New Radicals Challenge the Ayatollahs
Rees, Phil, The Independent (London, England)
IN A HOUSE in north Tehran, there is an underground political meeting. About 20 students discuss the forthcoming elections for the country's parliament, the Majlis. The students are scared to show their faces, unwilling to be photographed.
They are listening to a private lecture by Habibollah Peyman, a teacher at Tehran University. An unassuming man of slight frame, he was born a political fighter. Imprisoned for five years by the Shah, his students were later active in the overthrow of the monarchy. Today Dr Peyman is telling a new generation of students to fight for greater freedom. He condemns the clergy for turning Iran into a totalitarian state.
While such talk is never heard openly in Iran, there is a growing dissent from the country's religious intellectuals. Dr Peyman is not criticising the government from a Western or secular perspective. He is attacking the regime on its own terms. And that is why he is more dangerous to the ruling clergy than foreign or liberal opponents.
Dr Peyman is one of a group of Islamic scholars who have become known as the "New Thinkers". Their intellectual challenge is shaking the foundations of the Islamic faith and their thoughts will have implications for Islamic movements throughout the world.
The New Thinkers are building an Islamic ideology that can deal with the 20th century. They want to show that an Islamic government can break the closed circuit that prevents it entering the modern era and relating freely to the outside world. Peyman is challenging 13 centuries of thinking - that a literal interpretation of the Koran is the mark of a true believer. He accuses Iran's mullahs of being incapable rulers, unable to govern effectively. "The clergy have failed to fulfil the promises of the revolution and this has placed the legitimacy of their entire political system under question," he says.
For a first-time visitor to Iran, the country does not conform to its image. With its wide, tree-lined boulevards, Tehran is not the dark brooding city imagined by Westerners. There is also a surprising level of debate. Unlike most of Iran's Arab neighbours, fear of the regime does not run so deeply as to prevent criticism and discussion.
But after a few years of tentative opening, the boldness of men such as Dr Peyman has led to a fresh clampdown. It began last October with the writer Abdol Karim Saroush, one of the first New Thinkers to speak out. His lecture at Tehran University was broken up and he was forced into hiding. Saroush argued that if 7th century Islam is used as a modern political ideology, it will become totalitarian and will ignore the interests of the people. The conclusion: that enforced religious rule and democracy are incompatible.
The religious hardliners are worried. Their response has been to beef up their loyal foot soldiers, the Bassidj, or the Mobilised Force for the Oppressed. These men are the private army of the ayatollahs, based in mosques throughout Iran. Their loyalty is to the religious leaders, not the politicians. Allah Karam is one of the fiercest members of the Mobilised Force. …