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Iran's clerics defend the guided republic

By Geneive Abdo in Tehran
The Guardian
September 4, 2000

Iran's conservatives, forging ahead on the back of a series of political triumphs, insist that they have no interest in relinquishing institutional power or compromise their beliefs to reach an accommodation with President Mohammad Khatami's reform movement. In recent weeks they have flexed their muscles to demonstrate their strength: they have closed nearly all the reformist newspapers, imprisoned nearly all the prominent progressive journalists, and blocked a bill which could have freed the press.

In his first interview with a foreign journalist, Hojatolislam Ruhollah Hosseinian, one of the most influential clerics in the conservative establishment, said his political camp was fighting to defend Islamic principles, which they believed to be under threat.

Islamic vigilantes, backed by the conservative establishment, are also resurgent. Last week, they prevented two reformist religious intellectuals speaking in the town of Khorramabad in Lorestan province by cordoning off the airport.

The incident led to five days of scattered street clashes between the vigilantes and democracy demonstrators, in which scores were injured and a policeman died.

Hojatolislam Hosseinian, a mid-ranking cleric, said his supporters were fighting to build a country based on indirect democratic rule, in keeping with Islam.

"Just as democrats in the west come with various qualifications, such as Christian democrats ... so the word 'republic' has the same flexibility for us. This is a guided republic. You should not compare the Islamic Republic with western republics," he said.

"The reality is that our parliament is elected by the people. The president is elected by the people. The supreme leader is appointed by a body of experts who are elected by the people. The nature of our system requires supervision so it does not deviate from the Islamic framework. This supervision is given to the Guardian Council."

The council consists of six conservative clerics and six Islamic jurists. Their job is to decide whether legislation conforms to Islamic law. In recent years they have been accused of exceeding their constitutional power and becoming an alternative parliament.

Hojatolislam Hosseinian and a group of conservatives around him have been demonised by reformers for an alleged connection to political violence. They are accused of inspiring the murders of secular intellectuals in the 1990s. But they say they had no part in the murder plots.

Sitting in the institution he runs, the Documentation Centre of the Islamic Revolution, Hojatolislam Hosseinian hardly fits the cardboard image that reformers have tried to attach to him. An educated cleric well-versed in Shi'ite theology, he presents reasoned arguments for his beliefs and those of the conservative establishment.

He blasts the reformers for what he calls their absolutism and refusal to engage in constructive debate with conservatives. "The reformers won't let people speak their minds. I am not afraid and I speak my mind, but many of my friends are too afraid to do so."

For the first time in several years, the conservatives have taken clear control of their reformist rivals by exercising the vast power they hold in major institutions.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the symbol of the conservative movement, took the unprecedented action earlier this month of ordering parliament to kill a bill which would have gone a long way toward reviving the press.

His intervention was a shock to reformers, but was consistent with his pattern of direct intervention in political crises in the past several months.

A series of similar manoeuvres by the conservatives has put them on top. The reform movement has been silenced in the parliament.

President Khatami, the leader of reform, acknowledged two weeks ago in a two-part television address that his powers were limited. In the most revealing remarks of his three years in office, he vowed to fulfill his promises of political and social liberalisation but admitted that the conservatives had tied his hands.

The reformers accuse the conservative clerics of trying to hold a monopoly on religious interpretation. They argue that this tendency departs from the purpose of Shi'ite Islam, which historically has tried to exist in a constant state of re-interpretation.

Hojatolislam Hosseinian accuses the two intellectuals stopped at the Kharamabad airport, Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohsen Kadivar, of stretching the limits of interpretation to the point of apostasy.

"What we reject today are religious intellectuals. These people see the truth in terms of western ideas and try to justify religion on the basis of western ideas. We don't feel threatened by them, but we have our concerns.

"We believe Islam is an historical religion which can be adapted to all periods of time. But this ability toward innovation must come from within the faith. We consider it a miracle that Islam has the power to guide humans in all periods of time."

The conservative establishment was determined not to allow the west to dictate Iran's future, he said.

"We do have a grudge against the west, and that is that they have never taken a scholarly approach to Islam and Shi'ite Islam, especially after the revolution. If they did, many issues would become clear to them."


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