Iran’s Rebel Ayatollah

Grand Ayatollah Montazeri’s legacy is complex and multi-faceted. Some revile him as nothing more than the scourge of the Shah who was instrumental in fomenting the retrogressive Islamic Revolution of ’79. His “idiocy” in backing Khomeini stems from his fanaticism and reactionary ideology. He is no hero, no dissident, and has only himself to blame for his years of house arrest and persecution by a regime of which after all he was at one time a part.

To others by some strange work of fate he has become the focus of dissent and Islamic reform both inside Iran and across the Islamic world. Millions look to him for insight and judgement on the pressing issues not only determining the future of Islam, but Iran’s tumultuous and turbulent political scene. He is a voice of reason in a thick fog of deceit, mendacity, hypocrisy and propaganda. He is one man against an unremitting and unforgiving regime which like all revolutionary regimes, went on to consume and devour its children. Montazeri made it out alive by the skin of his teeth, by virtue of his age, his seniority amongst the ranks of the clergy and his formidable base in Isfahan.

The Grand Ayatollah’s story tells us that no person can be summed up with a single word, phrase or expression – all men and women are composed of conflicting and contradictory forces; good or evil, kindness and cruelty, generosity and mercilessness. We are all capable of both the greatest kindness and the most unforgiving cruelty. None of us are without sin or an open book and the mysteries and opacity of selfhood elude even the most perspicacious amongst us.   

Strangely enough Montazeri was once Khomeini’s heir apparent, but later resigned in the face of the mass executions of 1367 (1988), when prisons across the country were purged by the government with the explicit order of the highest echelons of government. Some argue that this was at least in part a strategic decision on the part of Khomeini to consolidate the regime and separate the half-hearted fellow-travellers from the true-believers. By Khomeini’s lights, Montazeri failed miserably.

In protest Montazeri fired off two letters to Khomeini and one to the Special Commission overseeing the executions unequivocally denouncing the “thousands of executions” which were then taking place. The pretext: an attack on Iran’s western borders by the Mojahedin-e-Khalq. Montazeri has since fleshed out in greater detail the brutal and merciless nature of the mass executions in his memoirs.

As Ervand Abrahamian in his classic work Tortured Confessions reminds us, Montazeri began by reminding the recipients of his letters that he had suffered more than anyone at the hands of the Mojahedin who had assassinated his son. These were undoubtedly some of the darkest days in modern Iranian history.

Amnesty International estimates that as many as 2,500 people were executed, but some more liberal estimates have put the figure as high as 12,000. Most of those executed were members of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, but members from a plethora of other leftist groups were also sent to the gallows and firing squads of the Khomeinist regime. A report largely based on Ayatollah Montazeri’s memoirs by Human Rights Watch further states that,

“According to Ayatollah Montazeri, the government formed a three-person committee to oversee the purge in each prison. The authorities told these committees to interview all political prisoners and to order the execution of those deemed “unrepentant.” These committees became known as “Death Committees” [Heya’t Marg]. Each comprised a prosecutor, a judge, and a representative of the Ministry of Information. Mustafa Pour-Mohammadi represented the Ministry of Information on the committee at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. In a letter of protest addressed to Ayatollah Khomeini, dated August 4, 1988, Ayatollah Montazeri wrote: “The principal role [in determining which prisoners to execute] is played by the representative of the Ministry of Information everywhere and others are effectively under his direct influence.””

Many of those directly involved in carrying out this crime against humanity remain at large and unaccountable. Pour-Mohammadi was a made member of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first Cabinet upon coming to office, and appointed Interior Minister! Apart from Professor Ervand Abrahamian’s excellent work, Tortured Confessions, Kaveh Shahrooz’s numerous and compelling articles on the massacres of 1367 (1988) are worthy of serious examination.

More recently Montazeri has repudiated the notion that “apostasy” can be considered a crime or worthy of punishment under Islamic law. This was no paltry judgement and marks a major stepping stone toward greater reform and consonance with the tenets of liberalism and mainstream human rights discourse.

Furthermore Grand Ayatollah Montazeri has recognized that members of the Baha’i faith are ‘rightful citizens of Iran‘ in an unprecedented move by a member of the traditional Iranian ulema. His statement is tantamount to recognition of the Baha’i faith as a fully-fledged fixture of Iran‘s rich mosaic of disparate religions, ethnicities, languages and creeds. The mainstream of the Iranian ulema have in the past and the vast majority continue to regard Baha’ism as “heretical” to Islam, and many of the faith’s leading members have been executed or disappeared under mysterious circumstances since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (though it must be said that the Shah was most certainly no friend of the Baha’is; turning a blind-eye to the activities of the Hojjatieh Mahdavieh Charity and the poisonous invectives of Sheikh Mahmoud Halabi; in 1955 the Shah even permitted a series of anti-Baha’i sermons by Mohammad Taqi Falsafi to be broadcast on Tehran Radio).

Montazeri’s decree is a vital and watershed moment in the ongoing struggle for tolerance and peaceful coexistence between the disparate religions inside Iran. In fact a pivotal point made by Montazeri, if only implicitly (though I think it’s in fact quite clear), in the decree is that all Iranians irrespective of religious affliation are entitled to the same set of rights and obligations and therefore all members of the body politic have an equal claim to a notion of citizenship unencumbered by religious stipulations and allegiances. This he contends finds its legitimacy in Islamic and Quranic sources.  

Finally in an interview with Rooz Online he unambiguously descried the hardline factions of the IRI. He goes so far as to call the present government “totalitarian” in demeanour. 

This is merely a meagre blog entry written in some haste. I hope that it has gone a little way to indicate that the lives of men and women are intricate, multi-dimensional phenomena. Just as the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was not merely a dictator (though he was of course that) as his revolutionary detractors never tired of reiterating, Ayatollah Montazeri is more than a cohort of the Khomeinist faction and much more than a “religious reactionary” (though of course there are elements of latter which go to make up his world-view and outlook on life).

Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, now in his late 80s continues to be amongst the present regime’s staunchest and authoritative critics; neither house arrest nor innumerable threats have slowed him down. Though we can merely speculate, we might hazard a guess that the man endeavours in the only way he knows how to make up for past silences, mistakes and complicity.  To partake in world-history and politics is to often become complicit in the most heinous of crimes – perhaps few better than Grand Ayatollah Montazeri are today cognizant of that observation.

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