Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Re-Thinking the Islamic Republic: A 'Conversation' with Ayatollah Hossein 'Ali Montazeri'

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Re-Thinking the Islamic Republic: A 'Conversation' with Ayatollah Hossein 'Ali Montazeri'

Article excerpt

Ayatollah Hossein `Ali Montazeri, a high-ranking political and religious cleric, lies at the center of the conflict now raging over religious interpretation in Iran. Once named to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini, Montazeri has been under house arrest since 1997 for calling for limits to supreme clerical rule. This article presents a detailed interview with Montazeri on Islam, the clergy and the state - his first ever dialogue with a Western audience - as well as an introduction and brief biographical account. INTRODUCTION The intense factional struggle that has come to characterize virtually all aspects of life in contemporary Iran has its roots in the ambitious proposition put forward at the birth of the Islamic Republic two decades ago - that it be both an Islamic state run by clerics and a republic ruled by popular consent. Failure to resolve this tension in a lasting and profound way has badly weakened the cohesion of the clerical class, undermined the legitimacy of the Islamic system, and left the state increasingly paralyzed in the face of mounting internal pressures.

With the election in May 1997 of President Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking cleric with a strong modernist bent, these issues have moved out of the obscurity of the seminaries and into the streets. The result has been a revolution turning on itself, with the imprisonment of progressive clerics, the mass closure of the independent media, and a sharp upsurge in political violence as the conservative establishment seeks to reassert itself after repeated electoral defeats.

Underpinning Iran's domestic turmoil is a unique philosophical debate. What is the true instrument of God's will in an Islamic republic? Does ultimate political power reside with the senior theologians, qualified to interpret holy law? Or is it the people, as an expression of God's genius, who exercise sovereignty in His name? The way that Iran addresses these questions will provide a road map to the future of the country and to that of the rest of the Islamic world.

The death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in June 1989, after a long period of infirmity, exposed the greatest weakness of the Islamic Revolution he had led to victory ten years before. The overthrow of the Shah ended some 2,500 years of centralized despotism. More significantly, it introduced into the modern world the notion of an "Islamic government." Central to this conception of the state was the controversial doctrine of velayat-e faqihl, Khomeini's radical reading of Shi'i Islam. Literally "the guardianship of the jurisconsult, " velayat-e faqih sought to ensure the Islamic nature of the new society by subjecting all key matters to review by a supreme clerical leader, the vali-e faqih, in this case Khomeini himself. In a sharp departure from classical Shi`ism, it combined both temporal and spiritual authority.

Traditionalist clerics, including some of the most senior theologians in the Shi'i world, were decidedly uneasy at this turn of events. Many abhorred the extension of the notion of velayat, seen historically as guardianship over orphans, widows and others who could not fend for themselves, into the realm of politics. They preferred that the doctors of religion remain outside of politics, while reserving the right to guide the rulers and the ruled in times of moral or religious crisis. For the most part, this traditionalist opposition has been effectively muzzled. Nonetheless, there remains a potentially powerful reservoir of clerical resistance to Iran's system of Islamic government.

But another, more immediate threat lies just below the surface. Opposition to the status quo has also been building steadily among Iran's "political mullahs" and their lay allies. Foremost among such critics is Ayatollah Hossein `Ali Montazeri, once the designated heir to Khomeini and now Iran's most influential dissident. Since 1997, Montazeri has been under house arrest in the holy city of Qom for challenging the theological credentials of Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah `Ali Khamene'i. …

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