says. "The Egyptian, Syrian, American religious leaders. The BBC brought me Hassan Nasrallah," leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, who still comes here for clothes.

Today, Khatami has been banished from Iranian media, forbidding the publication of his likeness. They are, however, everywhere in the tailor's shop. The former president has been orchestrating behind the scenes the return of real reformists into the political spectrum. With their centrist and moderate conservative allies, they have just taken over almost all the seats at the Assembly of Experts, in the Tehran district. The hardline supporters of the Supreme Leader may be on the way out.

Abolfazl Arabpour doesn't comment on these disputes. He lives sheltered in the slightly surreal warmth of clerical solidarity. And no one will ever force him to declare that "chic" has a political color.

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How Low Trust In Government Fuels Violence Against Politicians

The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.

Tribute to slain UK MP David Amess in Leigh-on-Sea on Oct. 15

James Weinberg

The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.

Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."

The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.

Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.

Governing under threat

As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.

Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:

There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.

Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:

I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.

Another, this time in South Africa, said:

What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.

In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.

Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.

It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.

Photo of \u200bNew Zealand's parliament in Wellington

New Zealand's parliament in Wellington

Guo Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Compassion and education

While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.

Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.

A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.

Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.

Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.The Conversation


James Weinberg is a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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