Religion and politics in Qom

From the Economist:

Why suppose that Qom of all places might become an agent of change? Conventional wisdom from afar saw the success of Khomeini’s revolution as Qom’s victory too. Didn’t the revolution stop modernisation in its tracks and jerk Iran back to the Middle Ages, delivering political power to turbaned clerics in thrall to an unfathomable theology? And does it not follow that the turbaned clerics of Qom have a strong belief, buttressed by a strong vested interest, in preserving the theocratic principles of that revolution?

As a matter of fact, no. Khomeini’s central idea, the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, gives the Islamic Republic its theological underpinning. This holds that until the appearance of the Shias’ “hidden imam” (of which more below) society should be governed by a supreme leader, the clerical judge best qualified to interpret God’s will and the meaning of Islamic law. It is this doctrine that makes Ayatollah Khamenei supreme leader and all others subordinate to him. But Qom itself has never felt completely at ease either with Ayatollah Khomeini’s idea or Ayatollah Khamenei’s succession. Indeed, many of the most revered clerical minds in Qom see this doctrine, and especially the way it has been implemented since Khomeini’s death, as negating their tradition.

There’s some more:

It is not clear exactly how the theological arguments of Qom travel from the seminary into Iran’s politics, but they do. President Khatami’s reform movement drew heavily on the views of clerics, some of whom were astonishingly outspoken. One, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar, began to argue in the 1990s that Iran could not have clerical rule and claim to be a democracy at the same time. He was jailed for saying that the freedom Iranians had sought through their revolution was being replaced by a new clerical despotism. From house arrest, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hossein Montazeri, a revered cleric who was Khomeini’s designated successor before complaining too much about the mass execution of political prisoners after the war with Iraq, supported Hojatoleslam Kadivar. “What the conservative leaders are practising today is not Islam, and I oppose it,” he said.

Such criticisms are especially damaging to the present supreme leader. Ayatollah Khomeini was not just the father of the revolution but also a charismatic scholar of immense learning. In the eyes of Qom, Ayatollah Khamenei is by contrast a clerical lightweight (but effective politician) whom Khomeini prematurely fast-tracked to ayatollahdom when he was looking for a successor. What was acceptable in the charismatic is not necessarily acceptable in the apparatchik.

Although the government has tried to stifle dissent, Qom remains an argumentative place, continuing to exert a potentially disruptive influence on politics. Even during the present crackdown, the visitor to its seminaries quickly encounters a spectrum of clerical opinions on everything from velayat-e faqih to the wearing of the hijab to relations with Israel and America. “Qom’s seminary is like an ocean in which you can find anything you desire,” Hojatoleslam Kadivar told a recent interviewer from Asharq Al-Awsat, a pan-Arab daily.

To sample the range of opinion, meet two clerics from opposite ends of this spectrum. Hojatoleslam Fazel Maybodi teaches at Qom’s Mofid University, a traditionally liberal seminary. A jolly, grey-bearded cleric proud of his smattering of English phrases, he explains at once that although Qom is not a place for political decision-making—that is the job of the government—“theoretical” debate about Islam’s relationship with politics takes place freely. On velayat-e faqih he says that the views of the most senior ayatollahs are not uniform. For example, Ayatollah Sistani, a revered cleric based in Iraq but also widely admired in Iran, has approved Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution. This gives ultimate authority to elected politicians rather than clerics. “I don’t believe that all political ideas should come from within Islam,” says Hojatoleslam Maybodi. “Politics is an experimental, man-made activity and Islam should respect it.”


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