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Intolerance Is Integral To The Iranian System

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's leadership leaves no room for alternative views
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's leadership leaves no room for alternative views
"In Islamic law, there is a principle of respect for the human being and his or her life and property, irrespective of his or her religion, confession, race, or sex."

This quote comes from no less an authority than Mohammad Mojtehed Shabestari, a Shi'ite Muslim cleric who has spent his life studying and teaching Islam in the theological seminary in Qom, Iran. He has written for numerous respected publications such as "Maktabe Eslam," and he taught on the Faculty of Religion at Tehran University until he was fired last year -- along with many other professors who were considered too moderate or too apolitical for the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Shabestari's statements on tolerance in Islamic law seem to have little relation to the policies of the Islamic Republic. Last week, Iranian government media launched a campaign against Shabestari, calling a recent speech he gave in Isfahan "blasphemy." In that speech, Shabestari said that "if in a society the three concepts of God, power, and authority are mixed up, a political-religious despotism will find strong roots...and the people will suffer greatly."

Ahmad Khatami, the acting chief imam of Tehran and a member of the Experts Council, called Shabestari's statements "atheism." Khatami said Shabestari "is opposed to the principle of Velayate Faqih," the political theory that Iran's Islamic republic is based on. Under this system, an unelected supreme leader has supreme authority over the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government at all levels of the state, while the elected government merely implements the supreme leader's vision.

Shabestari responded with a written denial of the blasphemy accusations, saying the attacks against him are part of the conservative ruling elite's preparations for June's presidential election. He said their strategy is based on "lies, denunciations, and personal terror."

Clearly, anything that does not fit the regime's application of political Shi'ite Islam as a tool of government is dismissed as "blasphemy," "infidelity," and "Western-oriented" thinking that is to be eliminated from Iranian political discourse.

An Iranian Fundamental

But Shabestari is mistaken to focus on the current election campaign. The ruling elite's distaste for other views of Islam goes back many years, and is a fundamental characteristic of the Iranian system.

There are many cases that illustrate the regime's intolerance. Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, a popular figure who saved the life of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the shah's regime, was put under house arrest in the early 1980s for advocating the idea that Islamic clerics should not actively participate in government.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a co-founder of the Islamic republic who Khomeini selected to replace him as supreme leader, was put under house arrest in 1989 for saying Iran's policies infringed on freedom and violated people's rights. Still living in Qom under house arrest, Montazeri enjoys considerable popular support, particularly among students and reformists.

In 2002, Hashem Aghajari, a devout Shi'ite and a reformist professor at Tarbiat Modares University, was imprisoned for a speech he gave in Hamadan on "Islamic Protestantism," in which he called for a "reformation" of Islam that would decrease the role of the clergy. He was twice sentenced to death for apostasy, but the sentences were commuted and he was released after paying a large fine in July 2004.

Ayatollah Seyd Hossein Kazemini Borujerdi was arrested in October 2006. A Shi'ite cleric who advocates the separation of religious and state affairs, Borujerdi is still in prison and is reportedly seriously ill. The authorities also detained several hundred of Borujerdi's followers who had gathered to prevent his arrest.

Hadi Ghabel, an outspoken cleric, was imprisoned last April. He was convicted of engaging in propaganda against the state and sentenced to 40 months in prison by the special Clerical Court in Qom. He was also defrocked and remains in prison.

One devout Muslim -- Said Behzad, a carpet-shop owner from Tehran -- told me that the campaign against Shabestari represents the Ahmadinejad government's approach to anyone who opposes its authority.

The government is not limiting its repression to "non-Shi'a" or to "non-Muslim individuals and groups," he said. "Shi'ite or Sunni, Christian or Baha'i or atheist.... It's not about your faith. You will come under fire if you even remotely question this regime and its practices."

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL