Three years ago I got to write a paper on the influence Shi’ite clerics on Middle Eastern power politics and military strategy. There is hardly consensus on ideological points, like one might assume listening to Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah or Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But their rhetoric clouds the changes happening in the Shi’ite world. Iraq and Iran are moving away from extremism, not toward it. What the definition of “extreme” is also very debatable, since the term is only subjective and needs to be used in reference to some more “moderate” position. But more and more, the clerics who had been overshadowed by paramilitary and revolutionary politics are regaining their foothold among the masses. Indeed, Shi’ite Islam is “de-politicizing.”
This trend began long ago, when a major authority in Shi’ite Islam, Ayatollah Ali Hussein Montazeri, broke ranks with Iran’s revolutionary leadership, namely Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He openly disagreed with him on the suppression of political opposition, the edict against Salman Rushdie and the flurry of executions against political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1988):
“The denial of people’s rights, injustice and disregard for the revolution’s true values have delivered the most severe blows against the revolution. Before any reconstruction [takes place], there must first be a political and ideological reconstruction . . . This is something that the people expect of a leader”
The Ayatollah was remanded to house arrest in 1989. Now, 20 years later, he is re-emerging as a forgotten figure with impeccable credentials. What he has that Iran’s secular opposition has never had is the ability to criticize Iran’s “Islamic Republic.” Remember, a secular person arguing against the existence of such a government will always be associated with an agenda. Religious Iranians would always have to suppress their own mistrust of someone not interested at all in religious authority.
But Ayatollah Montazeri, and many more figures like him, cannot be accused of such a thing. Following the protests this summer, the country is opening up. Despite an increase in arrests and executions, more Iranians feel free to attack government policy and legitimacy. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s government feel intense pressure, otherwise they would feel no need to arrest dozens of student leaders, continuing closing newspapers, and of course limiting access to the internet.
The rise of Montazeri, and the emergence of figures like Ali Sistani in Iraq, and several in Iran, mark a significant shift that is causing Tehran to react harshly. The government there is under intense pressure.