“Having insulted and made accusations against clerical elites [who have been] in the political arena during the past 30 years, they are now targeting the learned men, scholars and sources of emulation of Qom,” writes former President Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in an article published on his website on 9 January 2011. Rafsanjani’s lamentation was released on the anniversary of the publication of an article in Ettelaat on 7 January 1978, written under the pseudonym of Ahmad Rashidi-Motlagh, which among other things accused Grand Ayatollah Khomeini of being a British agent. Ettelaat’s article provoked a countrywide popular uprising and is today considered one of the key events that triggered the revolution of 1979.
But who are “the depressed snakes” and “Rashidi-Motlaghs of today dressed in the cloak of friendship,” against whom Rafsanjani warns? The answer is obvious: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the new anti-clerical elites of the Islamic Republic, who have been engaged in open warfare against the clergy at least since the presidential elections of 2005. Ahmadinejad and his supporters may look simple, but they have used the most subtle methods to undermine the authority of the clergy.
In a widely publicised conversation with Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli, Ahmadinejad claimed a halo of light surrounded his head during his address to the UN General Assembly in 2005. Many considered this an eccentricity. However, Ahmadinejad’s manoeuvre in reality breaks Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s monopoly on direct access to the Twelfth Imam. Why should Ahmadinejad seek the guidance of the Guardian Jurist when the president of the republic is capable of establishing direct contact with the Mahdi?
Ahmadinejad has also systematically used his proxies such as the war veteran Abbas Palizdar to accuse Rafsanjani and a number of politically important clerics, including Hojjat Al-Eslam Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the head of Khamenei’s inspectorate, of economic corruption. Palizdar recently retracted the accusations and has even begged for Rafsanjani’s forgiveness, but by then the prestige of the clergy was already badly damaged.
Ahmadinejad also uses his deputies to mobilise the youth against the clerics. Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, recently said: “When I say something, they say it is blasphemous, but there are some [people] who don’t comprehend music, they don’t understand it and say ‘music is haram.’” Mashaei’s statements provoked the anger of ayatollahs Naser Makarem Shirazi and Ahmad Khatami, temporary Tehran Friday prayer leader. Ahmadineajd had of course calculated with such reactions. In the eyes of the youth, the president and his supporters look progressive and modern, while their critics look like reactionary and retrograde old men who are not willing to allow the young people to enjoy music.
Raising the stakes, Javad Shamaghdari, Ahmadinejad’s cultural adviser, has on several occasions said that the hijab is not mandatory according to the Quran, and Mehdi Kalhor, former presidential adviser, is an active proponent of the presence of female spectators at football stadiums. Both suggestions enraged the clergy, but not the broader public.
Rafsanjani’s article raises the right question: How come an article written by an obscure author in 1978 managed to mobilise the Iranian public against the Shah’s regime and triggered a social revolution, but Ahmadinejad and his supporters’ systematic attack against the clergy does not provokes public outrage? Rafsanjani fails to answer the question he himself raises and the answer I suggest is probably not to his liking.
Insulting the clergy did not start with Ahmadineajd but with Khomeini, who abused and humiliated sources of emulation that did not recognise wilayat al-faqih, the Guardianship of the Jurist, his theory of state. The sufferings of Ayatollah Reza Zanjani, and Grand Ayatollahs Mohammad-Kazem Shariatmadari, Baha Al-Din Qomi and Hossein-Ali Montazeri, have come to haunt Rafsanjani and those who benefitted from their marginalisation and house arrest in the 1980s. In a non-democracy where a Supreme Leader, dressed in clerical garb, takes decisions on behalf of the entire nation but does not accept responsibility, the clerical class must necessarily also take the blame for the ills of society, ranging from corruption, suppression of personal freedoms and political aspirations of the people, lack of equal opportunities and economic underdevelopment and the like. This is why the public remains indifferent towards insults against the clergy. The Iranian public may not like Ahmadinejad, but it does certainly also not like the clerics who are responsible for what the Islamic Republic has degenerated into. A regime that, in the words of the late Montazeri, is “neither Islamic, nor a republic”.
The writer is resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.