Saving the faith
August 19, 2000
INSIDE a massive warehouse in central Tehran a team of artists keeps
the soul of the Islamic revolution alive. They paint the oil-on-canvas
billboards -- women in chadors, Iranian soldiers at the war front, portraits
of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- that are then plastered along
Tehran's highways, main squares and boulevards. Abbas Ganji, a master painter
and former member of the Islamic militia, points to his favourite design:
a tombstone symbolising the fallen Soviet Union, with the inscription,
1917-1990. This in turn symbolises the conservatives' battle cry: Iran
will not end up like the Soviet Union, and President Muhammad Khatami is
to be no Mikhail Gorbachev.
This fear of Islamist disintegration has been driving the conservatives
to unleash their very considerable power against their reformist rivals.
To allow any degree of religious or political flexibility would, they fear,
lead to the Islamic system crumbling, even as communism did ten years ago.
When the reformists won most of the seats in the parliamentary election
in February, the hardliners felt their survival was at stake. They fought
back, aiming their attack at the reformers' main weapon, the progressive
press. Some 20 journals and newspapers were closed and many well-known
journalists were imprisoned. A special Press Court charged the newspapers
and the journalists with trampling on revolutionary and Islamic principles.
The conservatives' boldest onslaught came on August 6th, when Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, Khomeini's successor as the country's supreme leader, ordered
reformist members of parliament to kill a proposed bill that would have
gone some way towards reviving the banned newspapers. The ayatollah's public
intervention in the legislative process was unprecedented. He had done
it, he said, to save the revolution and the faith. The Press Court then
closed the last important progressive newspaper, Bahar, and imprisoned
yet more journalists. "You cannot save Islam with liberalism and tolerance,"
said Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, a leading conservative. "I am announcing
clearly and openly that the closure of the newspapers was the best thing
the judiciary has done since the revolution."
Recently the hardliners have changed their strategy. Militants in groups
such as Ansar-e Hizbullah have been instructed to suspend their violent
attacks against reformist academics, who in the past were often assaulted
as they lectured, and to accept what Ayatollah Khamenei calls "legal
violence". Now the pattern is for the ayatollah to give a directive,
usually in a public speech, and then leave it to conservatives in the judiciary
to arrest the offending reformer. This strategy achieves the same result,
but beneath a veneer of legality: instead of beating their opponents into
submission, or perhaps into hiding, the hardliners now throw them into
prison. It is a cruel turnabout of Mr Khatami's pledge to introduce the
rule of law.
Moreover, to counter the criticism that they are forcing Iran to go
backwards, the conservatives now say that they too embrace "reform".
But they oppose western-style reform. The changes, they say, must be in
the context of "Islamic-style" democracy, in which the clerics
still hold political power.
Our republic is an Islamic republic, not a liberal one, says Ruhollah
Hosseinian, a conservative ideologue, whom reformers charge with inspiring
the serial murder of secular intellectuals in the 1990s. It is not, he
says, to be compared with western republics.
Most of the liberal reformers also want to keep the movement towards
greater democracy within an Islamic framework. But they differ with the
conservatives on the role voters play in this process. Some of the more
radical among them favour the direct election of the supreme leader, and
would like to limit the power of the Assembly of Experts, the elected body
of clerics which appoints the supreme leader and ensures that legislation
conforms to Islamic principles. Right-wingers label such people western-style
Despite the vitriol that characterises relations between the two sides,
they may be closer than they let on. Today's crusading newspapers trace
their origins back to the harsh early days of the 1979 revolution. And
many of today's advocates of a free press were once the regime's censors,
using their control of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to
promote an ideology that had no room for opposition. Some will have sincerely
changed their minds with the passing of years. But the hardliners still
accuse them of being "the real dictators".