Mohammed Ali Abtahi

Working Against the Misuse of Religion by Politics

The former Iranian Vice President Mohammed Ali Abtahi founded an institute for interreligious dialogue in Tehran. Now he is on trial in an Iranian revolutionary court. Corinna Mühlstedt spoke to him before his arrest

Mohammad Ali Abtahi (photo: AP)
Mohammed Ali Abtahi is the first member of the Iranian cabinet to publish his own Internet blog

​​ Mohammed Ali Abtahi's repeated calls for the more clear separation of politics and religion found great popular resonance, not only in the West, but also in his home country Iran.

The long-time deputy of the former president and reformer Mohammad Khatami only withdrew from active politics a few years ago. Since then, he has devoted all his time and energy to the establishment of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue in Tehran, a where Christians, Jews and representatives of many other religions are treated on an equal footing and take equal part in seminars.

The seminar program – which has covered subjects such as the role of women in religion, and the relationship between religion and modernity – can even be called up on the institute's website and the relevant material consulted in a newsletter.

Courageous commitment to tolerance

This is how Mohammed Abtahi explains the motives for his campaign for tolerance and religious openness, which is not without its risks: "It is a duty for the intellectual elite in Iran to advocate and facilitate religious tolerance today more than ever, and primarily for the young people of the country. We must show them that there is a God in every religion, that the desire for righteousness is a central theme in every religion, and that all religions seek ways of reaching God."

It is a mission that Mohammed Ali Abtahi and his institute feel it is their duty to carry out. The institute maintains contact with universities and facilities for religious dialogue all over the world. Abtahi's institute is well known at the Vatican, just as it is among Buddhists in Japan, Anglicans in England or representatives of the German Protestant Church, and Abtahi himself has been invited to give lectures at universities in Rome and Munich.

"Contact with religious institutions outside Iran is very important for us, because there are very few educated theologians of other faiths living in our country," says Abtahi. "Christians, Jews and Buddhists are nothing but small, insignificant groups here. That is why we seek even greater exchange with western religious representatives. It would be a way to help us understand each other better."

Adviser to reformist candidate Karrubi

Mohammed Ali Abtahi served as an adviser to the reformist candidate Mehdi Karrubi during the most recent presidential elections. He was the first member of the Iranian cabinet to publish his own Internet blog. It was a move that made him popular with young people in Iran and across the world. His attitude proved that it is possible to open up Shiite Islam to the modern world.

Abtahi reports that the institute for dialogue is recognized by the United Nations as a non-governmental organization. He adds that this is a rather special status in Iran, and bestows a certain independence on the facility.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi on show trial in Teheran (photo: dpa)
Show trial against the "blogging Mullah": Iran's former vice-president has been on trial in Tehran since the beginning of August

​​ "We are really trying to work on an international level, and that means translating as many religious texts from other faiths as possible into Persian," says Abtahi. "In addition, at our institute there is a library with books on the subject of dialogue in Arabic, Persian and many western languages. Quite a few students even come to us from the University of Tehran, because there is no other library in Iran with such an informative stock of works on interreligious dialogue."

But his liberal attitude has made the 51-year-old theologian a target for the ultra-conservative Islamists in the Iranian government. He was arrested after presidential elections on June 12, after openly criticizing the alleged runaway victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "electoral fraud" on the BBC.

After six weeks in isolation at Tehran's Evin prison, notorious for the torture of political opponents, the father of three is now standing trial for subversive activities and could face the death penalty.

Corinna Mühlstedt

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2009

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