Will liberal clerics save Iran?
4 July Daily Star
The mullahs who rule Iran are fending off street protests at home and criticism abroad, but the biggest challenge to nearly a quarter century of Islamic rule comes from within their own ranks.
Dissident Shiite clerics are openly challenging the theological bedrock on which Irans Islamic Republic stands that in everything from judicial appointments to declaring war, the final say goes to senior clerics unaccountable to public vote. Theyre doing so, moreover, in increasingly visible and outspoken ways, through internet websites, media interviews and even the distribution of cassette tape recordings the very technique the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini used to spread his views before the 1979 Iranian revolution.
In Qom, Irans theological heart, the tension was plain this past month at an open, empty grave at Hazrat-e- Masumeh, one of the countrys most revered shrines and a place where eminent clerics have traditionally been buried. The grave was intended for Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Karbaschi, a leading liberal cleric who died in late May at the age of 90. Government authorities blocked burial at the shrine when they learned that the main speaker would be a cleric who for most Iranians embodies opposition to clerical rule.
He is Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, one of the dozen highest-ranking Shiite scholars in Iran. For the first decade after the revolution, he was Khomeinis right-hand man and designated successor, until the two broke up over the issue of clerical rule. Khomeinis inheritors have sought to muzzle Montazeri, keeping him under house arrest from 1997 to 2002. However, the frail octogenarian remains popular, influential and dangerous to the clerics ruling Iran.
I believe that Islam and democracy can co-exist because Islam is a faith that supports freedom and human rights, says Montazeri. But this will only be possible if true Islam is observed. What the conservative rulers are practicing today is not true Islam, and I oppose it.
That prominent clerics are willing to speak out openly against the government is testament to the fact that Iran, for all its circumscriptions, is nothing like the totalitarian state that deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein imposed in his neighboring country. That so many of these same clerics have been in and out of jail and house arrest demonstrates how much of the battle for a freer society has yet to be won.
The rhetoric of Irans ruling hierarchy is contradictory, with some in the conservative establishment still chanting death to America and others touting the possibility of internal reform even of placing limits on the tenure and authority of Irans supreme spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, who wields absolute power over Irans military and judiciary and indirectly pulls the strings on nearly everything else.
Liberal clerics say the conservatives talk of possible constraints on their own power is too little, too late: Today, our challenge is not limiting the leaders term, says reformist cleric Mohsen Kadivar. The great debate in Iranian society, in the universities and among intellectuals, is whether we need any supreme leader at all.
Kadivar, still in his 40s, is among the most influential clerics of his generation. A reformist supporter of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, he has spent time during the past three years both in an Iranian jail and at Harvard University as a visiting professor. Now hes back in Tehran, attempting to spark a transformation from within to restore what he sees as the true interpretation of Islams role in society.
The difference between these interpretations is something like that between Catholicism and Protestantism in Christianity, he says. The conservatives focus on the forms of Islam, not on its soul and spirituality. They want to preserve and protect the forms of Islam, as it was 1,400 years ago. Our side says that what is important is the spirituality of the Prophet Mohammed and his message.
The basis of the dispute is theological. Conservatives say that the supreme leader and the state apparatus he controls represent Gods will on earth. Suggestions that conservatives might accept a limited role are misleading, according to reformists like Kadivar. The conservatives speak in two ways for foreign consumption and for home, he says. For the foreign audience they say: We are democrats. But here in this country they say: No, we are appointed by God, and you cannot challenge us.
The reformists insist that there is no contradiction between democracy and Islam, properly defined. The representatives of God include all the people, Kadivar says, not just one person.
A similar argument comes from Grand Ayatollah Youssef Saanei, 79, a longtime aide to Khomeini who served on the first Council of Guardians after the revolution and was later chief prosecutor. Today, hes a dissident in Qom, reviled by the powers that be, but widely praised for his religious rulings on womens rights and democracy. In Islam, it is forbidden to rule without the support of the public, he says. If someone tries to do so, this will end in dictatorship, which Islam forbids, because those who have power should never do anything against the will of the people or of God.
Saanei says he has no objection to clerics in government. What he opposes is its manifestation in Iran, with the clerics claim to absolute power. If elected, they can rule, he said. But there isnt any place for individual rule. No one has the right to exercise dictatorial power, whether clerics or regular people.
Tehrans rulers talk a lot about the military threat from the United States. But it is those words the statements of clerics like Saanei, Montazeri and Kadivar that will likely determine Irans future fate.
Jon Sawyer, Washington bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, recently returned from Iran. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR
In Qom, Irans theological heart, the tension was plain this past month at an open, empty grave at Hazrat-e- Masumeh.
An empty grave, what a symbol!
Maybe the people should try praying in private, and no longer going to the mosque where these krusty ole clerics from hell hold power. God sees the heart, folks don't need buildings or men to seek God.