Saturday, November 21, 2009

Islamic cleric's anti-government views achieve new stature in Iran

From Iran comes word that a high-ranking Islamic cleric once close to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the inspiration of the 1979 revolution, has emerged as the spiritual leader of ongoing opposition to the reigning government in Tehran. Followers of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, regarded as the most knowledgeable Islamic scholar in the country of 66 million, could pose a real threat to the Shiite theocracy headed by current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and to the conservative government of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Iran's president. Montazeri has long been critical of Khamenei in his religious edicts but has stayed out of trouble during the post-election crackdown, probably because of his religious credentials and his role in the 1979 revolution, the New York Times said Saturday. Montazeri, now in his 80s, was seen as Khomeini's successor following the revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran. But the two had a falling out over what Montazeri saw as as abuses of power by the Islamic government during a series of executions of political prisoners in 1988, the Times said. The crackdown on opposition following the June election, in which Ahmedinejad claimed to have been re-elected but his chief opponent, former prime minister Mir Hussein Moussavi, alleged a fraudulent ballot count, has refocused the country's attention on Montazeri. Thousands have been arrested and many executed, and those imprisoned have complained about terrible treatment by authorities. "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 the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate,” Montazeri said in written comments posted on Web sites since the election, the Times said. Mehdi Kalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former seminary student in Qom, said Montazeri is the leading cleric criticizing the theocracy from a religious perspective. “We have many intellectuals who criticize this regime from the democratic point of view,” Khalaji told the Times. "He criticizes this regime purely from a religious point of view, and this is very hurtful. The regime wants to say, ‘If I am not democratic enough that doesn’t matter, I am Islamic.’ He says it is not an Islamic government.” Montazeri's contentions also make sense to the West, where political observers wonder about religion's role in the Iranian government's excesses, including its apparently single-minded pursuit of nuclear weaponry.

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