Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Grand Ayatollah Montazeri & The Second Revolution

Grand Ayatollah Montazeri died on Sunday. His burial on Monday, shown in the video above, turned into the largest protest against the Iranian regime since at least June. Here is a report on the burial that appeared on Al Jazzera. If you do not know about Grand Ayatollah, it provides a suprisingly good two minute summation:

Hossein Ali Montazeri, a man deeply respected by Shia Muslims, one of only a handful of Grand Ayatollahs and, until his death, the most senior Shia cleric living in Iran, boasts a unique resume. He was a leading figure and, indeed, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini right hand man, during the 1979 Iranian revolution. He was slated to succeed Khomeni upon Khomeini's death, but instead turned against Khomeini over Khomeini's brutal tactics and his imposition of the the velayat-a-faqi, Khomeini's bastardization of over a millenium of apolitical Shia tradition to establish a theocracy. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was held for several years under house arrest in Qom, where he remained an implacable critic of the regime. Now he has played a central role in igniting the fires of a second revolution.

In the wake of the theocracy's stolen election in June, Montazeri criticized the regime and called for new, fair elections. When the regime responded with brutality to repress demonstrations, Montazeri issued a fatwa declaring the regime un-Islamic and illegitimate, writing:

"A political system based on force, oppression, changing people's votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened . . . and forcing them to make false confessions in jail is condemned and illegitimate."

Montazeri, more than anyone else in Iran, gave legitimacy to what is now a revolutionary movement. And he, more than anyone else, has torn asunder the religious legitimacy of the theocracy in the eyes of the Iranian people. His importance in this second revolution cannot be overestimated. His death will not in the slightest extinguish his influence. Indeed, given Shia's penchant for revering the dead and Montazeri's highly respected standing in the Shia faith, he will now pass into iconic status for those who wish to see the theocracy ended. Thus it is no surpise at all that his burial should lead to the largest single anti-regime demonstration since June. This from the NYT, discusses both the demonstraton-nee-burial and the importance of Montazeri that will continue on long after his burial:

The funeral of a prominent dissident cleric in the holy Iranian city of Qum turned into a huge and furious antigovernment rally on Monday, raising the possibility that the cleric’s death could serve as a catalyst for an opposition movement that has been locked in a stalemate with the authorities.

As mourners carried the body of the cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, tens of thousands of his supporters surged through the streets of Qum, chanting denunciations of the leadership in Tehran that would have been unthinkable only months ago: “Our shame, our shame, our idiot leader!” and “Dictator, this is your last message: The people of Iran are rising!”

Although the police mostly stayed clear during the funeral procession, some skirmishes broke out between protesters and members of the hard-line Basij militia. As the mourners dispersed, security forces flooded the streets, blocking all roads around the ayatollah’s house, and some militia members tore down posters of him, witnesses said.

The funeral of Ayatollah Montazeri, who died in his sleep on Sunday at the age of 87, appears to have put Iran’s rulers in a difficult position. They had to pay public respect to a senior religious scholar who helped build Iran’s theocracy and was once the heir apparent to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Yet they are also keenly aware that his mourning rites could set off further protests, especially as Iranians commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, Shiite Islam’s holiest martyr, on the Ashura holiday this Sunday.

More broadly, the continuing protests underscore a deadlock between the opposition and the government, which wants to avoid the cycle of martyrdom and mourning for dead protesters that helped create Iran’s revolution, analysts say. . . .

The government made some conciliatory gestures Monday, including a respectful statement of condolence from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that was read aloud at the funeral. The statement hailed him as a “well-versed jurist and a prominent master” and said “many disciples have benefited greatly from him,” according to state-run Press TV.

But the statement also described Ayatollah Montazeri’s break with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 as a mistake. That line provoked jeers and shouts of “Death to the dictator!” — shouts that were audible in video posted on the Internet. In one clip, protesters could be seen shaking their fists and chanting, “We don’t want rationed condolences!”

“Words cannot describe the glory of the funeral,” said Ahmad Montazeri, the ayatollah’s son, in a telephone interview on Monday night. But he added that 200 to 300 Basij members had partly disrupted the ceremony, and that by evening Basij members and security forces had filled the streets and occupied the grand mosque of Qum, preventing the family from holding a planned mourning ceremony there.

The government jammed phones and Internet service through much of the day, and the BBC’s Persian service, a crucial source of information for many Iranians, suspended broadcasts, saying the government had been jamming it since Ayatollah Montazeri’s death on Sunday.

There were also protests in Najafabad, Ayatollah Montazeri’s birthplace. Videos posted on the Internet showed large crowds of people chanting “Dictator, dictator, Montazeri is alive!” and “Oh, Montazeri, your path will be followed even if the dictator shoots us all!” Banners in the bright green color of the opposition movement were visible.

The protests in Najafabad, which began Sunday, were apparently set off in part by disrespectful reports about Ayatollah Montazeri’s death on right-wing news sites, including Fars News, which initially referred to him without the title “ayatollah.”

Iran’s hard-liners have long spoken dismissively of Ayatollah Montazeri, who was under house arrest from 1997 to 2003 for his antigovernment critiques. In the months since June’s disputed presidential election, he had unleashed a series of extraordinary denunciations of the government crackdown on protesters, declaring that the government was neither democratic nor Islamic and that Ayatollah Khamenei was unfit to be the supreme leader. He also dismissed the results of the election, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won officially by a landslide, as fraudulent, echoing the claims of opposition leaders.

Ayatollah Montazeri’s criticisms carried a special weight because of his status as Iran’s most senior cleric. And despite the fact that many younger opposition supporters are generally hostile to clerics, his advocacy was meaningful to them.

“It was important that the most senior cleric, politically and religiously, came out and supported the people,” said Ayatollah Mohsen Kadivar, a former student of Ayatollah Montazeri who is now a visiting scholar at York University in Toronto.

Ayatollah Montazeri’s defense of Iran’s opposition also helped to unite its religious and secular wings, some analysts say. And he may turn out to be more influential in death than he was in life.

“His death has become a pretext for the movement to expand,” said Fatimeh Haghighhatjoo, a former member of Iran’s Parliament who is now a visiting scholar at Boston University. “He was the only cleric who gave up power and supported human rights, the characteristic that earned him respect from various political factions.”

Michael Ledeen, writing at PJM, notes the reaction of the regime to the protest - a reaction sure to enrage:

the regime is frightened. The supreme leader and his acolytes (Ahmadinejad is less and less visible. Somebody should tell Diane Sawyer) are groping for a way to survive. They seem not to realize that they died before Montazeri, and that nobody cares to mourn them. And so they stagger about, and find the worst possible gesture. As the indispensable Banafsheh tells us:

On Monday evening Saeed Montazeri announced that the Montazeri family was forced to cancel the post-funeral sacrament as the Islamic regime’s forces had invaded the A’zam mosque where the observance was to be held. Saeed Montazeri also added that the Montazeri residence has now been surrounded by various revolutionary guards, members of the Basij, intelligence agents, members of special force, etc.

It is reminiscent of Gorbachev at his most inept, finding a way to be mean enough to enrage the people, but not tough enough to assert his power, thereby provoking that most dangerous of all mass reactions: contempt for his person and his rule.

There is also one other related item to watch. With Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's death, the next most senior Shia cleric is the Iranian-born, Iraq-based Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Like Montazeri, Sistani is opposed to the velayat-a-faqi and, indeed, refused to support the imposition of a theocracy in Iraq. Sistani, reportedly one of the most popular clerics among Iranians today, could in fact play some role in how events transpire in Iran. Sistani had not, as of yesterday, issued a statement on Montazeri's death. One will surely be forthcoming, and may well give some indication of what role, if any, Grand Ayatollah Sistani is willing to play in the nascent Iranian Revolution II. It will be one to watch closely.

Lastly, I have one bone to pick with an otherwise good piece of journalism by the NYT that I quote above. The NYT mistakenly describes the Iranian MSM which totes the line of the theocracy as "right wing." The theocracy in Iran is non-democratic and rules both the economy and its subjects with an iron hand. They are intollerant of dissent. To describe those things as "right wing" is not but pure projection by the NYT's authors.


billm99uk said...

Hardly a closet liberal though, was he?


GW said...

No. He certainly was no saint, but then again, you can compare him to Martin Luther, who led a much needed revolution in the Christian religion though his own views, particularly on Jews, were virulent.

The only high ranking cleric whom I have heard address other religions has been Grand Ayatollah Sistani. He has spoken out before on the mistreatment of Christians.