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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 (www.juancole.com)

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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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