30 Azar 1388 – December 21, 2009. The epicenter of the clerical establishment of Iran, the city of Qom, about a hundred miles southwest of the capital, was shaken by demonstrators mourning for the recently deceased Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. In the words of Shirin Ebadi, “the father of human rights” in Iran.
Born in 1922, in the town of Najafabad, near Isfahan, Montazeri was jailed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi numerous times, tortured by SAVAK and a confidant of exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. It was he who was prominent in devising the theory of guardianship of the jurist (or Velayat-e Faghih) and drawing it into the second draft of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was chosen as heir apparent by the “Imam” (Khomeini’s affectionate title) until a falling out between the two.
After harsh criticisms of the 1988 Massacres of political dissidents (real and imagined) and Khomeini’s fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, Montazeri sardonically chided Khomeini with, “people in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.” Statements such as this, in addition to machinations of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmad Khomeini (Ruhollah Khomeini’s son) in the background for succession, threw Montazeri out of favor and made him a pariah within the IRI oligarchy. However; it also proved an indelible break that he and many other originally radical ideologues were making with their original vision. Montazeri would later contend that Khomeini twisted his theory (which, believe me, isn’t far-fetched, Khomeini was great at borrowing and twisting ideas for his own gain, one only need compare Ali Shariati‘s philosophy to his). In one of Montazeri’s last statements,
“The goal (of the revolution) was not simply to change the names and slogans but keep the same oppression and abuses practiced by the previous regime. Everyone knows I am a defender of theocratic government, although not in the current form. The difference lies in the fact that I intended for the people to choose the jurist and supervise his work… I now feel ashamed of the tyranny conducted under this banner. What we see now is the government of a military guardianship, not the guardian of Islamic scholars.”
He said that his theory was for the clerics to perform more as guides, and that he never meant for a hierarchy, but for them to issue opinions by consensus (the difference between limited and absolute clerical rule). To demonstrate what an influential force Montazeri was, this has been the backbone of the Reformist plank, i.e., amending the Constitution per Article 177 to redefine the position of Faghih. This was last done prior to Khomeini’s death from cancer. Knowing his new replacement lacked the genuine following, charisma and religious credentials, Khomeini had revisions drawn up and put to a referendum. Today, the demands are of the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council’s powers to be curtailed, if not the latter being outright abolished, along the with the corrupt, vestigial and impotent Expediency Council. Positions on all these modifications to the system vary, but there is general agreement (based on simple logic and bitter experience throughout the Khatami presidency) that for there ever to be actual reform within the Islamic Republic, those undemocratic institutions that repeatedly block progress need to first be done away with.
Faced with disillusionment brought on by a battered nation from Khomeini’s prolonged crisis of the Iran-Iraq War, men and women like Montazeri were finally given time to reflect upon the realities which the warped path of the Revolution had actually wrought. They realized that they had seriously fallen short of their aspirations for a more humane, and just nation when their pre-Revolutionary ideals met with the actual task of governing. (This was one of the deficits of the broader revolution, according to scholar Nikki R. Keddie. Many were so wrapped up in overthrowing the shah, not many had any idea what to do after Mohammad Reza Pahlavi finally abdicated the Peacock Throne — not many — except for Khomeini who had been developing his theory for decades and was more than happy to return from France and bear that ‘burden’). This pause at long last, after ten years of continued crisis after crisis, along with the death of Khomeini would allow for a reevaluation of the direction the Islamic Republic would take. It would first lead to a new Pragmatist faction, led by Rafsanjani under the mantle of his presidency in the early 1990’s, and in turn blossom in the the Reform movement under Khatami’s presidency in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Montazeri was a spiritual guide in the background, giving these more liberal attitudes and moderation added weight and legitimacy. You could see his imprimatur stamped all over it. Since his death the core elite of the IRI have been dealing with the Legacy of Khomeini and interpreting his words across the political spectrum to fit their respective agendas (compare with the American Founding Fathers in this regard). But there have in fact been two competing legacies.
During the latter part of this time of maturation, from 1997-2003, Montazeri was put under house arrest (freed finally under Khatami’s plea to Supreme Leader Khamene’i) and has endured continued monitoring, threats, attacks, and a concerted campaign from the hardline media dismissing him as a “simple minded cleric” and instigating a political move to strip him of his robe. But, the fact remained, that among the collegiate fraternity of clerics; even those whom disagree vehemently (as is Shi’i tradition – with its emphasis on ijtihad), politicians and extremist firebrand clerics had no authority to do this (though the clergy was greatly purged of “turbaned deceivers”, as Khomeini called them, in the early 1980’s). Until his death this weekend he remained the highest ranking marja’ in Iran, with only Grand Ayatollah Seyyid Ali Hosseini Sistani of Najaf, Iraq, outranking him in the Shi’i world.
His death, announced by his son Ahmad, of course spurred a few conspiracy theories. However; I don’t buy into them for reasons which will become clear later. It also appeared to be more of an initial reaction which has subsided. Despite being a thorn in the side of the leadership for decades, he was still set to be buried at the Fatemah shrine in Qom, the second holiest Shi’i shrine in Iran and thus a major pilgrimage site (charter pilgrimage bus tours often go from the Imam Reza shrine to this one). On Sunday, security forces were locking down Qom, shutting down communications, forbidding foreign media (those familiar with my past articles should be familiar with this drill by now), in preparation for the intensified throngs, which already begin to burgeon during Moharram.
Mehdi Karoubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi called for people to observe a public day of mourning, and come they did, as if they had to be directed, from major cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz and elsewhere. Anywhere from numbers in the tens of thousands (even corroborated by Ayandeh, which is associated with Mohsen Reza’i) to hundreds of thousands showed up and clashed with government loyalists who also came. Tear gas, shots fired (again, you know the drill). Of course, Kayhan (the IRI “Pravda”) reported that only 5,000 showed, and all newspapers in the country were forbidden from showing Montazeri’s picture on the front page. When mention was made of him, or his funeral, his titles were omitted and demonstrations were not mentioned. In contrast, BBC Persian’s wall-to-wall coverage of Montazeri got through IRI jamming attempts periodically, which were stepped up Sunday and particularly during the airing of Montazeri segments by IRI government monitors Monday (The New York Times reports; however, that they had to suspend broadcasts). Not only this, but even the sanctity of bast in Imam Hassan mosque was violated by security forces to prevent protesters from congregating there, another one of the ironies of the Islamic Republic, considering it was the sophisticated network of mosques in which Khomeini’s revolution was kept alive. It was the one place even the shah dared not transgress.
In Najafabad, hundreds of hamshahris (a Farsi term for fellow townsmen) proud of their hometown cleric, went out to the streets. Two buses were reported burned (I have yet to figure out the significance, if any, in this recurrent act, as bus drivers are historically Reform and have been active risking stiff reprisals for periodic strikes. It is probably more emotionally driven and I wish they’d knock it off, if it isn’t merely propaganda to smear them).
After protests, upon returning to Tehran, Mousavi’s car was repeatedly harrased and cut off by Basijis on motorbikes who even smashed the rear windows. If this is true, it would clarify and reverse any suspicions I had of his containment at his office the past two demonstrations being cynically choreographed. Similarly, the Montazeri’s home was put under heavy security (which for the Montazeri family, has pretty much been the status quo situation for a long time anyhow) and Basiji’s shouting pro-government slogans, and though they had a public funeral service, it was cut short by a couple hundred Basijis disrupting it and tearing up funeral banners (ironically, it is the conservative camp complaining of his death being “politicized” and calling pro-reformists “hypocrites” – a politically charged word akin to ‘traitor’, if they did indeed use monafeqin). They decided to cancel the ceremony planned in the Fatemah mosque that evening, because the city of Qom had turned to “martial law” after mourners dispersed.
However; it is generally thought to have gone without major incident. The usual arrests and injuries here and there (I don’t mean to sound so jaded and callous; I hope they are alright and it is only a brief detainment) but the police also helped protect the crowd from the Basijis, again, according to Ayandeh. When Khamene’i was set to speak though, boos rang out (video) along with the ever familiar “Death to Dictator”. Other chants, apart from the usual, included, but were not limited to: “Dictator, this is your last message: The people of Iran are rising!”, “Oppressed Montazeri, you are with God now”, “Dictator, dictator, Montazeri is alive”, “Montazeri, you who spoke the truth! Your path will be followed”, “Innocent Montazeri, your path will be continued even if the dictator should rain bullets on our heads” and “Innocent Montazeri, Congratulations on your freedom!” (For more on the use of the movement’s clever use of Revolutionary slogans, here’s a BBC piece) I might also explain here that the shrine is named after Fatemah Ma’soumeh (sister of Imam Reza), the latter cognomen meaning ‘innocent’. In contrast Khamene’i would issue this passive-aggressive swipe, as reported by AFP,
“He was an accomplished theologian and a prominent teacher who spent a large part of his life for Imam’s (Khomeini’s) cause,” Khamenei said in a statement carried by state television’s website. He also asked divine forgiveness for Montazeri over a “difficult ordeal” that the late cleric had undergone, alluding to his fallout with Khomeini.
The White House issued its condolences through National Security Council spokesman Michael Hammer, “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who seek to exercise the universal rights and freedoms that he so consistently advocated.”
Montazeri’s other son Saeed said Sunday that, “I think one of the main reasons [for his death] was his grief for the post-election events which troubled my father a lot”. Indeed, these came even in the form of a fatwa, denouncing Ahmadinejad’s election as illegitimate and the violent crackdown, saying in late August that the the government was neither Islamic nor a republic, and at the end of November saying the Basij were “in the path of Satan”. In reference to students tearing up Khomeini’s picture during Student Day on December 4th, he remarked,
“The late Ayatollah Imam Khomeini was a very important man. But, he was not ma’soom [sinless] and had erred many times. He himself never claimed to be ma’soom. Therefore, there is no need to make an issue of this [tearing and burning his poster].”
For his part, Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini said that “[he] spent many years of his honorable life on the path of advancing the high goals of Islam and the Islamic revolution”. The Khomeini progeny are a prime example of Montazeri’s call to return to the original promise and opportunity provided by the Revolution of their namesake. Just as their grandfather was the figurehead for one popular uprising, so has Montazeri been the patron of another.
Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (though the hardware went ‘missing’ for a bit) had this moving reflection,
“I call you father because I learned from you how to defend the oppressed without using violence against the oppressor. I learned from you that being silent is helping the oppressor. Father, I learned much from you, although I never [got the chance to] show my appreciation for being your child and student. Father, forgive us.”
Grand Ayatollah Ali Hossein Montazeri’s legacy will be that he gave up the chance for power out of conscience, was not afraid to speak against power, no matter what threats came his way. It is true, he was not liberal by Western standards, and although he spoke out for the rights of religious minorities, even the unrecognized Bahá’ís, he still adhered to the fundamentalist Shi’i view of najas (non-Muslims being ritually impure); but said they may make themselves “pure through chaste, Muslim-like, behavior.” This, compared to Khomeini and hard-line clerics today, makes him downright progressive in comparison. For more on religious discrimination in Iran, this is an excellent article (though I will warn you it’s National Review). If we are to be concerned about political dissidents and the plight of women, we should show the same for religious minorities. (Here’s an essay on the same subject by Marina Nemat [PDF], while I’m on the topic). His courage has inspired those like another dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Kazememeyni Boroujerdi, who is still imprisoned after three years for advocating the separation of mosque and state, Grand Ayatollah Sane’i (who is the closest a Reformist cleric can come to filling the spiritual aspect of the giant vacuum Montazeri will leave, in my view), men like Mehdi Karoubi, and most importantly the Green Movement itself. From earlier this month in one of his last statements, this is what he had this to say of it,
This movement is the accurate reflection and representation of the justified demands of the majority that have surfaced over many years. While it has faced a violent reaction and vehement hostility from the hardliner faction of the state, its domestic and foreign achievements are undeniable. Inside Iran, this movement has succeeded in institutionalizing a tolerant culture for demanding the rights of a large number of people, which were ignored during the election [process] and the events that followed. In addition, this movement has also prevailed in exposing the violent nature of the radical and the oppressive. Of course, to achieve this, it has paid a high price, which shows that the people will not be swayed until they attain the rights they are entitled to. Death, intimidation, threats, detainments, arrests, illegal and non-religious trials, heavy and unjust convictions for political activists and freedom seekers, as well as false and misleading propaganda – none of this has influenced the people’s will and determination. Outside Iran, the movement has succeeded in drawing international attention – especially that of developed societies and human rights organizations – to the oppression it faces as well as its rightful demands. From a political [perspective], [the movement] has presented the real power of nationhood to the world.
The continuance of the calendar demonstrations were already set for Ashura, before his passing. And this comes on the heels of the Revolutionary Court announcing it will try 12 prison officials for the deaths of three protesters (I can’t help but wonder if this will be like the post 18 Tir trials when all but one security officers were acquitted, the one left, sentenced for disobeying orders to beat protesters – not 100% on the details here though, I’m woefully behind on transferring a stack of book notes to my computer). I had been planning on an article for that. So, this will by far be one of my worst articles to date, rushed as I was by this unforeseeable event. Needless to say, I shall be getting into more into what happens with the vacuum he’s left, the powerful symbolism of Moharram, remark more on the status of the Green Movement (which, by the way, have been guaranteed they won’t be reprimanded for carrying the green banners by Police commander Azizollah Rajabzadeh, according to Farda – I will get into this later!), and hopefully have a more coherently crafted piece. I will but mention this: Montazeri’s death, happened to fall the week before Ashura. As some may recall, the Shi’i mourning cycle occurs on the third, seventh, and the big one (arba’een) on the fortieth days after passing. As Shirin Sadeghi notes,
In a bizarre twist of fate, Montazeri’s death coincides with the most important date on the Shiite calendar: Ashura. His haftom (literally: seventh day of passing — a significant date of mourning for Shiites) will fall exactly on the holy day of Ashura when Iranians are encouraged by the government to parade into the streets to recognize their fallen martyrs.
The symbolism just got a whole lot deeper. This is why I don’t buy the conspiracy theory. The intelligence services have been sloppy at times, but I could not think of worse premeditated timing (I promised I’d get back to it!) to assassinate him. I think they also hearkened back to the conspiracy theories surrounding Ayatollah Taleghani‘s death in 1979 (part of reading Iran is being aware of its culturally historical references). Remarking more soberly on the implications of Montazeri’s death whilst noting that he may be more powerful in death as a martyr to galvanizing the movement, Juan Cole made this brilliant analogy to the other effect,
The regime will breathe a sigh of relief, since Montazeri helped craft the doctrine of the guardianship of the Jurisprudent, which the current government interprets as clerical dictatorship. But Montazeri maintains that that outcome was never Khomeini’s intent. It is sort of as though there was a living disciple of Jesus around who insisted that he never intended the pope to be infallible. Montazeri was a powerful living witness to an alternative form of Shiite government, one with a human face. The hardliners such as Khamenei and Ahmadinejad will be delighted to have that voice silenced.
Other Iran News Updates
These are what I had been planning to get out of the way the week before Ashura. So, instead of remarking much on them, I’ll sort of just knock ’em off one-by-one.
- Iran Losing Clout in the Arab World. Even Hassan Nasrallah was getting a little unsettled by the violent oppression.
- A study abstract which claims Ahmadinejad losing support in rural areas.
- The government tried to shame a male student by dressing him in a maghna’eh and chador. In response, men from around the country dressed up in hejab and posted their pictures in the comments sections of pro-government news sites.
- A recommended interview with Karim Sadjadpour, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on the efficacy of sanctions.
- Amnesty International calls for probe into human rights abuses [heartwrenching video of a raped young woman who escaped to Turkey]. Here’s a release from the Amnesty International site on the abuses.
- The jihad on makeup! (to paraphrase Mary Matalin)
- On the whole Iraqi well hooplah, heralded by Huffy as an impending war, see Juan Cole, and for some (much needed) historical perspective, go here. Bloomberg also had some relevant insights. Also, I was trying to say this during the hikers thing (who are promised a “speedy trial” in most recent news). GPS doesn’t help a damn bit when both countries have different ideas where the border is.
- Remember the hacked Predator drones? Iran may have had a hand in it. And they may have hacked Twitter too!
- While I’m on the subject of IRI mischief, Houthi rebels in Yemen (Exporting the Revolution redux and screwing with the Saudis again). No wonder they got disinvited from the GCC – that, and Bahrain and the UAE weren’t too amused by the yacht incident, I imagine. Oh wait, no, I’m pretty certain. It really doesn’t take an analyst at a thinktank to figure these things out sometimes.
- Awesome op-ed by Richard Cohen on why Obama is doing the right thing with Iran. Mehdi Karoubi, in an interview published this morning, bolsters this. Admiral Mullen’s recent comments slightly complicate this, but it was still far more measured than we might have seen under the Bush administration. If this is part of the concerted case being built to invade Iran à la Iraq, I still fail to see it. But that’s another topic altogether for me to thoughtfully dismantle.
Well, that’s it. My bookmarks get pretty full after a short while, and I only selected a few. The above section was to be among my content in my preview of the upcoming Ashura demonstrations. So, until next week, to get everyone in the Shi’i holiday mood —
A final mention of thanks. Some of these links would not be possible but for my fellow IRI apologist slayers at HP. If you happen to cross upon this, you know who you are.
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“Independence is being free of foreign intervention and freedom is giving people the freedom to express their opinions. Not being put in prison for every protest one utters.”
– Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (1922-2009)