Iran: Theological controversy in Islamic Republic could have profound political ramifications
|Author||Kamal Nazer Yasin|
|Publication Date||30 May 2008|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Iran: Theological controversy in Islamic Republic could have profound political ramifications, 30 May 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4847a566a.html [accessed 12 December 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
Kamal Nazer Yasin: 5/30/08
A developing theological controversy in Iran is causing a major rift among the country's political and theological elites, who together control the chief levers of state in the Islamic Republic. Over the near term, the doctrinal dispute raises questions about the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country's neo-conservative president.
Conservative/traditionalist clerics welcomed the 2005 election of Ahmadinejad, who campaigned on a back-to-basics message, aiming to reinvigorate the social and religious principles that drove the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Conservative clerics back then felt that the eight-year presidency of reform-minded Mohammad Khatami had dangerously diluted religion's role in policy making, leading to a loosening of political and social strictures, and, therefore, greatly reducing the mullahs' influence over society.
The widely held assumption among the traditionalist clergy in 2005 was that Ahmadinejad's policy agenda would restore the clerical class to its preeminent role in society. In the three years since his election, however, Ahmadinejad has largely failed to deliver on his economic promises. And while the traditionalist clergy has regained some of its lost influence, many clerics remain skeptical about the rise in influence of the Revolutionary Guards. Both current and former guards commanders have assumed important roles in the state and economy.
By all accounts Ahmadinejad is a devout believer who still maintains an austere lifestyle in keeping with a conservative approach to religion. But his views on religion are not exactly traditional. For example, he has been known to kiss the hands of women in public, an action that conservatives consider taboo. Despite the Ahmadinejad administration's religious fervor, "many clerics are not necessarily overjoyed with his presidency," said a Shi'a religious scholar in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity. "For one thing, it has not translated into tangible political benefits for most of the traditionalists.... His [style] of religion is cut of a different cloth from the traditional variant."
The dissatisfaction of many clerics with Ahmadinejad burst into public view in early May, when some top religious leaders rebuked the president for manipulating religion for political purposes. The trigger for the controversy was the broadcast of a speech made by Ahmadinejad weeks before in April, during which he proclaimed that Imam Mahdi, the 12th Imam of a direct line from the Prophet Muhammad, was helping to guide his government. Imam Mahdi, also known as the Hidden Imam, was said to have been born in 868 a.d. and disappeared in 874. A central tenet of Shi'a Islam is that Mahdi is a savior who will one day reappear and usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity.
During his 2005 campaign for the presidency Ahmadinejad indicated that his administration would strive to prepare for Imam Mahdi's return. During the mid-May broadcast, Ahmadinejad stated that Imam Mahdi was "managing the world's affairs." He also intimated that the Hidden Imam gave him support when he was verbally attacked during a public appearance in 2007 at Columbia University in New York. During that appearance, the president parried much of the criticism, scoring a public relations victory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Was the Columbia University incident anything other than the Imam's hand moving things behind the scene?" Ahmadinejad said.
The Friday after the broadcast, several prominent clerics gave sermons strongly criticizing the president. For instance, Ayatollah Hojatol-eslam Doagoo, Shemiran's Friday prayer leader, explicitly accused the presidential administration of exploiting Imam Mahdi as a means to deflect criticism of its economic and social policy failings.
But the most important sign of clerical displeasure came May 13, when Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani – a consummate deal-maker, and a man believed to be among the most influential clerics in Iran – denounced Ahmadinejad. During an address given at the elite Imam Sadegh University, of which he is rector, Ayatollah Kani pointed out that not even the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, made claims about Imam Mahdi's return, or intervention in affairs.
Ayatollah Kani – who also serves as the chairman of the powerful Association of the Combatant Clergy (ACC), which is the conservative clerics' main political organization – said Ahmadinejad's statements could alienate the population from Islam. "If Imam Mahdi is managing the world's affairs, couldn't he do something about the economic mafias? Is the [expensive price of] rice a result of his management also?" Ayatollah Kani asked.
The conservative clergy's problems with Ahmadinejad actually extend back for months. Ayatollah Kani on several occasions complained, discretely and largely in an unpublicized way, about the Ahmadinejad administration's exclusionary policies, under which anyone who did not agree with the president and his inner circle was purged from the government.
According to his deputy at the ACC, Gholamreza Mesbahi Moghadam, who is also a cleric, Kani first told Ahmadinejad during a private meeting in September that his administration must take a more collegial approach to policy making, taking the concerns of other conservative factions into account. Kani also insisted that Ahmadinejad refrain from invoking Imam Mahdi.
On both issues, the president has ignored Kani. The administration in recent months has continued to push out those who are not blindly faithful to the presidential agenda. Among the outspoken critics of the president who have been purged is Mohammad Gharavi. In early May, Ahmadinejad's allies among the clergy forced Gharavi's resignation as the spokesman for the influential Qom Theological Teachers' Association. Within the government itself, the latest casualty was Mostafa Poormohammadi, the hard-line cleric who was Minister of Interior, and who oversaw the disqualification of 85 percent of candidates for recent parliamentary elections. No public explanation for Poormohammadi's May 17 sacking was given.
"He [Ahmadinejad] can not tolerate anyone except the most hardcore loyalists," said a Tehran-based academic.
"He [the president is not listening to Kani or other traditionalists, just as he is not listening to other groups," the academic continued. "He has an extremely narrow agenda that doesn't leave room for compromise."
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is evidently concerned about the administration's political intolerance and the growing divisions within the clergy. Although he has tended to refrain from criticizing the civilian leadership, Ayatollah Khamenei recently appeared to question the wisdom of some of Ahmadinejad's actions. According to a report published on May 27 on the well-connected Sayenews website, Ayatollah Khamenei suggested it was counterproductive for Ahmadinejad to attack all those whose opinions differ from his own. Referring to a speech in Qum last April in which Ahmadinejad made a blistering attack on his rivals, the website, clearly with the Supreme Leader's approval, quoted Khamenei as saying: "What purpose did his speech make? People don't believe these words and if they do it makes them question the system's legitimacy."
While Ahmadinejad clearly has an abundance of critics, he does retain powerful supporters in the country's religious leadership. Among those supporters is Ayatollah Elm'ul Hoda, a hard-line member of the Assembly of Experts, who said during his sermon on May 23: "I don't understand why some weaklings ... don't want us to find connection with the Hidden Imam.... Our country is the land of Imam Mahdi."
There is evidence of behind-the-scenes infighting among the clergy, with critics of the president squaring off against his supporters. Perhaps the most significant indicator of a power struggle within the religious leadership was the recent exclusion of Ayatolloh Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who is widely believed to be Ahmadinejad's principle spiritual advisor, from the nine-member high council of the Qom Theological Center. Pro-Ahmadinejad clerics seemed to counter Mesbah Yazdi's exclusion, when the Qom Theological Center's chancellor, Sayed Hossain Boshehri, who is an Ahmadinejad critic, announced he would leave the post in early June.
Given the theological jockeying, the coming months could see lots of political intrigue in Tehran. Ahmadinejad faces re-election in 2009, and speculation is starting to surface about the extent to which many conservative/traditionalist clergy will oppose him.
Speculation has risen significantly in recent days with the appearance of a viable alternative candidate. That person is Ali Larijani, Iran's former nuclear negotiator who was elected by an overwhelming majority on May 28 to be Iran's parliament speaker. Larijani resigned the nuclear post last October amid policy differences with Ahmadinejad. In accepting the speakership, Larijani pledged that parliament would take steps to try to ease inflation and energy shortages. Larijani could well prove an appealing candidate for many conservative clerics thanks to his family ties: he is the scion of a prominent clerical family, and one of his brothers is a famous theologian.
Editor's Note: Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.
Posted May 30, 2008 © Eurasianet