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Meet the ayatollahs

As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is sworn in again as president amid further protests, Juan Cole, one of the

When Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, insisted on 31 July that his relationship with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, was "like that of a father and son", he drew attention not only to apparent tensions between himself and Khamenei, but to the deep fissures that have opened up in Iranian politics since the disputed 12 June presidential election and subsequent demonstrations. The opposition and the regime are still dancing a dangerous tango of protest and repression, with the theocracy's leading clerics lining up on either side. In a Friday prayers sermon at the end of June, the fiery Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami commanded: "Anybody who fights against the Islamic system or the leader of Islamic society, fight him until complete destruction." In contrast, the reformist Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was put under house arrest between 1997 and 2003 for questioning the regime, said that no one in his right mind could have believed that Ahmadinejad won the election. He observed: "A government not respecting people's vote has no religious or political legitimacy." So who are the leading senior clerics influencing Iran today, and whose support for - or opposition to - the protesters could determine the country's future?

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Leader of the 1979 revolution and first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran ­(died 1989)

From the mid-1960s, Khomeini had two main goals. The first was the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was regarded by many Iranians as slavish to American interests. Khomeini attempted to lead a religious uprising against the shah in 1963, but he was arrested and sent into exile. He went to Turkey briefly, and then settled in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, where he taught and wrote, and ended up leading the opposition from Paris. When his 1978-79 revolution finally cast down the Peacock Throne, Khomeini pronounced checkmate.

His other goal was to turn Shia Islam from an informal relationship between believers and clerics into a system of government. He reinterpreted early Islamic texts to argue that seminary-trained clergy should be guardians over the whole of society, claiming that the word for mediator (hakam),often used for clerics, is from the same root as the term for ruler (hakim).

On his return to Iran in 1979, Khomeini turned his theory into a strict Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, creating the office of supreme leader, the clerical dictator who stands at the apex of the system, subordinating the elected president and parliament to himself. The 86 members of the Assembly of Experts are all clerics, as are the 12 members of the powerful Council of Guardians (which decides what bills may become law and who may run for president or parliament). The clerics of the 28-man Expediency Council are charged with mediating conflicts between the parliament and the Council of Guardians, and advising the supreme leader.

Khomeini initially faced opposition to his new orthodoxy from grand ayatollahs senior to him, especially outside of Iran - but ever since it was made illegal inside the Islamic Republic to question the guardianship, only ayatollahs with the stomach for trouble have done so openly. However, discontent with the doctrine is re­putedly widespread. Although some ayatollahs hold critical posts in governmental institutions, many of the most important office-holders are not esteemed for their erudition.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
President of Iran from 1981-89 and Supreme Leader since 1989

When Khomeini died, the then president, Ali Khamenei, was promoted to Supreme Leader. He had impeccable revolutionary credentials, having been a lifelong activist against the shah and a principal player in the rise of the Islamic Republic. But although he was a cleric, he was hardly scholarly or widely respected, and he was somewhat implausibly declared an ayatollah so he could take up the post of Supreme Leader.

Khamenei has never attracted a wide personal following as a jurist and public mentor on the practice of Islamic law, and his frankly partisan support of President Ahmadinejad, and sign-off of election results that many or most Iranians found dubious, has deeply damaged the authority of his position. On 19 June, in the Friday prayers sermon at Tehran University, he insisted that he would not yield in the face of the protests, and warned against further agitation. The next day, the regime cracked down hard. Khamenei may be able to deploy the Revolutionary Guard and the paramilitary Basij to quell the popular disturbances for now, but in doing so he risks losing the consent of the governed.

Khamenei may be Supreme Leader, but in purely religious authority it is believed he is outranked by more than two dozen grand ayatollahs. They may be among the chief beneficiaries of the damage to the Supreme Leader's standing, and a shift in public support towards the more reform-minded among them could signal a sea change in Iranian politics.

Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari
Critic of Khomeini's theory of clerical rule (died 1986)

Shariatmadari helped save his rival Khomeini from the shah's firing squad in 1963 by recognising him as a grand ayatollah (which made him, according to Iran's constitution, immune from execution). When Khomeini became supreme leader, Shariatmadari called for free popular elections and disagreed with Khomeini's system of government and the dictatorial powers he assumed.

In response, Khomeini's regime appears to have manufactured a case against the mild-mannered, elderly Shariatmadari, accusing him of colluding with counter-revolutionaries to instigate a violent insurgency. He was made to confess and apologise on television, then consigned to
house arrest until his death in 1986. Clerics were prevented from attending his funeral prayer, drawing criticisms from Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.

Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri
Former heir apparent of Khomeini-turned-arch-critic

A leader of the 1979 revolution, Montazeri was originally designated as Khomeini's successor. In 1987, after the daughter of a friend falsely accused of sympathising with the People's Mujahedin of Iran was summarily executed, Montazeri spoke out against the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran and Khomeini angrily dismissed him as heir apparent. Montazeri went on to create a body of writing that challenged Khomeini's theory of clerical rule, placing him in conflict with the new Supreme Leader, Khamenei, who put him under house arrest for six years. He has been vigorous in his support for the protesters since the election in June. On 8 July, he posted on his website a call to "protest the improper performance of official repression". He also called for three days of mourning for the death of Neda Agha-Soltan and other demonstrators.

Ayatollah Yousuf Sanei
Head of the Council of Guardians until 1988, now a leading reformer

A resident, like Montazeri, of the holy city of Qom, Sanei has a lifetime of achievements in scholarship and teaching. Since retiring from the Council of Guardians, he has been active as one of roughly 29 grand ayatollahs who are informal opinion leaders, and has issued liberal fatwas on abortion and on women holding political office. He has met other grand ayatollahs to find ways of resolving the recent conflict, an implicit rebuke of Khamenei. Sanei has pointed out that many Iranians had understandable doubts about the election outcome, given the lack of transparency in the process, and he has called on the authorities to honour human rights. On his website, he says: "Such deceit and oppression should not cause despair and hopelessness in the people's path to standing up for their religious and legal rights and in their endeavour to ensure sovereignty over their own destiny."

What is an ayatollah? The Quran states: “On the earth are signs [ayat] for those of assured faith." The title of ayatollah is given
to Twelver Shia clerics who are experts in Islamic studies. (Twelvers, the largest branch of the Shias, believe that the Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to the Prophet Muhammad, and await the return - with Christ - of the 12th and final imam.) Only a few are given the rank of grand ayatollah; the majority of them live in Iran.

Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-YazdiMember of the Council of Guardians and Assembly of Experts

A highly influential ultra-conservative theologian who is said to be particularly close to Ahmadinejad, Mesbah-Yazdi came out of the now-bannedHojjatieh movement in modern Shia Islam, which has a special animus against the Baha'i religion and Sunni Muslims. This sectarian group believes that the messiah of Islam, the Mahdi, will come soon, and that dramatic social action might help speed his advent.

Despite his genial smile, Mesbah-Yazdi is a diehard opponent of the reform movement, and dismisses the more democratic aspects of the
Islamic Republic as unimportant compared to clerical authority. Of the recent protests, he said: "Anybody resisting against the ruling system will be broken."

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati
Chairman of the Council of Guardians

Sanei's successor as chairman of the Council of Guardians, the scrawny but fiery Jannati, spearheaded the conservative charge against the rising reform faction from 1997. In 2004, he excluded some 3,500 candidates from running for parliament and other offices on the grounds that they were too liberal. He has been a strong backer of Ahmadinejad, and rejected opposition charges of ballot tampering in the presidential election. He blamed the subsequent unrest on British intelligence activities orchestrated from the UK's embassy in Tehran, and pledged to put embassy employees of Iranian extraction on trial for sedition.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
Iraq's leading Shia cleric

Iranian-born Sistani is the most widely followed grand ayatollah among Shias outside Iran, and also has a following in Iran itself. He is known to reject Khomeini's theory of the rule of the clerics, preferring that they instead give informal religious guidance to democratically elected lay leaders; as a result, Shia Iraq has not followed the Iranian political model. Sistani keeps a low profile in politics, and has so far declined to intervene directly in Iran's crisis.

What is an ayatollah? The Quran states: “On the earth are signs [ayat] for those of assured faith." The title of ayatollah is given
to Twelver Shia clerics who are experts in Islamic studies. (Twelvers, the largest branch of the Shias, believe that the Twelve Imams are the spiritual and political successors to the Prophet Muhammad, and await the return - with Christ - of the 12th and final imam.) Only a few are given the rank of grand ayatollah; the majority of them live in Iran.

Juan Cole is the Richard P Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and author of "Engaging the Muslim World" (Palgrave Macmillan). He writes for the blog Informed Comment (

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood