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Iran loses faith in clerics
The mob shouted for his blood. They called him a traitor; they yelled, "Death to Montazeri."
The target of their wrath? The Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri.
Once, he was heir apparent to the ruler of the country, an Iranian equivalent to Thomas Jefferson, an Islamic revolutionary who helped topple the dreaded Shah of Iran. Now, though, his fall from grace seemed complete. Outside his home, an unruly crowd of hundreds had branded him a heretic.
As Montazeri, partially deaf, prayed in a room behind his office, he barely heard bricks shattering the windows. But his family members were scared. They ran from the cleric to the chaos outside and back, trying to shield Montazeri from harm.
Eventually, the police took action on that day in 1997, spraying the mob with tear gas. The aging cleric and his family escaped harm. But they would endure years of punishment, house arrest, prison and harassment.
Montazeri's crime was simple: He had publicly criticized his one-time allies, the clerics who run the country, for abandoning human rights and freedom as the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
"The shah is gone," Montazeri said in a recent interview. "But a clergy has replaced him."
On one level, the story of Hussein Ali Montazeri is a powerful drama of life, death and resurrection in one of the world's most rigid societies. Critics say he is naive, manipulated by the people around him and bitter after falling out of favor with the government. But at 82, Montazeri has survived years of intellectual apartheid to rise again in the eyes of the Islamic world. Today he is considered one of the top two Shiite clerics worldwide and is a powerful voice for moderation in Iran.
His story also shows the ups and downs of the struggle over Islam in a nation where large numbers of people yearn for the economic and political freedoms practiced in the secular West, often viewed as an icon of immorality by the conservative clerics of Iran.
In thick, black-rimmed glasses, a white skullcap, cardigan sweater and long robe, Montazeri hardly fits the image of a rebel. His hands shake. He often sits on a heating pad. He suffers from diabetes, but he hides chocolates in a desk drawer. He speaks in singsong sentences that trail off in a wheeze.
But Montazeri is at the heart of a battle over Iran's fate--one that could hint at the future in the Middle East, where radicals from Iraq to the Gaza Strip want an Islamic revolution like the one that happened in Iran 25 years ago.
On one side are the powerful clerics who rule Iran and thwart the most modest reforms.
On the other side, grass-roots reformers complain that the fight for an Islamic democracy actually led to an Islamic dictatorship, one that jails or even kills its critics, violates basic rights and distorts the tenets of Islam.
Led by senior clerics such as Montazeri and one-time foot soldiers of the revolution, they seek democratic reforms that would restore a respect for human rights and freedom. Some, such as Montazeri, believe that the country can be run through an Islamic system. But others believe that religion has no place in government. They want the clergy to return to the mosques. They want a true democracy.
"I don't have any doubt it will come," said Ibrahim Yazdi, the Islamic Republic's first foreign minister, who now leads the country's only secular-leaning political party.
The people of Iran are caught in the middle, chanting "Death to America" at Friday prayers then welcoming American visitors with fresh fruit. They adhere to strict Islamic codes in public but disappear behind closed doors to drink homemade vodka and watch MTV.
They live in a nation that is rich in oil but has a stagnant economy. Jobs are scarce, the air polluted, the press controlled and the politics repressive.
And in the ultimate irony of the Islamic Republic, the country is becoming less religious, not more.
On a Friday in January, one of Iran's top politicians stood on an outdoor stage at the University of Tehran, praising the Islamic Revolution to a crowd of thousands.
"This is a big achievement," said Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president from 1989 to 1997. "In today's world, when many countries and people are against religion, we see a religion emerging capable of making a country run."
This was no ordinary political stump speech. Rafsanjani was leading weekly Friday prayers, a blend of politics and religion, of pep rally and prayer, of love for Iran's government and hate for the U.S. and Israel.
On one side of the audience, about 5,000 women sat on Persian carpets. Most wore chadors, sometimes using their teeth to hold the sheet-like coverings over their hair and bodies. They could not see Rafsanjani over the tall dividers separating them from about 15,000 men.
During Rafsanjani's speech, the crowd responded with the same cheers of praise shouted since the revolution. "God is great," they yelled. "Death to the United States."
Iran is still a religious country, despite pushes for political reform. People in the crowd on Fridays embrace the revolution and all that has followed.
"Until the day we no longer have blood in our veins, we will say `Death to America,'" said Soraya Ghayoomi, before cheerfully handing an apple to an American.
But the appeal of such services has slipped. In the early years of the Islamic Republic, hundreds of thousands of people showed up for Friday prayers in Tehran, according to press reports. Now, in a city of about 7million, it's difficult to attract 20,000 worshipers.
Mosques were often filled before the revolution. But those who still attend say mosques are now often empty.
Frustrated with their government, some people have turned away from religion. They treat their leaders like ineffectual politicians anywhere.
"I believe in God, but I don't believe in the prophet or the imams or anything else," a 17-year-old girl in pointy high heels said as she put on makeup in the bathroom of the only mall food court in Tehran. "The things we read in the Koran, it's not like the country is right now. That makes us hate them more."
Across Iran, clerics no longer command the respect they once inspired. Taxi drivers refuse to pick them up. More and more jokes are told about the clergy. One cartoon, forwarded by e-mail, depicts clerics' brains being removed before they get turbans. Some people laugh when asked whether they go to Friday prayers.
"This is my Friday prayers," said Vida Farahmand, 40, just after she finished racing laps at a go-kart track outside Tehran.
For years, a quiet rebellion has been brewing in Iran. Many people create two lives. Publicly, they obey the strict rules. Privately, they live as they want. They drink illegal alcohol and watch illegal satellite TV. They use black-market entrepreneurs who promise to deliver whatever, whenever, from whiskey to Western movies.
The government continues to rail against the West, but the West continues to seep into Iran. Instead of McDonald's, there's Mc Ali's, which sells hamburgers and pizza. Even the shrine to the country's founder has a gift shop selling Sylvester Stallone movies.
In a Tehran hotel in February, a hotel worker intently watched a DVD of "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" on a computer. Several days later, other hotel workers crowded around a TV to watch a videotape of one of the many popular Iranian talk shows from Los Angeles, home to so many Iranians that people call it Tehrangeles.
The biggest pop star in Iran now sings a love song to the tune of "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson. Ask young people about their favorite music, and hear familiar answers: R. Kelly, Metallica, Korn, Madonna. "It's like an epidemic," said Adel Amiri, 16. "Everyone just likes to listen to foreign music."
The Internet has helped introduce the world to Iran. Young people download hip-hop and heavy metal music. In chat rooms, Iranians flirt and vent frustrations with the country. When the government banned part of a book by Czech writer Milan Kundera, the objectionable material soon showed up on the Internet--in Iran's language of Farsi.
"The problem with our young people is their feet are on Iran's ground, but their eyes are on the Internet," said Hamid Ghassemi, who sells fabrics in Tehran's crowded bazaar. "The things they want and the things they have are very different."
But the young will eventually determine the future of the country. They are already a majority, thanks to a push for more Muslim children in the early years of the Islamic Republic.
About 70 percent of Iranians are now younger than 30. They do not remember the shah and his secret police. They do not remember the revolution.
The story of the Islamic Revolution is written throughout Tehran, a city of smog, traffic snarls and boxy beige buildings nestled beneath a mountain range.
Palace Street is now Palestine Street. The square once named for a monarch's birthday is Revolution Square.
Throughout the city, giant murals feature battlefield scenes of martyrs, men killed fighting for the new country or in the war against Iraq. Pictures of Iran's first two supreme spiritual leaders loom everywhere, on buildings and inside pizza shops.
The former U.S. Embassy, where Iranians seized American hostages in late 1979 and held 52 of them for more than a year, is now a shrine to the hatred for America. Graffiti such as "Death to America" covers the outside walls. A mural of the Statue of Liberty features a skull instead of a woman's face.
The Islamic Revolution had almost as much to do with America as it did with Iran's repressive ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, seen as a pawn of the U.S. in its war against communism.
After Pahlavi fled Iran in 1953, a U.S.-backed coup restored him to power. He turned into a ruthless leader, paranoid and determined not to lose his throne again. The shah created a brutal secret police force and cracked down on Islam. He tried to make Iran a Western oasis in the Middle East.
When faced with dictator-like leaders who embrace the West, people in Islamic countries have often used religion as a political tool.
The cleric Hussein Ali Montazeri became a leader in the underground Islamic movement. He was a close friend of the popular Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, exiled to Iraq and later France for speaking against the shah. Khomeini called his former student "the fruit of my life."
Throughout Iran, rebels handed out smuggled tapes and leaflets of Khomeini's preachings, from mosque to mosque, living room to living room, rallying people against Pahlavi and the influence of America.
Young men left home to join the movement. Women abandoned jeans for the tent-like black chador, a statement of Islamic and Iranian pride.
In Iran, the secular leadership at first refused to bend, responding with brute force. Police shot unarmed religious students in Qom, home to major seminaries and clerics such as Montazeri. Rebels were jailed and tortured.
"They broke all my teeth," recalled Hussein Shariatmadari, now a representative of Iran's supreme leader and editor of the conservative Kayhan newspaper. "Two of my toenails, they ripped them off. They gave me electrical shocks. I lost my kidney."
By 1978, Iran was boiling. Protests and riots rolled through the country for the entire year. People hurled rocks at soldiers, Molotov cocktails at tanks. The rebellion spread like a fever.
In a last-ditch attempt to pacify the country, the government in the fall of 1978 released many political prisoners, including Montazeri, who flew to Paris to meet with Khomeini.
When a new grandson was born, Montazeri's family named him "Down with the shah."
Within months, the shah fled. Khomeini flew home, and Montazeri became his right-hand man, helping run the new country's affairs. He leaned on an automatic rifle while leading Friday prayers at Tehran University. He supervised the writing of a new constitution.
Montazeri favored a government that would, theoretically, prevent any one person from grabbing too much power. Iran would be an Islamic democracy, with an elected parliament and an elected president, watched over by the Council of Guardians and the supreme spiritual leader. But the clerics were on uncharted ground.
"We were not familiar with the issue of lawmaking," Montazeri recalled. "We were just some clerics in Qom."
The more-secular nationalists worried that this system created the potential for an Islamic dictator. But Iranians overwhelmingly voted for an Islamic republic and Montazeri's constitution.
The new leaders promised to respect other faiths and set aside five parliament seats for minorities. Armenian Christians were even allowed to legally make their own wine for religious services. But over the years, many of different faiths, whether Jewish or Zoroastrian, would leave Iran, complaining of repression and persecution.
As expected, Khomeini was named Iran's first supreme leader. And eventually, Montazeri was designated his successor. He never commanded the same respect as Khomeini, a larger-than-life, god-like figure. Critics joked that he looked like the cat from a popular cartoon.
But Montazeri surprised people.
Emadeddin Baghi was one of many who moved to Qom in the early years of the Islamic Republic, when seminaries overflowed and people packed into Montazeri's office. Baghi, a loner on a spiritual quest, avoided the powerful Montazeri.
In 1985, Baghi wrote a book that argued for an individual's right to interpret Islam. Khomeini banned it. Baghi watched as his books were shredded, boxed and carried out of Qom.
Montazeri asked to see Baghi and told the young man that he liked his book. "He was very sympathetic," Baghi recalled. "He said, `There are always ups and downs.' He told me, `One day, as No. 2 in the country, I still might be sentenced to death by my own friends.'"
Behind the scenes, Montazeri had started to question the direction of the country. As its next supreme leader, he worried about the death toll from the war with Iraq. He complained about the number of people being executed in Iran. Montazeri wrote letters to Khomeini.
"I saw some flaws and faults," Montazeri recalled. "I always told him about them."
He did not see this as a change in his views. Instead, Montazeri felt he was trying to correct the direction of the republic, which he believed had veered away from the goals of the revolution and had started to repress people. As the Iraq war dragged on and the economy sputtered, others in Iran grew disenchanted as well.
In July 1988, Montazeri accused Khomeini of ordering the execution of hundreds of jailed opponents. "This genocide is incompatible with Islam," he wrote in a letter, later made public.
And then, in February 1989, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Montazeri gave a critical speech to followers in Qom.
"On many occasions we showed obstinacy, shouted slogans that frightened the world," he said. "The people of the world thought our only task in Iran was to kill people."
Along with the actions of several leading politicians, Montazeri's speech signaled that Iran's leaders were moving in a more liberal direction. But within days, Khomeini indicated where he wanted the country to go: He announced a death ruling for author Salman Rushdie, accused of defaming Islam.
The next month, Montazeri was asked to resign, and the landscape changed throughout the country. His photographs were ripped down, murals painted over. Streets, squares and hospitals were renamed.
Shortly after, Khomeini died, and President Ali Khamenei was named supreme leader.
Critics said Montazeri became outspoken only because he was bitter.
"As long as he was the deputy, he didn't criticize," recalled Hamid-Reza Taraqqi, a longtime friend of Khamenei's. "Once he lost his job and his capacity, then he started to criticize."
But Montazeri said he had always privately criticized the government. He made his complaints public only when problems were not fixed.
In spite of his critics, he soon developed a strong following. New students such as Baghi and a young cleric named Mohsen Kadivar started to come to Montazeri's office and his religious classes. They belonged to an unofficial group of people who had fought the revolution as young students but now questioned the direction of the country.
These Iranians had not turned their back on Islam, not become secularists. Instead, they were Islamic intellectuals who pushed for a new kind of Iran. They called for reform, for change from within the system.
In Montazeri, who had helped form the republic and write the constitution, these people found someone they respected.
"If he remained quiet, he would have been the successor," recalled Kadivar, who became a top student of Montazeri's. "But he rejected this in the name of human rights. It's a very great thing for me--greater than all his lessons."
Hopes for change
By the mid-1990s, many Iranians had grown frustrated with their government. In an echo of the shah's time, people complained about a ruthless dictator, about not being allowed to dress how they pleased, to say what they wanted. But they also worried about the lack of jobs and the loss of the country's brightest to the West because they could not find good work in Iran.
And then, in 1997, a moderate cleric named Mohammad Khatami ran for president on a reformist platform. In a shock to the country's leaders, he won.
There were high hopes of a "Tehran Spring," a relaxing of all the restrictions, a warming toward the West. Reform newspapers were planned. Reformist political parties were created.
In the new environment, certain social restrictions were eased--an unmarried man and woman could get away with holding hands. Women started to wear skimpier head scarves, often pulled back behind their ears. They dyed their hair with streaks of blond, red and silver.
Despite the optimism, it was soon clear who was really in charge. True power in Iran rested not with elected officials but with the appointed Islamic supreme leader and the appointed Council of Guardians.
The supreme leader, not the elected president, controlled the most powerful parts of the government: the judiciary, the military and much of the media. And the conservative Council of Guardians, which had veto power, screened potential candidates for office and laws passed by parliament.
After Khatami became president, Montazeri gave a lecture at his small school in Qom, questioning the authority of the supreme leader. "No government can rule by the stick any longer," he said. Although the speech was not reported in state-run media, copies of it circulated, and word of it spread.
Hard-line government supporters had often ignored Montazeri. Since his removal as Khomeini's successor, the cleric had been shoved aside in the country's political scene. He was an old man with little power, the forgotten ayatollah.
But with so much change and so many ordinary Iranians pining for a more open society, Montazeri was now seen as a real threat.
In November 1997, five days after Montazeri's lecture, a rally was held in Qom to support the supreme leader. But the rally turned violent, and the mob attacked Montazeri's school, office and home. People spray painted "Heretic of the age" on a wall. Police used tear gas on the crowd. When security forces tried to take Montazeri away, he refused, saying he would rather die in his home.
Accused of treason, Montazeri was placed under house arrest, guards stationed outside. His school was closed. Relatives and followers were thrown in jail.
Other reformists in Iran continued to push the limits of the government. But there was no chance of winning.
"It was like playing chess with a gorilla," recalled Baghi, who had left the clergy to become a writer. "There were no rules."
The reformists won control of parliament, but the conservative Council of Guardians vetoed new legislation. The reformist culture minister granted new newspaper licenses, but the conservative judiciary shut many new publications--85 in all.
Hamidreza Jalaeipour, a former student revolutionary, helped start 10 reformist newspapers. "All were closed," Jalaeipour recalled. "They told me you are threatening the national security of Iran."
Eventually the government jailed provocative writers, including Kadivar and Baghi.
From his home, Montazeri reached out to the world. Followers launched a Montazeri Web site and published his memoirs, which accused Khomeini of personally ordering the death of thousands of opponents. With a worldwide audience, Montazeri became more popular, a symbol of the government's repression.
In January 2003, five years, two months and 10 days after being locked in his house, Montazeri was freed. Officials never gave a reason.
Protected by family members and close followers, Montazeri walked slowly to the major shrine of Qom to see the grave of his oldest son, killed in a bombing by Marxist rebels in 1981. And then Montazeri walked back home. He would rarely leave again.
By this year, many people said they had lost hope. The reformist government had been unable to make real changes, and the clerics still controlled Iran. The country's love affair with Khatami was over.
Parliamentary elections were scheduled for February, but many Iranians said they planned to skip them.
"We made a big mistake once--we voted for Khatami. We're not going to make the same mistake twice," said Surena, 30, who did not want to give her last name, fearful that she would be punished for criticizing the regime.
The Council of Guardians made sure that conservatives would win the election. In one of its boldest moves since being established, the council disqualified about 2,500 potential candidates, mostly reformists, even sitting members of parliament. Most were deemed un-Islamic.
Reformists called for a national protest. They held a sit-in for 26 days in a lobby area near the parliament meeting room.
On one afternoon, about 100 men and women sat in the lobby, on carpets and chairs. Hamidreza Jalaeipour, the former newspaper publisher, stepped up to the lectern. Jalaeipour, who teaches a class about revolution at the University of Tehran, delivered an unsparing assessment of the Islamic Revolution. He said the country now has millions of drug addicts, millions of unemployed people.
"You'll find fewer people in the mosques," he said. "They were supposed to be more crowded."
Jalaeipour talked so loudly that his voice could still be heard when his microphone stopped working. He urged the reformists to keep fighting for a free election. "If it doesn't happen, you can hold your head up and say, `We did something,'" he yelled, and everyone put down their newspapers and clapped.
But the streets outside were largely silent. Students did not protest as they had in recent years. They knew the reformists would lose, and they feared that the conservatives would crack down. No one talked about a revolution against the clerics. And most people no longer put their faith in the reformists. Instead, many young people were resigned to waiting. Eventually, they would be in charge.
So in an election with few alternatives, conservatives won. "We must prove to our enemies that nothing is more important to us than Islam and the revolution," Zohreh Moazezi, 40, said as she voted. "We have so many martyrs here, we have to respect their blood."
About half of Iran's eligible voters cast ballots, the lowest turnout in parliamentary elections since the revolution but not as small as reformists had hoped. Some voters turned in blank ballots in protest.
Montazeri, suffering from diabetes and hard of hearing, now spends his days inside his house. He is not prone to long explanations and does not always answer questions, preferring to talk about what he wants. He is full of regret.
As a younger man, Montazeri tried to expand the Islamic Revolution to other countries. He led Friday prayers and shouted "Down with the U.S.A." He supported taking hostages at the U.S. Embassy. All were wrong, he said.
"These were all mistakes, and maybe I was one of them too, impressed by the circumstances, like the occupation of the U.S. Embassy," Montazeri said. "It was a mistake then, but mistakes prevailed upon wisdom."
Ibrahim Yazdi, the country's first foreign minister, met with Montazeri in January. "He complained about the Council of Guardians," Yazdi said. "I said, `Well, that is your byproduct. You created it. You did it.' Without any hesitation, he said, `Well, we didn't know these things. We didn't have any experience. We made a mistake.'"
Montazeri is now considered to be one of the top two Shiite legal experts in the world. He has continued to modify earlier opinions. Women are allowed to watch him teach--a rarity in Qom. Montazeri recently said women and men can shake hands in certain situations--a liberal ruling for any Muslim cleric.
He still demands change. He wants Iran to be run according to the principles of the Islamic Revolution, which he says are freedom, democracy and Islam. He wants an elected top leader who derives his power from people, not from God.
Before the election, Montazeri was courted by both reformists and the government, aware that the dissident cleric's opinion could sway certain voters. Reformists asked him to say publicly whether he would cast a ballot. But he said he did not want to interfere with voting.
On election day, officials offered to send a ballot box to Montazeri's home so he could easily vote. He told them not to bother. At least eight of the top 12 grand ayatollahs did not vote, protesting the elections, said Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, who lives next to Montazeri.
It's not clear what the new parliament will do when it takes over in a few weeks. Some believe that conservatives will again try to crack down on social freedoms, and others believe this is impossible.
"Nobody can stop these freedoms," said Ataollah Mohajerani, the former culture minister under Khatami. "Freedom is like a genie in a bottle. Once you open it, it's hard to put back in."
If the country does not continue with reform, some clerics worry about the future of Islam in Iran. They say Iran is still religious, but they fear that the Islamic Republic and its vision of religion might be hurting Islam.
"If our prophet said something like what these people say--the supreme leader and his men--why would people continue to be Muslims?" asked Kadivar, an ally of Montazeri's. "No one would follow him."
Shortly after the election, Kadivar attracted 1,000 people for a speech at a Tehran community center. For three hours, he lectured in his quiet voice, laying out 10 ways to identify an unjust government, starting with lack of tolerance for peaceful opposition and ending with unfair distribution of wealth. He never mentioned Iran. But the implication was clear.
Throughout the speech, people listened quietly and took notes. One of Montazeri's grandsons, Meisam Hashemi, sat near the front, next to Kadivar's son.
When he was born, Hashemi was given the name "Down with the shah," which was changed after the shah was deposed. He is now 25, the same age as the Islamic Republic. He is a religious man, but he believes religion has no place in his government. Hashemi is no revolutionary. He understands the value of moving slowly.
Montazeri wants Hashemi and his other grandsons to become clerics, like all three of his sons. "After all, it is not bad to be a clergyman," Montazeri said, talking about all he has done for Islam and for people in Iran, all that the clergy can contribute to the world.
But Hashemi gives the same answer as Montazeri's 12 other grandsons: No.
Hashemi wants to do something with his life that could really make a difference for his family. He wants to be a criminal lawyer.
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The world's largest Shiite population
Iran is predominantly Shiite Muslim, a form of Islam that differs slightly from the more prevalent Sunni Islam. About 10 to 20 percent of Muslims worldwide are Shiite.
SUNNI -- SHIITE SCHISM
Origin of the split: After Prophet Muhammad's death in 632, a disagreement arose over who should succeed him as leader of Islam. Two main factions emerged, creating a rift that remains almost 14 centuries later.
- Shiites believe that Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, was his rightful successor, and that Ali's descendants are the true leaders of Islam.
- Sunnis believe that Muhammad's most pious companions were his rightful successors, and that the leaders of Islam may be chosen by consensus.
- Shiite clerics generally have more authority among their followers than Sunni clerics do among theirs.
- Most Shiites reject the idea of predestination (that God has decided who is saved and who is damned), which Sunnis accept.
- Shiites allow temporary marriages and use different inheritance laws.
Population: 68.3 million (2003 est.)
Government type: Islamic republic
Literacy rate: 79 percent
Industries: Petroleum, textiles, construction materials, food processing
Poverty rate: 40 percent (2002)
Per capita GDP: $1,686 (2002)
Sources: CIA World Factbook, U.S. State Department, University of Texas Library
Online, Council on Foreign Relations, World Book Encyclopedia, Economist.com