Accessibility links

Iran: Aghajari Case Prompts Reformist Students Back Into Action

  • Azam Gorgin
  • Charles Recknagel

The case of a history professor charged with blasphemy continues to rivet Iran as reformist students demand that the death sentence he faces be lifted. Professor Hashem Aghajari outraged hard-liners by questioning the ruling clergy's right to continue imposing its own strictly conservative values on an increasingly youthful society.

Prague, 20 December 2002 (RFE/RL) As the year 2002 comes to a close, there is still no end in sight to what was perhaps the most surprising and riveting crisis in Iran this year: the case of history Professor Hashem Aghajari.

Over the past two months, a wave of student protests at Tehran University and other campuses around the country prompted Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to order the judiciary to review its death sentence against Aghajari, who was convicted of blasphemy.

The conviction stems from a speech Aghajari made in June in Hamedan, in which he questioned why only clerics have the right to interpret Islam. He also argued that each new generation has the right to interpret the faith and how it wants to live within it.

Despite the order to review the verdict, the 45-year-old professor remains in jail with no sign of when his case will finish. If his death sentence is lifted, he could still be punished under additional sentences he received for blasphemy. Those sentences include flogging, plus eight years of imprisonment and internal exile.

Ahmad Salamatian, a former Iranian parliamentarian who is now a political analyst in Paris, said that frustration among reformists over the case is mounting because the supreme leader's order has only postponed its resolution.

Salamatian said the order to the judiciary appears to be a deliberate delaying tactic because the final decision in the case must come not from the judiciary but from Khamenei himself. "When the head of the judiciary is appointed by the supreme leader, as is the public prosecutor, they have no alternative but to obey and carry out his commands. A group has been assigned by the judiciary [to review the case] simply to distract the public's attention with all the workings of the judicial process, which, in fact, merely carries out the supreme leader's commands."

Aghajari, who is also an activist in one of the reformist parties in parliament -- the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization -- has counterattacked by filing a lawsuit over his detention. Aghajari says he is being held in temporary detention even though bail has been set for him. He also says the accusations at his trial differed significantly from what he actually said in his public speech.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's brother and the leader of the largest reformist bloc in parliament, the Islamic Iran Participation Party, has said Aghajari is being punished illegally for expressing his opinions. He has called the court's verdict politically motivated.

As the case drags on, its most important result may be the strong jolt it is giving Iran's student reform movement, which has largely been dormant since 1999 when it suffered a major setback in clashes with hard-liners.

Protesting the verdict against the professor, Iran's reformist students have turned out in their largest numbers in 3 1/2 years. Demonstrations have seen students calling not only for the release of Aghahjari and the resignation of the head of the judiciary but also for the resignation of Supreme Leader Khamenei and moderate President Mohammad Khatami.

Khamenei has responded by saying the protests are the "work of the enemy" and will be suppressed. Security forces have arrested four prominent student leaders.

The Aghajari case has galvanized the students not only because the professor is popular and well-known but because he is on trial largely for addressing one of the core concerns of young people in Iran today: the differences between their generation and the now-aging revolutionaries who launched the Islamic Republic almost a quarter of a century ago.

In his speech, Aghajari infuriated hard-liners by questioning whether today's young people should automatically accept the austere society created by the previous generation. That society is based on the idea that true Islam demands Iran be ruled by strictly conservative clerics, but Aghajari said every new generation is entitled to adapt its understanding of what its faith requires to its own times. "Today's Islam is different than that which prevailed in Mecca and Medina 1,400 years ago, with fewer residents than some of today's smallest Iranian provinces. We have a different understanding of [Islam] in all areas, including economics, politics, the governing system, and our social behavior -- it has to suit us today."

In calling for Iran's new generation to set its own course, he also said that regimes do not rule by force alone but depend on ordinary people's apathy to remain in power. "Don't assume that all dictatorships have been created and survive by force and at gunpoint, but rather coercion and despotism have rooted in people's ignorance and advanced on it."

Such statements have enormous political resonance because more than half the people in Iran were born after 1979 and have no direct experience of the Western-leaning Shah's regime, which the Islamic Revolution overthrew.

The revolution has sought to continue to justify itself as a religious righting of Shah-era wrongs. But many young people now are more personally concerned with the limits the Islamic Republic puts on their own lifestyle. The limits include few social outlets and little freedom of expression.

Many young people are also frustrated by the poor performance of the Islamic Republic's largely centralized economy, which makes it hard for them to find jobs and save enough for marriage. The economy is characterized by double-digit rates of unemployment and inflation.