Has secularism found a niche in Iran’s Qom?

Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri
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Because it attaches the adjective “Islamic” to all its organs and whatever action it takes, the Khomeinist regime in Iran is often described as a theocracy with Shi’ism as an ideological backbone. However, what if the adjective is misplaced, not to say misleading? What if specialists have failed to note the underlying current of tension between the Islamic Republic as a political construct and traditional structures of Shi’ism?

Although Shi’ism has never had a formal organization, in the sense that Christian churches do, for example, it has, at least during the past two centuries, developed an informal apparatus of discernment and hierarchization distinct, and at times opposed, to the state machinery in place. At the heart of that apparatus is the seminary (howzah) in Arabic, a network of schools dedicated to the training of successive generations of clerics.

In February 1979 as the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini jumped into the void left by the Shah’s sudden departure from Iran, the assumption was that the “howzah”, as the key organ of the clerical hierarchy, will seize control of the machinery of the state through a de facto merger. However, such a merger didn’t take place.

To start with only a handful of senior ayatollahs endorsed the new Khomeimist regime, and even then not always enthusiastically. To be sure, the number of men donning turbans and fondling rosaries increased sharply as a clerical cache became a “must” for securing plum, jobs in the government. Thousands of opportunists switched from civil clothes to clerical gear and promoted themselves as Hojat al-Islam or even Ayatollah.

Now finding its legitimacy challenged by popular discontent, the Islamic Republic is trying to reassert control over the traditional clerical hierarchy, most notably in Qom.

Amir Taheri

In 1979, the Endowments Office, a branch of the Shah’s government, estimated the number of clerics and students of theology at around 200,000. In 1989 the number had risen to almost half a million. Since it was physically impossible to train so many new mullahs one must assume that the more than doubling of the number of clerics was largely due to an influx of self-styled “holy men.”

These new “holy men” gave a visual endorsement to the new regime’s clerical claims. At the same time, however, their presence enabled the traditional clergy to maintain at least part of its independent identity.

The Khomeinist regime’s religious claims were also challenged by the fact that the seminary (howzah) in Najaf, Iraq, was beyond its control and thus capable of offering a refuge to Iranian clerics who did not share the radical political ideas of the self-styled “Imam” Khomeini.

Claim to religious legitimacy

However, as long as the new regime could threaten or bribe the “howzah’ in Qom, it could sustain at least part of its claim to religious legitimacy. To that end, the regime created a Council of Theologians, consisting of seven to nine ayatollahs chosen by the “Supreme Guide” and bolstered by generous government handouts.

However, although some of the “chosen ones” became immensely rich, they failed to secure a genuine popular following. Thus instead of the regime relying on their popularity, they relied on the regime’s money for their continued prominence.

Over the years, the Iranian “howzahs” operating in 30 cities across the nation, most notably in Qom, managed to put some blue water between themselves and the state machinery of the Islamic Republic.

The “traditionalists” refused to political positions and stayed away from such organs of the state as the Islamic Majlis, the Assembly of Experts and the Guardians’ Council. The all-important “howzah” in Najaf has gone further in putting some blue water between itself and the Khomeinist state apparatus. Its key figures, notably Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani have even stopped visiting Iran.

Now finding its legitimacy challenged by popular discontent, the Islamic Republic is trying to reassert control over the traditional clerical hierarchy, most notably in Qom.

Last summer when the “holy city” became a scene of revolt against the regime, the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei had to cancel a visit and ordered the Imam Sadeq Brigade to restore order. Official propaganda claimed that, by implicitly endorsing political discontent, the traditional clergy had become “secular”.

That claim was the central theme of a demonstration last August organized by Islamic Security and sponsored by the Imam Sadeq Brigade, to intimidate the traditional clergy.

Accompanied by hundreds of young clerics, the Imam Sadeq Brigade occupied the famous Faizieh School where government propagandists launched a massive attack on traditional ayatollahs and their pupils.

“The secularization of the howzah is a threat to the established order,” said Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi, a media-savvy theoretician of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “The howzah is, in effect, colluding with secularism, perhaps unwittingly.”

The show of force in Qom included some noise about the regime’s generous financial support for clerics and students of theology with the implicit threat that, if the “howzah” sided with dissidents, it might come to an end.

The riposte by traditional clergy came in the form of a class sermon by Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Jawad Alawi Borujerdi, regarded by many as one of Qom’s top masters of theology.

“Some gentlemen claim that the howzah has become secular,” he said. “If they claim that the howzah isn’t concerned by the people’s lives, problems and anxieties, that is obviously a lie. In essence, Shi’ism is a political faith and cannot be indifferent to the people.”

In a thinly veiled attack on state-financed clerics, the ayatollah added: “Secular are those who regard obedience to anyone {in power}; those who invent ideology for the rule of the despots… Don’t expect the howzah to do what suits you!”

Further, he added: “Yes, we do discuss matters {pertaining} to state and to limits {of power}. The field of religion, just like the fields of science and art must be open and free, meaning that people should be free to debate and discuss and theorize... Sciences progress only thanks to freedom, enabling all to benefit.”

The ayatollah also called on the government to stop handouts to clerics and students of theology.

“We have always depended on people’s voluntary donations,” he said.

Within 48 hours of the grand ayatollah’s sermon, the “Supreme Guide” had dismissed Gen. Hassan Tabibi-Far as Commander of the Imam Sadeq Brigade and ordered an investigation into last August’s dubious demonstration.

Qom going “secular”? Hard to believe, although the Tehran leadership’s ignorance and arrogance could lead to unexpected reactions from the victims of its brutal cynicism and corruption.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.


Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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