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On August 20, 1978, Cinema Rex in Abadan, Iran, was set ablaze by Islamist militants (see Byman), killing approximately 430 individuals. The shah and the country’s intelligence service, SAVAK, were initially accused of planning the fire but after testimony by the lone surviving arsonist, it was proven that Khomeinist devotees were behind the incident.

A short while after the start of the movie, police officers noticed smoke coming from Cinema Rex, which was located on the upper level of a commercial building. The police officers radioed the on-duty officer at the Abadan Police HQ and reported they had identified a number of suspects who had entered the Cinema, and the suspects had noticed they were under surveillance, and had started a small fire in a corner so they could escape the cinema with the rest of moviegoers. After consulting a supervisor, the on-duty officer instructed the officers not to allow anyone to leave the Cinema until the police chief and additional officers arrived.

The police officers outside the Cinema were under the impression that the suspect terrorists had started a small fire in a corner in an attempt to escape with the rest of the moviegoers and did not know that a premeditated plot to burn the cinema and all the people inside was underway. So, they put a lock on the main entrance gate in front of the stairway leading up to the theater. The police also prevented a bystander who wanted to break the gate with his pickup truck from doing so when the intensity of fire and smoke started to increase. When the police chief arrived, the Cinema was completely engulfed in fire. The fire trucks only arrived some 20 minutes after the start of the fire.

Virtually all the victims had burned while still in their seats, which indicated that at the time the fire entered the theater, the victims were already unconscious or dead. The fire department investigators believed the Freon gas from the heavy-duty air-conditioning system had reached inside the theater before the fire did. Since Freon is much heavier than air, people inside had already passed out or may have already been dead when the fire reached the inside of the theater. It was never determined if the Freon leak from the air-conditioning system was part of the arson plan, or resulted from fire damaging the air-conditioning system. But, Freon is only toxic in extremely large amounts, so it was probably from fire damaging the air-conditioning refrigerant plumbing.

There are a few reasons why Islamist militants may have planned and executed the Cinema Rex fire: To mobilize the masses in support of the revolution by claiming the arson was a "Reichstag fire" set by SAVAK in order to blame and discredit radical Islamist revolutionaries who had attacked and burned cinemas in earlier protests. Up until the fire, the revolutionary movement involved more politically active citizens but according to Roy Mottahedeh, author of The Mantle of the Prophet, “thousands of Iranians who had felt neutral and had until now thought that the struggle was only between the shah and supporters of religiously conservative mullahs felt that the government might put their own lives on the block to save itself. Suddenly, for hundreds of thousands, the movement was their own business.”

According to Daniel L. Byman, "The movies were an affront to God, encouraging vice and Western-style decadence. So in August 1978, four Shiite revolutionaries locked the doors of the Cinema Rex in the Iranian city of Abadan and set the theater on fire…" (see Byman).

Finally, Islamists opposed cinema for ideological or doctrinal reasons. While Shia Muslims (unlike some strict Sunni Musilms) do not forbid pictures, many strict Shia believe any motion pictures "with music, dance or any other un-Islamic portrayal is haram to view." Ever since motion pictures were first introduced into Iran at the turn of the 20th century, the clerical establishment saw the medium as not only a threat to moral righteousness, but also a direct attack on their position as authority figures. The depiction of women without proper religious attire and other blasphemous content furthered anti-Western sentiment, solidifying an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality that in part continues to maintain clerical dominance over Iranian society. Today, the fire is seen by Islamists as an event where Islam triumphed over Western corruption.
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