In Today’s Iran, Anything Else Is “Blasphemy”

“By Abbas Djavadi – In Islamic law, there is a principle of respect for the human being and his or her life and property, irrespective of his or her religion, confession, race, and sex..”

This is a quote from no less an authority than Mohammad Mojtehed (left) Shabestari, a Shi’a Muslim cleric who has spent his life studying and teaching Islam in the Theological Seminary of Qom. He has written for prominent religious publications such as Maktabe Eslam, and and he taught on the Faculty of Religion at the University of Tehran until he was fired from the university last year — together with many other professors who were considered too moderate or too apolitical for the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last week, Iranian government media launched a campaign against Shabestari. His recent speech in Isfahan was called ”blasphemy. ” In that speech, he has said: “If in a society the three concepts of God, power, and authority are mixed up, a political-religious despotism will find strong roots…  and the people will suffer greatly.”

Ahmad Khatami, the acting chief imam of Tehran and a member of the Experts Council, called Shabestari’s statements «blasphemy,» saying «this individual is opposed to the principle of Velayate Faqih,» the political theory that Iran’s Islamic Republic is based on. Under this system, an unelected Supreme Leader, acting as Valiye Faqih, has supreme authority over the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government at all levels of the state, while the elected government merely implements the Supreme Leader’s vision.

Shabestari responded with a written denial of the blasphemy accusations, saying the attacks against him are part of the conservative ruling elite’s preparations for June’s presidential election. He said their strategy is based on «lies, denunciations, and personal terror.»

Anything that does not fit the regime’s application of political Shi’ite Islam as a tool of government is dismissed as «blasphemy,» «infidelity,» and «Western-oriented» thinking that is to be eliminated from Iranian political scene.

The ruling elite’s distaste for any other views of Islam goes back to the first year after the revolution and is a fundamental characteristic of the Iranian system. Here are some of the most prominent examples:

Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, a popular Marja› (source of inspiration) for millions of Shi’ite Muslims who saved the life of the late Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the Islamic republic’s founder, during the shah’s regime, was arrested and put under house arrest in early 1980s for advocating the idea that Islamic clerics should not actively participate in government.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a cofounder of the Islamic republic who Khomeini selected to replace him as Supreme Leader, was put under house arrest in 1989 for saying the Islamic republic’s policies infringed on freedom and violated people’s rights. Still living in Qom under house arrest, Montazeri enjoys considerable popular support, particularly among students and reformists.

In 2002, Hashem Aghajari, a devout Shi’ite and a reformist professor at Tarbiat Modarres University, was imprisoned for a speech he gave in Hamadan on «Islamic Protestantism,» in which he called for a «reformation» of Islam that would decrease the role of the clergy. He was twice sentenced to death for apostasy, but the sentences were commuted and he was released after paying a large fine in July 2004.

Ayatollah Seyed Hossein Kazemini Borujerdi was arrested in October 2006. He is a Shi’ite cleric who advocates the separation of religious and state affairs. He is still in prison and is reportedly suffering from several serious illnesses. The authorities also detained several hundred of Borujerdi’s followers who had gathered to prevent his arrest.

Hadi Ghabel, an outspoken cleric, was imprisoned last April. He was convicted of engaging in propaganda against the state and sentenced to 40 months in prison by the special Clerics Court in Qom. He was also defrocked and remains in prison.

Reacting to the campaign against Shabestari, Saeed Behzad — a devout carpet-shop owner from Tehran — noted that the Ahmadinejad government is not limiting its repression to «non-Shi’a» or to «non-Muslim individuals and groups.»

«Shi’ite or Sunni, Christian or Baha’i or atheist…. It’s not about your faith,» he told me. «You will come under fire if you even remotely question this regime and its practices.»

In the Islamic Republic, it’s not enough to be a Muslim. You have to obey and accept what they define as «real Islam,» a state ideology serving their «Velayate Faqih.» Anything else is «blasphemy.»

(Published also on RFE/RL’s website, Global Security)