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Islamic Iran re-examines role of violence

By Jonathan Lyons

TEHRAN, Sept 6 (Reuters) - An unprecedented debate is sweeping Iran over the role of violence in upholding religious and revolutionary values in the aftermath of pro-democracy unrest and the use of shadowy pressure groups to suppress it.

Long an article of faith with the Islamic republic's conservative establishment, the notion that it is incumbent upon all Moslems to use force if necessary to defend the faith has come under increasing attack in the aftermath of the worst unrest since the consolidation of the 1979 revolution.

For years the use of force has underpinned much of the system, culminating in the periodic assassinations of perceived enemies abroad and the 1998 serial murders of secular dissidents at home by 'rogue' security officers.

Then, in a sign of a possible sea-change in official attitudes, Iran's powerful intelligence chief vowed last month to crack down on the so-called pressure groups that have waged a violent campaign of intimidation dating back to the time of the first pragmatic reforms in the early 1990s.

``Although most of the members of this minority group are pious and motivated by religious values, they are extreme, harsh and self-willed people headed for destruction,'' said Ali Yunesi, appointed by reformist President Mohammad Khatami to clean up the intelligence ministry.

``We must make a distinction between them and the religious masses.''

In a swipe at hardline clerics at the weekend, Khatami -- like Yunesi a mid-ranking Shiite Moslem cleric -- said religion could not be used to suppress legitimate freedom.

``Let's hope that people do not try to use suppress questions and answers in our society.''

Conservative clerics have rallied in the face of such rhetoric, rushing to the defence of violence in the name of religion and reminding Iranians that home-grown definitions of freedom are more restrictive than their Western counterparts. After all, they argue, the Islamic revolution itself was forged in violence.

The most articulate of the traditional theoreticians, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, has even agreed to debate the issue on television, although state broadcast authorities apparently blocked the original plan for a live session as too risky.

Mesbah-Yazdi, who delivers religious lectures before the main Friday prayer sermon in Tehran, has outraged reformist theologians, newspaper editors and politicians with his stout defence of the legitimate role of violence under Islam.

``For example, you are in a remote village and someone curses the Prophet and God,'' he told worshippers recently.

``Since there are no police there, the people should take matters into their own hands and take care of that person.

``In certain instances, anger is quite suitable because if a person does not have any anger inside, then he or she will become like a potato, and those people have no religious honour. If someone accepts the Koran he or she also has to accept violence.''

Two weeks later he reiterated his stance: ``Islam allows any Moslem who witnesses a person insulting Islamic sanctities to spill his blood. This is an Islamic decree, and there is no need for a court. All the senior clerics in Islam have said this.''

Moderates accused Mesbah-Yazdi of providing religious sanction to the pressure groups, made up in part of veterans of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq -- known in Iran as the Sacred Defence.

Bent on rooting out foreign influences, vigilantes popularly known as Hezbollahis tore down billboards for Western products, attacked cinemas showing 'decadent' films, and harassed young couples in public.

Under the more liberal atmosphere ushered in with Khatami's election in 1997, they broadened their targets to include pro- reform newspapers, Islamic intellectuals and even two senior government officials. The security forces largely stood aside or kept silent.

But it was the bloody attack this July on a peaceful pro-democracy rally at Tehran University's student hostel that forced a public reassessment of the pressure groups and prompted high-level calls for a crackdown. It has also turned unwanted attention on the hardline clerics who appear to provide religious justification for such acts.

``The problem with the statements by Mr Mesbah-Yazdi is that people who resort to violence will think they have intellectual support and will attach their ugly deeds to the statements by Mesbah-Yazdi at Friday prayers,'' said Mohammad Javad Hojati-Kermani, a reformist cleric and close associate of late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

``The rival political group may try to misuse these statements to further their own political aims,'' Hojati-Kermani told the moderate daily Etelat, whose editor has tried to mediate in the dispute.

Under mounting pressure over his defence of violence, Mesbah-Yazdi has finally agreed to debate the issue on television with Hojati-Kermani.

Last year, Mesbah-Yazdi had repeatedly rebuffed similar demands from another reformist cleric for a public showdown.


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