In the past few months one person's interviews and actions have drawn the attention of the media as well as the curious observors of the political developments in Iran. His name is Hossein Khomeini, a grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He wears the same outfit as his grandfather, which marks him out, at the first glance, as a member of the clergy ruling cast. Their words, however, are a world apart.
The ruling clerics in Iran are in fact only a part of the Shiite clergy class who became fully invloved in politics after Ayatollah Khomeini became the first ranked Shiite cleric in Qom religious seminary (hoze ye elmie ye qom) after the death of Ayatollah Borujerdi. Prior to that time the mainstream approach to politics among the Shiite clerics was that of abstention with few exceptions during the early 1900's constitutionalist revolution (Sheikh Fazlollah and Modarres) and the oil-nationalization movement in the early 1950's (Ayatollah Kashani). Khomeini caused a revival of the idea of political engagements of the clerics after the example of Fazlollah and Modarres that reached its peak when the clerics took control of the new government after the 1979 (Islamic) revolution. The idea had by then been solidified in the thesis of Velâyat e Faqih (Sovereignty of the Jurist) and was later exemplified in the Ayatollah's all too reiterated quote-motto: "Our religion is the same as our politics and our policy is the same as our piety." (Diânat e mâ ein e siâsat e mâ st va siâsat e mâ ein e diânat e mâ st.)
Hossein Khomeini is a son of Mostafa Khomeini, Ayatollah's son who passed away
in a car accident in Iraq in 1977, whose death is told to have ignited the 1979 revolution with a series of protests after an allegedly insulting article was published in the daily Ettelahat. He recently left Iran for Najaf, a Shiite holy city in Iraq, and delivered a speech in the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. on September 26. He is expressly opposed to the idea of an Islamic government, let alone the thesis of Velâyat e Faqih. In his refusal he follows the traditional Shiite belief in awaiting for the absent 12th Imam, the last infallible capable of bringing justice and rule of God to the earth.
Ruling out the possibility of an Islamic government (in the time of long absence of the 12th infallible Imam) is not new per se. What comes from Mr. Khomeini as a bit of a shock is his belief in a totally secular, democratic government in a fashion that seems to me to be far beyond anything any cleric has so far articulated. There are cleric dissidents in Iran who are constantly brought to the special clerics court on charges of opposing the Islamic Republic, such as Mohsen Kadivar, Hasan Yusefi-Aškevari, and even the former Interior Minister Abdollâh Nuri. Their opposition sums up to a demand for freedom of speech and a rather subtle support for separation of religion and state. None of these dissidents has so far expressed such clear advocation of a non-religious secular society, neither have they been so bitter in their criticims of the Islamic government.
In response to the BBC Persian reporter who asked him what he thinks about the relationship of the constitution with Islam Mr. Khomeini said: "The constitution should be completely void of any religious content." He further explained that he thinks Shiite mujtahids (scholars) should only tell people what God's rules are with respect to their personal lives and should not have anything to do with the power. He said an Islamic rule that could only be fulfilled in presence of Islamic government is automatically null in the time of absence. On reporter's insistence he added:
Islam should be completely a matter of personal relationship of the individual and his/her God. But when the majority of people are muslim, the opinion of the majority would be reflected in some areas, such as the civil rights [...] We don't want a government that teaches ethics, but one that follows people [...] Islam should not at all be taken into account in governmental affairs [...] If a majority of people say they want an Islamic government, this is in contradiction with the basis of a secular and free government and it shouldn't be accepted.
When we add to the above Mr. Khomeini's support of an American intervention in Iran, his stance finds some potential weight in Iran's future developments since he could act as an american-friendly spokesperson for the clergy community in Iran. His speech at AEI, a conservative thinktank, could be seen as a move by the US in this direction.
Whether or not Mr. Khomeini could play an important role in Iran's future political scene, the media coverage that he receives due to his name and bold words, brings to the surface the dilemma of the reaction of an Iranian society that is still deeply religious to the clergy community as a whole in light of their 25-year track record in power. This dilemma is manifest in the question that pops up in any Iranian's mind, that is whether Mr. Khomeini is honest in what he says, or just an opportunist.