insideIRAN.org – Abdolkarim Soroush, a prominent Iranian intellectual now living in the United States, wrote a letter to Iran’s Grand Ayatollahs and distinguished religious authorities May 23 urging them to leave the Shiite holy city of Qom in Iran for Najaf, a Shiite center in Iraq. Soroush argued that the ulema’s silence has been interpreted by the government as their stamp of approval for the immoral and illegal actions of the Islamic Republic.
In his letter, Soroush, who was once a supporter of Iran’s theocracy, attacked the idea of a “Shiite Islamic government” and called it nothing but a “fictitious tale.” According to Soroush, the current regime in Tehran bears no resemblance to the government of Ali, the first Shiite Imam and a revered figure by all Muslims.
Soroush’s call for the migration of ulema stems from the frustration shared by many anti-government activists and intellectuals about the apathy of Qom’s high-ranking clerics towards the actions of the Islamic Republic. There have been exceptions to the rule:Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri was an outspoken critic of the actions of the Islamic Republic both during Ayatollah Khomeini’s reign and during the tenure of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Grand Ayatollahs Yusef Sanei and Bayat-Zanjani have also been very critical of the status quo, especially the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the majority of Iran’s Grand Ayatollahs and prominent scholars at Shiite seminaries do not openly criticize the government.
There are many reasons behind their silence. Some clerics, such as Ayatollah Ali Nouri-Hamedani, are prime beneficiaries of government stipends and other forms of funding for favorable ulema. Hamedani, who is featured frequently on Iran’s state-owned television, is an outspoken supporter of President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei. Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, a hardliner cleric who is mentioned as Ahmadinejad’s spiritual guru, is probably the most notable example of a pro-government cleric who has gained much from his unwavering support of the political system in Iran.
But there are many senior Ayatollahs whose lack of respect for Ahmadinejad is no secret to anyone, yet they do not openly criticize President Ahmadinejad or his political patron the Supreme Leader. This became evident when no Grand Ayatollah in Iran except the aforementioned Hamedani congratulated Ahmadinejad after his victory in the disputed June 12 election last year. Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli, for instance, resigned his post as Qom’s Friday prayer leader last winter in what many believed was a sign of protest to unjust actions of the government; he quietly moved to the margins and simply continued to hold his seminary lectures. There are many more like Amoli who have retreated to the corners of their seminaries in Qom.
The reason behind the silence of many prominent clerics is fear. Fear of facing the same fate as the late Ayatollah Montazeri, who was under house arrest and a constant barrage of attacks for the last two decades of his life.
Ironically, Iran – an Islamic Republic — has not been very kind to dissident Ayatollahs. Grand Ayatollah Shariatmadari, for instance, was arrested in 1982 when he was well in his eighties, and was forced to confess to his so-called crimes on Iranian television.
Soroush believes that it is difficult to change the opinions of those benefiting from the regime. But those who are silent because of fear must migrate to Najaf, where they can breathe what he calls the “air of freedom.” This might allow the ulema to operate in a more open environment in Najaf from where they could fairly criticize the government, not only for the injustices it has committed against the Iranian people, but for its cruel misrepresentation of Shiite Islam.
For more on Soroush, you can visit his website…