Religious Reformist Thinkers in Iran

Intellectually Victorious, but Politically Defeated

A wave of hope carried the reformist Mohammed Khatami into the office of president. But since then resignation has spread among the Iranian people as well as among critical religious leaders. An inside report by Navid Kermani

A wave of hope carried the reformist Mohammed Khatami into the office of president. But since then resignation has spread among the Iranian people as well as among critical religious leaders. An inside report from Ghom by Navid Kermani

photo: dpa
Islamic scholars in Ghom, Iran's theological hotbed

​​Mohammed Mojtahed Shabestari is careful when he speaks or writes: although he knows precisely what the political implications of his work are, he's not a public intellectual like many other religious reformist thinkers in Iran. His manner and his way of thinking are those of a man learned in texts who restricts himself to research and exegesis.

Even those who disagree with Shabestari can't describe him as a theological lightweight. There's scarcely another scholar who can dig so deep into the sources of Islam and Shiism, and reveal their darker sides and their taboos.

Religious modernists are now regarded as backward

If one asks him in which direction religious reform will move from here, now that it has in many ways become part of the consensus, Shebastari responds that the situation is currently quite remarkable. Just a few years ago, reformist theories would have caused uproar in Iran, and especially among the spiritual leadership. Now the "religious modernists" are regarded as almost backward.

photo: Roman Seidel
Mohammed Mojtahed Shabestari

​​They are criticised and described as irrelevant by younger, strictly laicistic writers. That's a remarkable victory for the modernist approach, a victory which is a defeat. They've won intellectually, but their ideas have remained without political consequences. Yes, democracy, human rights, secular law have been shown to be reconcilable with Islam and the Shiite tradition – but evidently not with the Islamic Republic. So what is the point of reforming the religion when the state appears to be incapable of reform: that's what a lot of Shabestari's students asked him.

Perhaps he's standing at a crossroads, says Shabestari. Either he'll become a political activist and fight for the implementation of his research, or he'll stop thinking about the social effects of his research altogether and withdraw into a purely theological debate.

The lonely rebel

Within Shiite religious circles, the welayat-e faqih — the Islamic Republic's doctrine which puts state power in the hands of the theologians — has always been the view of a minority. During the last century, there were individual scholars who repeatedly called for the leadership of the community to be entrusted to the clerics.

Most however followed the view of the eleventh-century Sheikh Tusis, who used theological arguments to show that theologians should be politically abstinent.

The idea of a Shiite theocracy was first adumbrated in the nineteenth century. But it was only in the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century that the future revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeiny drew up the welayat-e faqih or "rule of the scholars," which has formed the basis of the state since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But even now, only one of the roughly 20 Grand Ayatollahs of the Shiite world champions a firmly political view of Islam, and he is Hossein Ali Montazeri, who is himself a prominent critic of the dominant theologians.

From Khomeiny's designated successor to dissident

Once Khomeiny's designated successor, he was removed from power in 1989 shortly before Khomeiny's death after he criticised Iranian human rights abuses in public. Montazeri was put under house arrest in Ghom and many of his followers were arrested or executed.

image: homepage Hossein Ali Montazeri
Hossein Ali Montazeri

​​Montazeri is now eighty-one years old and has been released from house arrest because of ill-health. He continues to live in his modest home in Ghom, draws up legal opinions, receives visitors and administers the money which his millions of followers pay him as a religious tax.

Montazeri doesn't mince words when he talks about his former students who are now state theologians in Teheran, and who were the ones who kept him imprisoned for decades. But he also complains about colleagues in Ghom, the Ayatollahs and Grand Ayatollahs who have cowered before the regime, even though they knew what a disaster it had brought on the people and on Islam.

He says he's now too old and isolated to do more than occasionally raise his voice. How else can he take part in the struggle? The freedom he has officially is the freedom to telephone, to receive visitors, to visit the doctor; to be politically active is forbidden to him and all other opposition figures in Iran.

Corrupt clerics

Montazeri's conversation is witty and sharp, and totally without personal vanity, even though a little vanity might be justified in Iran's most senior theologian and long-time political prisoner. At the same time the pessimism with which he talks about his country, even though he himself is now at liberty, is alarming. No enforced domination can last any more in this world, he says.

The question remains, though, in what condition will the country be in when it finally is able to determine its own future? Will the Iranians succeed in bringing about a peaceful transition and shape the country themselves.

A few houses from Montazeri is the home of Grand Ayatollah Yussof Sanéi. He was one of the few major theologians in Ghom who publicly protested against Montazeri's house arrest.

The clerics have become one with the power of the state

I ask him why so few other Grand Ayatollahs in Ghom have objected against the violence carried out in the name of their religion, against the repression in Iran or against the terrorist acts of Muslim extremists throughout the world. Sanéi answers: because the clerics—not just in Iran — have become one with the power in the state.

"They can no longer speak with a different tongue than that of the ruling power," he says. Naturally, most theologians are worried about the situation, but few are prepared to raise their voice — for fear of persecution, out of laziness, or because they themselves profit from the rule of the theologians.

"The spiritual leadership has lost its holiness because it's become part of the power elite," says Sanéi. "I've realised how power corrupts. The unity between power and religion does great damage. Power is always linked with lies, theft, oppression and betrayal. Religious leadership however is holy. And for that reason religious leaders can't say: I will lead the people to prayer, I will show them the good … and at the same time be part of the government. Government requires boxing people's ears, deceiving them. The world of government is a world of oppression."

It's hard to believe one's ears: in the eighties, Sanéi was a glowing supporter of Khomeiny and a radical Islamist, but now he expresses the classical orthodox Shiite position that the religious leadership must distance itself from power to avoid being dirtied by it.

His neighbour Montazeri, who attacks the regime much more openly but continues to believe in a political version of Islam, wouldn't go as far. He can understand, says Sanéi, that young people are moving away from Islam when they see the daily repression, hypocrisy and corruption of Muslim officials. He can understand that people in the West might lose their respect for Islam when state theologians in Iran and elsewhere support violence.

No justification for terror

Sanéi considers it reprehensible that Iranian state television does not call the suicide attacks in Israel terrorism, but describes them as acts of resistance. Don't Shiites commemorate every year a malicious attack, the murder of their leader, the leader of the Muslims, Imam Ali? Someone who's a faithful Shiite, and one of whose most important rituals is the mournful commemoration of an act of terror, can scarcely approve of terrorism.

But the dominant theologians are not even able to distance themselves from violence against civilians; worse than that, terrorism is tacitly approved of, as if Israelis were no civilians. "This is not in God's interest," says Sanéi. "The one side kills and the other side kills, violence breeds violence, and the Palestinians lose and lose and lose again. Whom does it help? Not the Israelis, and the Palestinians even less."

And what about himself? Why are the voices of those clerics who condemn the terror so little heard in the world? "Which medium do I have here in Iran which I can use to distance myself?" says Sanéi. "Which television station would broadcast me? When I'm abroad, it's not much better. I can say what I like, but when I get back to Iran, I will have to suffer serious consequences. Including prison. That doesn't mean I don't have a clear opinion. Terror and murder are explicitly forbidden by Islam."

Navid Kermani

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Michael Lawton

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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