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In Islam's State, an Islamic Cry for Change

The New York Times
January 30, 2000

When he arrived at the shop of a specialist in old Islamic scripts in Tehran, the mullah, about 40, was neatly bearded in the way of the college-educated Shiite clerics. But he was dressed in a business suit, not his cleric's attire, and he was flustered.

Late for his appointment, he explained that he had waited in the street in his white turban, black cloak and collarless white shirt, and had seen a dozen empty taxis pass. So he returned home and changed to a suit, and the next taxi picked him up. But the driver, eyeing his fare's salt-and-pepper beard in the mirror, asked, "You're a mullah, aren't you?"

"Well yes, I must confess that I am," the mullah said.

"If I'd realized that when I first saw you," the driver said, "I wouldn't have stopped."

Hearing the unhappy man tell his story a couple of months ago, it seemed like an apt metaphor for the troubled times confronting Iran's 180,000 Muslim clerics. Having wrested power from Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1979 and created an intolerant, often vengeful theocratic state that has ruined Iran's economy, sponsored terrorist groups abroad and left the country profoundly isolated, the clerics are now widely unpopular among Iran's 65 million people.

These days, it is not uncommon to hear Iranians whisper the shah's name with shades of nostalgia, even reverence. "God bless the shah!" they will tell a foreigner, glancing about nervously as they tour the preserved magnificence inside Neyavaran Palace in Tehran, just below the field from which the shah boarded a helicopter on his way into his final exile. This is not to say that Iranians have forgotten, much less forgiven, the brutality of the shah's secret police, his modernizer's insensitivity to Iran's 1,350-year embrace of Islam or the corruption he tolerated.

Rather, it is a measure of how anguished Iranians have become after nearly a generation under "the government of God," and of their desperate yearning for change. On Feb. 18, they will have an opportunity to register their sentiments in a parliamentary election, the sixth since 1979 but the first in which the alienation engendered by the mullahs has resolved into a coalition capable of winning the legislature. Reformers already claim the Iranian presidency, which Mohammed Khatami won in the 1997 election with 69 percent of the 29 million votes cast. That success was repeated in a sweep of municipal elections last February.

Khatami, 53, was not always a challenger of the regime's orthodoxies. Son of a leading ayatollah, and a senior cleric himself, he was a close aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic revolution. But like Mikhail Gorbachev, the reform-oriented Soviet leader with whom he is sometimes compared, his experiences persuaded him that the system could survive only if it responded to the people's democratic yearnings. To hard-line clerics, remembering Gorbachev's fate, only oblivion beckons in the attempt to graft the political ideals of democratic liberalism onto the ancient beliefs of Islam. But many thousands of mullahs, alarmed by what might happen if the popular discontent is not assuaged, have joined Khatami's crusade.

Predictably, the president, since his election, has had a difficult two and a half years. His powers under the Islamic constitution are nominal compared with those of the "supreme leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who inherited the mantle but not the charisma or religious authority of Khomeini. And Khamenei has shown less flexibility, in some ways, than Khomeini.

Although he was an absolute ruler, and approved much of the cruel repression that accompanied the Islamic takeover, Khomeini repeatedly warned his fellow clerics not to lose touch with popular opinion. But under Khamenei, the hierarchy has been archly selective in ignoring the parts of the Khomeini legacy that might embarrass them, especially warnings about clerical dictatorship.

Since he inherited the supreme leader's position in 1989, Khamenei has rested his authority on a rigid interpretation of a concept written into the constitution, velayat-i-faqih, the guardianship of the religious jurist.

Traditionally, the faqih was a cleric learned enough to render binding interpretations on religious matters. But Khamenei and conservative clerics have taken the concept as endowing the clerical hierarchy, through the supreme leader, with the Islamic equivalent of the divine right of kings. Last week, responding to reformers who say that the people are sovereign and that the supreme leader is bound by the constitution and the laws, Khamenei said the true meaning of velayat-i-faqih is that "the person in charge of the Islamic government does not make mistakes and if he does he will not be the supreme leader from that moment."

Many scholars specializing in Iran find in the opposing views an illuminating echo of the arguments that flowed in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, when Western concepts of democracy were forged on the anvil of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In England, when Charles I insisted on his divine right to rule and Oliver Cromwell declared the sovereign rights of the people, as represented by Parliament, it took a civil war to settle the matter, and the king's severed head was part of the price paid for parliamentary democracy. The ideas born then were central, later, in America's revolution.

But where Iran scholars find the European and American experience most instructive is in the theological debate that underlay the political evolution -- the way in which men like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke found sanction for their ideas in a reinterpretation of the Bible. Today, it is tempting for Westerners to think that Iran could emerge from its bitter experience of the past 20 years as a secular republic -- a Turkey, perhaps. But most people who know Iran well say that however the immediate political struggle comes out, what lies ahead will be an Islamic republic -- albeit, perhaps, a more civil and gentle one than the mullahs have built so far.

Many Iranians would have it otherwise. But most accept that political change, to be stable in a country where faith is a pervasive fact of life, will have to come from a redefinition within Islam of the relationship between state and religion. It will not, they say, come from a separation of church and state that leaves the mullahs as voiceless in temporal matters as they were under the shah. Pressed, many Iranians will cite Turkey as proof. However secular its system, it still has had sharp challenges in recent years from resurgent Islamism.

This, in fact, is the message of Khatami. Although he is the author of a best-selling book that discusses the merits of Locke, Hobbes and Montesquieu, he has never disguised that his democratic, pluralist, tolerant principles would find expression within a body politic that had Islam at its core. Addressing the throngs who mob him everywhere, he invariably returns to the Koran and his belief that the prophet's teachings rested, at base, on the need for dialogue and consent among the governed.

In the parliamentary election, Khamenei and his allies, having used their powers to disqualify scores of reformist candidates, may yet hold the reformers at bay. But whatever the vote's outcome, Iran's political struggle will still hold the attention of all who care about the world's 1 billion Muslims. For if Iran, the fount of modern Islamic militancy, can find a way to reconcile the ancient beliefs of Islam and its people's yearnings for freedom, the lesson will not stop at Iran's borders. It can be expected to ripple outward across the 53 Muslim nations that have been notable absentees, so far, from the rise of democracy that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall.


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