Revolution to revulsion

Written by Rajiv Jayaram | Updated: Jun 29 2009, 05:23am hrs
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
It started with the panegyric talk of divine blessing, then deteriorated into more of a nightmare for Irans Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He used those two words to endorse President Mahmoud Ahmadinejads controversial re-election in a suspected electoral fraud this month. The officially certified result is that Ahmadinejad defeated his nearest rival Mir Hossein Mousavi by 63% to 34% of votes. However, the widespread suspicion that the election on June 12 was manipulated has set off a wave of popular indignation in Iran, the biggest since the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago. Angry protestors who swelled Iranian cities had a straight forward question: Where is my vote

However, there is something enigmatic in another slogan heard quite often in the protest rallies: Death to the dictator. This dreary expression was eerily reminiscent of those voiced in the run up to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Then, of course, it was quite different. The people were furious at a repressive and corrupt monarchic rule of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Now, 30 years later, when mass protestors say dictator, whom they were driving at Was it President Ahmadinejad Supreme Leader Khamenei Or the puritanical theocratic state as a whole

The answer will take you to the Shiite holy city of Qom, about 160 km away from capital Tehran. It is said that nothing will turn in the Islamic Republic without the Supreme Leaders nod or consent, and the power that lends force to his hands is the clerical establishment based in Qom. After the revolution in 1979, Qom represents the adjective Islamic bracketed into the Republics name. It was in the early 1960s that the clergy establishment in Qom came under the influence of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. After the failed uprising against the Shah in 1963 and the Khomeinis forced exile in the following year, Qom became the focal point of the struggle against the monarchy.

Qoms role was deeply entrenched in Irans polity when Khomeini returned to establish the Islamic Republic in 1979. At the heart of the clerical state was the novel interpretation of a Shia doctrine called velayat-e-faqih (guardianship of the jurist) propagated by Khomeini. In his book Shiite Islam, renowned scholar Yann Richard describes the theory as the fruit of a radicalisation of Khomeinis political thinking since his exile from Iran in 1964. He notes that the failed rising of 1963 and the awakening of a politicised religious feeling as antidote to the frenetic westernisation had given rise to the idea that Islam could form a collective response to the modern challenge and that the clergy was the body best protected from any compromise with the impious state to direct the nation.

While in exile in Najaf in Iraq in late 1960s, Khomeini gave a series of sermons (later published as a book) in which he used deductive reasoning to ordain that the Shiite tradition justifies guardianship of the jurist. It is akin to the guardianship that the religion proposes in cases of orphaned minors-here, the clergy and society are juxtaposed in the roles of ruling guide and orphan, pending the return of the Twelfth Imam in the Shiite tradition. In fact, upon his return from exile following the flight of the Shah in 1979, Khomeini said he was invoking the the guardianship that I have from the holy lawgiver [the Prophet] to appoint an interim government. He declared that opposition to this government would be blasphemy.

That rule still holds. Nobody can criticise the velayat-e-faqih and expect to stay out of prison. It is an all-encompassing political theory that is not any different from the classical Leading Role of the Party bestowed in a doctrinaire communist society. In post-revolution Iran, the presidency, parliament, judiciary, military, the elite Revolutionary Guards, police, the Basij militia, intelligence service and much of the media are all under the absolute control of the Supreme Leader, who assumes the role of the topmost faqih (specialist in Islamic jurisprudence).

Since Ayatollah Khomeinis demise in 1989, the role of the Supreme Leader has become a political hot button. As the aura of the Revolution diminished, disputing the legitimacy of velayat-e-faqih was no longer regarded a radical or marginal view. It is partly fuelled by the current Supreme Leaders own reduced standing among the clergy. Khomeini named Khamenei his successor in a fit of pique, hastily elevating him to the rank of ayatollah, after dismissing the well-known and much-respected cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Partly, it is ignited by the persistent humiliation of what is called as in-system reformers (once symbolised by President Mohammad Khatami) by the extremist defenders of velayat-e-faqih who angrily reject the peoples demands for change.

This month, it was a stolen presidential election that has lit the fuse on the debate. It seems that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would prevail for now, but that comes at a price for both men. Khamaneis reputation in the clergy is now badly stained and Ahmadinejads credibility among people severely compromised. The election has also shown how dishonest Irans system is. Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad both were dismissive to allegations of vote rigging. One particular tone-deaf remark was made by Ahmadinejad, who likened the post-election protests to hooligans after a football match. Tilting at the windmills, Khamenei accused enemy foreign powers of instigating violence. The refusal to see the size and anger of the protests for what they were proved to be a strangely obstinate phenomenon in the dying days of the Shah regime. It seems that the flag-bearers of the Islamic Revolution are also committing the same error of judgment.

Since 1979, the Imam line is handed down in Iran through Friday prayers in the battle cry of death to..., which titillates mobs into a frenzy. Usually, its heard with Great Satan (US), Little Satan (UK) or Zionists (Israel). Today, when they fill the space with dictator, they are only giving voice to what many more freedom-loving Iranians would happily say in private.