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26 July 1999

Iranians hold a dress rehearsal for revolution

President Khatami wants to modernise his nation and Islam. He has powerful allies

By Ziauddin Sardar

Recent student demonstrations in Tehran brought the long-running shadow-play of Iranian politics out into the open. Pro-democracy students defied a government ban on protest and fought a week-long pitched battle with the police and hardline vigilantes. At least one student was killed and 1,400 people were arrested during the unrest. But the student rebellion, like all good shadow-pantomimes, does not tell the whole story. For that you have to go behind the screen.

Students, young people and women, the most dissatisfied elements of Iranian society, swept President Mohammad Khatami to power in the 1997 election. They remain crucial to his strategy to shape a new Islamic identity and transform the “Islamic revolution” from within. Khatami and his allies have spent a decade shaping this strategy. At stake is the very soul of Islam. Just like the Iranian revolution itself, the outcome of Khatami’s struggle will reverberate throughout the Muslim world for decades to come.

The first and most significant component of Khatami’s strategy relates to the doctrine of Vilayat-e-Faqih or the “Guardianship of the Supreme Jurist”. This notion is an innovation introduced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution. Shi’a Muslims use the term “Imam” to describe the 12 leaders of their sect. Each Imam, a direct and early descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, serves as a guide to the whole human race. The last of these is said to have gone into occultation in the very early period of Islamic history and will appear towards the end of time. The perennial problem for Iranian Muslims is the question: who has the right to rule in the absence of the 12th Imam? Ayatollah Khomeini solved the problem by arguing that, as the moral and spiritual guardians of the people in the absence of the 12th Imam, the religious scholars were duty-bound to oversee the entire political process. The most prominent scholar/jurist would thus be the “Supreme Leader”; and a council of leading jurists would serve as guardian of the people.

This simplistic solution had a profound effect on Muslim intellectuals everywhere during the early days of the Islamic revolution. Even Sunni Muslims like myself – who reject the notion of Imams – thought that religious scholars serving as spiritual advisers to the Islamic state could prove useful in solving contemporary ethical problems. We did not, however, see the Iranian “Islamic state” as a theocracy but as a new variant of constitutional monarchy. The Iranian clergy had other ideas. The doctrine of Vilayat-e-Faqih accumulated wide-ranging powers in the hands of a single jurist – including the power to declare war, appoint the chief justice and prosecutor general, approve presidential elections, veto the legislation of parliament and presidential decisions and appoint six jurists of the Shura-e-Nigahban, or Council of Guardians.

Khatami’s goal is to turn Vilayat-e-Faqih into something akin to a constitutional monarchy. But to carry weight with the Iranian people, this transformation has to be justified in terms of Shi’a theology. Thus, Khatami has developed a broad-based reform movement consisting of more enlightened clerics, lay religious thinkers, university professors, writers, film-makers and journalists.

The decisive blow to the doctrine of Vilayat-e-Faqih has come from the Liberation Movement of Iran, which, in a widely read and cited document, The Explanation and Analysis of the Absolute Governance of Jurist, reached the explosive conclusion that “from the Koranic perspective, the absolute governance of the jurist is baseless and tantamount to polytheism”. The document asserted further that Ayatollah Khomeini provided no Koranic evidence for his theory. As a result of this and other efforts, Vilayat- e-Faqih is now openly questioned in Iran.

The second component of Khatami’s strategy is to expose the corruption of the Council of Guardians. Composed of six jurists and six lawyers, this body gives final approval to any legislation passed by the Majlis (parliament). It has vetoed all radical legislation, such as that on land reform – which would undermine the feudal power of the clergy – since the early days of the revolution. The council has also taken on the powers for vetting candidates standing for elections, including the post of president, members of parliament and members of the local councils.

Khatami’s repeated calls for “transparency” and “accountability” are directed at the Council of Guardians. By exposing its venality and prejudices, the president hopes to undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Not surprisingly, the conservatives and hardliners see this as an organised challenge to their political philosophy. They have now moved in to take the initiative away from President Khatami. Only two months ago, Hojjat al Islam Mohsin Kadivar, a well-known writer, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment by the Clergy Court for openly querying the Islamic credentials of Vilayat-e-Faqih. Other prominent Khatami supporters to be persecuted include the Mayor of Tehran, Gholam-Hussein Karbaschi, and the former interior minister, Abdollah Nouri. The closure of the left-leaning, pro-Khatami newspaper, Salam, triggered the recent student protests. Unrest was further fuelled by attacks at student dormitories at Tehran University by Ansar e-Hizballah, a paramilitary group associated with the Revolutionary Guards.

The third component of Khatami’s strategy is to contain the power and redefine the role of these paramilitary groups (as well as Ansar e-Hizballah, these include the Revolutionary Guards and the moral vigilantes known as the Basijis). These groups have sprung up to “guard the revolution” and tend to consist of young and inexperienced, but obnoxious, chaps – as I discovered to my cost a few years ago. On arrival at Tehran’s Mahrabad airport, I was singled out as a potent anti-revolutionary solely on the basis of my Levi jeans and British passport. I was kept locked in a room for 24 hours at the airport by two Revolutionary Guards. Then they forced me to board an early-morning flight to Zurich even though I was bound for Karachi.

Khatami wants to render these self-appointed guardians of the revolution ineffective by changing their status and making them accountable to the law of the state.

The student protest and its brutal suppression, the closure of pro-Khatami papers, the arrests of his allies, are all dress rehearsals for the main event – the Majlis election due early next year. If the Council of Guardians vetoes the candidature of all pro-Khatami aspirants, as it is expected to do, then the riots on the streets could eclipse those seen during the last days of the Shah. If pro-Khatami candidates survive the selection process, the conservatives will surely lose control of the Majlis. The way would then be open for Khatami to push his reforms even further.

Khatami’s hand has been strengthened by two unexpected allies. The first is the Shura-e-Maslehat (Council of Expediency) which was devised during Ayatollah Khomeini’s days to find practical ways through the legal bottlenecks. The constitutional crisis generated by the open questioning of Vilayat-e-Faqih and allegations of corruption against the Council of Guardians have given immense power to this extra-constitutional body. Its current chairman is none other than Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president. His support for Khatami will be crucial in the event of a deadlock between pro-reformist and neo-conservative forces.

Khatami’s second ally is the economy. He has managed to persuade the bazzaris -the people from the bazaars – as well as a few hard-boiled mullahs, that Iran’s future lies in being the infrastructure and communication hub of Central Asia. For this, foreign investment in oil, gas and infrastructure resources of the country would be vital. But the current constitutional limitations as well as the neo-conservatism of the Council of Guardians are a serious impediment to foreign participation in the country’s development. The bazzaris, who fuelled the revolution with their financial support, are on the verge of changing sides. With the oil price back in the $18 region, Khatami has more room to manoeuvre and woo the business community.

The final component in Khatami’s strategy is to present a new image of Islam both to Muslims themselves and to the wider world. He sees Islam as a religion of peace and moderation, which embraces dialogue with other systems of belief.

In essence, Khatami is a Blair-like moderniser who seeks to fight “old Islam” and lay the foundations for a new interpretation of the religion. When he was minister of Islamic guidance he was accused of being too liberal and promoting music, arts and films. It is a testimony to his far-sighted influence that today even the London outpost of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s neo-conservatism, the Islamic Centre of England, run by Sheikh Mohsen Araki, hosts such “cultural” events on a weekly basis.

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