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Montazeri’s death and Iranian democracy

Hashemi: Montazeri was a driving force for democratizing the Iranian Islamic Revolution

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MISHUK MUNIER, TRNN: On December 20, Sunday, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, one of Iran’s most well-known clergy, passed away. He was also known because he’s always been a strong critic of the present regime. We’re now talking with Nader Hashemi, who teaches Middle East and Islamic politics at the University of Denver. Hi. Welcome.

NADER HASHEMI, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF DENVER: Thanks.

MUNIER: Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Tell us about him.

HASHEMI: Well, he is (was) a man of courage, conviction, and conscience, really a hero to a Iran’s pro-democracy movement, to Iran’s green movement, and a man who has (had) spent the last 60-plus years of his life in political opposition to established power in Iran, both before the revolution and after the revolution. He was one of the leading founding figures of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, second only to Ayatollah Khomeini in stature. He was Khomeini’s designated successor, a position that he obtained in the mid-1980s. And his real, I think, accomplishments began, with respect to the struggle for democracy in post-revolutionary Iran, began in the late 1980s when there was a series of political executions in Iranian prisons, gross human-rights abuses, increasing authoritarianism. And he broke with the regime, condemning those abuses, writing very powerful letters to Ayatollah Khomeini, eventually losing and being stripped of his power because of his outspokenness. And when someone asked him, you know, "Why didn’t he just wait a few years until Khomeini died? Then he would’ve been the supreme leader. He could have, you know, done a lot more for human rights and democracy in Iran had he waited simply a few years," he responded that he couldn’t sleep at night because his conscience wouldn’t let him, speaking to the human rights abuses that he was condemning. So that was his, you know, I think, background and where he really drew a distinction in terms of Iran’s post-revolutionary leadership.

MUNIER: Mr. Montazeri’s involvement in writing up the initial Islamic jurisprudence that gave the clergymen so much power and governance—what is it that changed his views?

HASHEMI: Yeah. Well, what changed his views was the lived experience of developing this theoretical model that a just society should be governed by learned clerics, then actually seeing that theory being implemented, and then observing the human-rights abuses and the injustices that flowed from that particular political model, and then speaking out against it. So you’re right. He was one of the initial theoreticians of this concept that a just society should be led by a pious Islamic jurist. And this is why, I think, his ideas and his political opinions have such resonance in Iran is because he has great political and religious credentials. And so he devised the initial theory of the rule of the supreme jurist, but then came to revise it, and over the course of the last two decades came to develop a democratic sort of rooted thesis that still stuck to this idea that there should be some relationship between religion and politics, but was heavily infused with more democratic and human-rights sort of norms and ideas that he wanted to see implemented in Iran.

MUNIER: Power from the people, not from God.

HASHEMI: Right. And that was his constant refrain, that, you know, the people are the ones who should decide Iran’s political destiny. And his idea was that, "Look, when I devised this idea of clerical involvement in politics, my initial views, where"—I’m quoting him now—"was that the clerics should simply act as an advisory board, not directly assume political power and rule." And he thought that balance had been overturned, and he was trying to sort of re-adjust the balance by emphasizing popular sovereignty.

MUNIER: Being a clergyman and in a position of power in that sense, promoting alternate viewpoints towards a more democratic governance, how did he impact the opposition movements or the growing process of democracy in Iran?

HASHEMI: Well, because the government in Iran—well, first of all, Iran still remains a very religious society, and the current regime in Iran justifies its legitimacy by claiming that it has religious credentials. And so when you have someone of the stature of Ayatollah Montazeri, who’s a grand ayatollah, the most senior position that you can obtain within the school of, you know, Shia theology, coming out and speaking forcefully against the political status quo in the country, condemning the current rulers, saying that they have misinterpreted views and distorted Islam, and that his more democratic and human-rights centered interpretation of Islam is much more in keeping with Islam’s normative ideals, that was very powerful. And it was an argument that the current regime could not refute. And so the way they had to deal with him was to put him under house arrest, to ban any discussion of his ideas in the state television, in national newspapers, and to try and harass his family and prevent his Web site from being blocked, etc., essentially trying to sort of remove him from any public discussion within Iranian society.

MUNIER: Did he have any specific views about nuclear proliferation?

HASHEMI: Yeah, he did, actually. He was very outspoken, and he explicitly stated in a famous fatwa or decree that because nuclear weapons cannot distinguish between military and civilian targets, that they are immoral and unethical, and they should be banned. And he called upon Iranians and other Muslims to sort of take the lead globally in trying to call for a universal ban of nuclear weapons and to work in concert with other existing NGOs, international institutions that are working for the same goal. So that’s one of his most famous fatwas, among others. The other one that I’d like to mention (I think it’s very important) is that he came and he broke with existing tradition, and he broke with the ruling ideology of the regime in terms of supporting full citizenship rights for Iran’s Baha’i minority, who have been historically persecuted. He issued an important fatwa sort of dealing with the question of apostasy in Islam, which carries a very severe punishment, saying that just because you change your religion does not—should not merit a severe punishment. And so there was a whole series of important decrees that he issued, and it had a lot of weight because he was a very senior theological figure. But also on the political side, he was very outspoken in terms of intervening in contemporary Iranian politics, effectively acting as the moral conscience of Iran’s pro-democracy and green movement.

MUNIER: So in terms of contemporary politics after the recent elections, what was his position in that regard?

HASHEMI: I followed his writings and his statements very closely, and seemingly not a week would go by without him intervening and publicly condemning the state of human rights in Iran, supporting the right of political prisoners to be freed, condemning the sham Stalinist show trials that took place among the senior reformist leadership—really, on every sort of major issue you can think about with respect to these elections. He really articulated many of the grievances that millions of Iranians had with respect to the June 2009 stolen elections.

MUNIER: And what was his opinion about Mr. Ahmadinejad?

HASHEMI: Well, he thought he was a usurper president. He thought that the election itself was, you know, fraudulent and viewed him as being sort of just the embodiment of the worst aspects of the Islamic and Republican system that, ironically, he played an important role in setting up, but then came to regret the provisions in the Constitution that he played a role in devising and implementing and passing, and over the course of his later years tried to sort of democratize those ideas and try to promote a democratic, a sort of human-rights oriented interpretation of Shia Islam. His ideas are very popular, particularly among a younger generation of clerics who are rising through the ranks, because they’re more in keeping with global trends.

MUNIER: Seems like a voice of reason.

HASHEMI: Yeah, a voice of reason, a voice of rationality, and someone who’s really sort of observing the state of the world as it is today, the state of Iranian politics, condemning dictatorship, condemning authoritarianism, and championing, you know, universal ideals such as democracy and human rights, but doing so within the framework of Islam and particularly Shia Islam.

MUNIER: And the attendance at his funeral.

HASHEMI: Well, of course, we don’t know what the actual number is, because the Iranian government banned the media. So we had to go through, you know, secondhand reports. But I’ve heard reports it went from tens of thousands up to a million. And what’s really astounding about that turnout is that if you were living in Iran over the last 25 years, any discussion of Ayatollah Montazeri was basically banned from the media. You had no sense that he was even around. So the fact that so many people spontaneously turned out to mourn him—there were reports that the traffic from Tehran to Qom on the main highway was jammed, and many people were turned away. But still thousands showed up at his funeral. And that’s a sign of how well respected he was. And it’s also a sign of how illegitimate and de-legitimate the current regime in Iran has become, because despite their attempt to ban any discussion of his ideas, his funeral still drew, you know, at best, you know, or at worst, depending on your perspective, you know, hundreds of thousands of people.

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