July 9, 2009

REPUBLIC OR REVOLUTION?:

In Iran, a Struggle Beyond the Streets (MICHAEL SLACKMAN, 7/08/09, NY Times)

Most telling, and arguably most damning, is that many influential religious leaders have not spoken out in support of the beleaguered president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Indeed, even among those who traditionally have supported the government, many have remained quiet or even offered faint but unmistakable criticisms.

According to Iranian news reports, only two of the most senior clerics have congratulated Mr. Ahmadinejad on his re-election, which amounts to a public rebuke in a state based on religion. A conservative prayer leader in the holy city of Qum, Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini, referred to demonstrators as “people” instead of rioters, and a hard-line cleric, Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, called for national reconciliation.

Some of Iran’s most influential grand ayatollahs, clerics at the very top of the Shiite faith’s hierarchy who have become identified with the reformists, have condemned the results as a fraud and the government’s handling of the protests as brutal. On Saturday, an influential Qum-based clerical association called the new government illegitimate. [...]

To understand the nature of the conflict, it is essential to look back to the founding of the republic. Ayatollah Khomeini built on two different and often contradictory principles, one of public accountability and one of religious authority. To tie it all together, Ayatollah Khomeini imported a centuries-old religious idea, called velayat-e faqih, or governance of the Islamic jurist. Shiite Muslims believe that they are awaiting the return of the 12th Imam, and under this religious concept the faqih, or supreme leader, serves in his place as a sort of divine deputy.

From the start, there were intense disagreements over how this idea should work. Those conflicts, though, were muted partly by Ayatollah Khomeini’s exalted status, and by a unity forged by an eight-year war with Iraq. When the war ended and Ayatollah Khomeini died, the conflicts erupted. On one side, many clerics once close to Ayatollah Khomeini, including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, wanted to emphasize the republican aspect of the state without eliminating the special role of the supreme leader. Mohammad Khatami, a midlevel cleric, was elected president on a reform platform.

But Mr. Khatami’s ability to carry out his policies was blocked by hard-liners who saw his vision of Iran as a threat to their interests.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 9, 2009 6:18 AM
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