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October 05, 2003

Khomeini vs. Khomeini
Babak Seradjeh  [info|posts]

head.jpg 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 Velyat 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." (Dinat e m ein e sisat e m st va sisat e m ein e dinat e m 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 Velyat 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-Akevari, and even the former Interior Minister Abdollh 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.

External Links:
BBC Persian: Interview in Persian. (.ram file, 15'20")
BBC News: Khomeini kin seeks action on Iran. English section of the dissident cleric Mohsen Kadivar.

saoshyant at October 6, 2003 01:27 AM [permalink]:

Babak, I think your comparison is fascinating!

I always thought Iranian reformists pursued a democratic platform that rejects the idea of the supremacy of the Velayateh Faqih as an unquestionable sacred dictum. It appears I was wrong. Nonetheless, does any one know if there is any platform of Islamic reformists in Iran that advocates clear-cut separation of the Mosque and the State and pluralist parliamentary democracy? I always thought, from the reports of their trials, that Noori and Kadivar were indeed advocates of an almost democratic parliamentary system with strong political equality tendencies.

It is interesting that Hussein Khomeini and his grandfather both advocate surgical removals, however with different intentions!

Hussien Luther Khomeini?!

Babak S at October 6, 2003 02:23 PM [permalink]:

Saoshyant, I'm not aware of any platform among reformists that advocates that kind of secular system. In fact, Khatami has repeated countless times that he does think of Valyat e Faqih as a necessity. Akbar Ganji is quite close to the idea in his "Repulican Manifesto" but I don't think that by itself could be seen as a platform. This is why Hossein Khomeini's words are so hard to take. His envisioned methods are indeed very close to those of his grandfather. So the family blood runs in his veins so to speak!

Siavash at October 6, 2003 02:32 PM [permalink]:

There are several historic mistakes in this piece:
1. Modarres and Sheikh Fazlollah were not the only clerics that involved in Conctitution Revolution, nor they were the first ones who involved in politics, Clergies like Naini, Behbehani, Shirazi, ... are among the prominent figures around Contitution Revolution time.

2. Mostafa Khomeini was not killed in a car crash, he died in his house.

I think you take Mr. Hossein Khomeini too seriously, the same mistake that the likes of Ledeen did.

Babak S at October 6, 2003 03:59 PM [permalink]:

Siavash, I didn't claim that Fazlollah and Modarres were the only clerics involved in the constitutionalist revolution, but only alluded to their names as examples. However, they were the ones who pushed for an involvement of the clergies in the power in the form of an addendum to the 1906 constitution by which a 5-member council of clerics would have to approve any law that passed the house of common (majles) before it was official. This is the very idea of the Gaurdian Council today. Behbahni or Shirzi were Grand Ayatollahs whose words had a huge influence and naturally would have political impact, which is different from an active involvement in political power as politicians.

About how Mostafa Khomeini passed away, I just resorted to my memory, which could be erroneous, but I couldn't find any neutral source as to what and how exactly it happened. I'd appreciate it if you could provide such a reference.

So, I do not think your claim that there are several mistakes in this piece is accurate, to say the least.

I personally do not think that Mr. Khomeini would have a major impact. Nontheless, as I wrote in the end, the question of the fate and role of the clergy community in any future scenario is open and very controversial, and Mr. Khomeini embodies much of this controversy.

Siavash at October 6, 2003 04:53 PM [permalink]:

I'm sure that Mostafa Khomeini was not killed in a car crash, and all sources confirm that he died at his home. Some people inside iranian authority say he was poisoned to death by SAVAAK,(which does not seem to be true) but no independent source has confirmed that.

Senior Grad at October 10, 2003 07:16 PM [permalink]:

My 2 cents:

Mr. Hossein Khomeini doesn't seem to me to be a "deep" person (like Kadivar), a barve one (like Abdollah Nuri), or a smart one (like Rafsanjani). He was in hiding (speaking of 12th Imam's longer absence!) all these 25 years and he simply doesn't know what he is talking about. :-) He may be taken advantage of for Americans' (or others')political ends, but his role will be limited to that.

Babak S at October 11, 2003 01:05 PM [permalink]:

I agree Senior Grad, he is not deep, brave or smart, although I think the examples you gave for those adjectives are all kind of low-level themselves. But judging by his words, he is frank and very firm. This frankness, I believe, gives him a unique voice among all those outstanding clergy figures.

I don't think he doesn't know what he's talking about and he was in hiding or just silent just like many others, including Kadivar and Nuri now. I agree he might not play any important role in Iran and one should not be fooled by a few words. However, his interviews and reasonings, flawed or not, are good news.

yahya at October 11, 2003 01:52 PM [permalink]:

Senior Grad, I think your judgement about Hossein Khomeini being not deep, brave and smart is simply unsubstantiated.

I just try to address one of your claims. I believe he can not be accused of not being a brave for the following reasons:
1- He was very critical of Iranian government very early on, during 1980-1982. Exactly at the time that anybody who disagreed with the regime could have been immidiately executed regardless of their fame or position, Hossein Khomeini was a vocal opposition voice eventhough he was young, in his 20s. For reference, you can read Rafsanjani's memoir. In the page 95 of Rafsanjani's memoir, Rafsanjani writes how in May 3, 1981, they ordered all the newspapers not to report on Hossein's speech in Mashad.(It is also interesting that the index of the book says that the name Hossein Khomeini appears in Page 103, while there is no mention of him in the page. I guess this is because they removed this mention of him without updating the index of the book!)

2- He never left Iran during the past 25 years. Finally, he went to Iraq, where there is a risk of assasinations.

3- Considering the fact that he was a grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, he could have had a good position in the current government, but he chose against that amid all the dangers.

4- Your comparison with Abdullah Nouri is not a good one. At the time when Hossein was silenced by his grandfather, Abdullah Nouri as an interior minister was actively working to restrict freedom of Montazeri.

Senior Grad at October 11, 2003 09:06 PM [permalink]:
Ouch! Okay, I take my 2 cents back, guys. I seriously shouldn't have passed judgement on Mr. Hossein Khomeini. I don't know him that much. My fault. But I have to make it clear why I called Mohsen Kadivar, Abdullah Nouri, and Hashemi Rafsanjani deep, brave, and smart, respectively. It seems to me that Kadivar is the most philosophical-minded young mullah in Iran nowadays. He may not be as deep as his Western counterparts (secular or else), but relatively speaking, he seems to be Reason-ably deep, that is deeper than other mullahs! I thought Nouri was brave, because he joined the reformist camp and dared to go so far in the court as to break the taboo of IRI's official position on Palestine, among other things. I honestly do not know a lot about these men's past, and I'm glad there are people here who are quick to correct my mistakes, but I absolutely disagree with the argument that yahya, like many opposition activists, seems to offer. It is a grave mistake to judge people in general, and Iranian reformists in particular, based on their past. I find it admirable that someone like Akbar Ganji, who in Ali Mahani's words, is "a former senior intelligence officer in the hated Sepah" (quoted from Ali's comments under Shirin's Day), finds the courage to openly turn his back to his former revolutionary past. I personally believe it is too much to expect these folks to openly apologize (*partly* because they were doing the thing that they thought was right back then, i.e. their data was not enough) and one shouldn't look too much for traces of opportunism in their transformation. It is an unfortunate habit of Iranians, both the more intellectual type and the less intellectual type, to go and search people's past and instead of trying to gauge them based on what they have become now and their words and give them the benefit of the doubt, accuse them of having ulterior motives because, say, he was a member of the so-and-so party 40 years ago. Jesus! This mental habit of Iranians is one of my worst pet peeves, so let me give you one example. A while ago, Abbas Milani wrote a book on Hoveyda. Later I read some of the critiques of his work by some Iranian "intellectuals" in the Persian website . The nature of most of the criticisms leveled at Milani's work by crme de la crme of our intellectual minds concerned his past and the possible ulterior motives that he might have in mind for writing such a book! How stupid is that? No one, as far as I can remember, had analysed the *content* of his work, for Heaven's sake. Now, I'm getting a little far from the main topic. I just wanted to say that the fact that someone gains the courage to change is by itself admirable. Not many actors in the political arena possess that courage. Such changes shouldn't be always identified as opportunistic. I agree there is a chance of opportunism, but, you guys tell me, what kind of "opportunism" is it that sends you behind bars? I just wonder... As for Rafsanjani, my calling him "smart" should by no means be taken as an approving compliment. In fact, I think he is *very* smart! Otherwise he wouldn't have stayed so influential to this very day in Iran's political sphere, after suffering such an embarrassing defeat in parliamentary elections. it seems that whenever he opens his mouth (usually in Friday prayers), every body listens attentively, including the reformer camp, because his words have consequences. Let me ask you this: What other ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
soashyant at October 11, 2003 10:30 PM [permalink]:


Are you really sure that we should not be very concerned about the past record of these people, I mean new reformists who were former revolutionary hardliners and their change of heart, as expressed by their actions, speaks louder than their past deeds?

I agree that people may indeed change over time and decide that they are against the new system. But I have not seen (with the exception of Abas Abdi who partially denounced what he and his brethrens did during the hostage taking crisis), or heard that a majority of a the present reformists (some of whom in jail and some still at large) who have probably also committed grave atrocities express their regrets about what they did during the first decade of the revolution.

Would you agree that expressing the truth about the past mistakes as well as ones' regrets, seeking forgiveness from the victims or their relatives, as well as reconciliation sets the criteria to assess if they can be given the benefit of the doubt that maybe, only maybe, they would like to come to terms with their past mistake and right the wrong that they have committed.

For example, Mr. Jalaayeepoor is said to have ordered outrageous atrocities when he was in Kurdistan in the early 1980s. Not only did he not express regret about what he had done in the past two years ago during an interview with the Guardian (if I am not mistaken), but also he was very proud of them.

In a book written by Farrokh Moshiri and Jack Goldstone called Revolutions of the Late Twentieth Century, an analytical framework, the dissidents of the dominant regime are previous insiders. They often become mad with the system they used to support because of it no longer heed their views and/or becomes so undemocratic that they themselves realize that they are increasingly losing their own freedom of action and/or speech as insiders. Such changes in the mentality of upper echelon, such as the dominance of more fundamentalist or radical factions, may lead to a riot from within.

Hence, Akbar Ganji's interests, however humanitarian, may still be rooted in a type of resentment and sense of betrayal that has some similarities with the aspirations of, let's say people like Ebadi and Kaar in terms of collective action and civil society activism. I also am aware that he has had extensive contributions since early 1990s on the idea of religious democratic state in Kiyan Magazine, so if that is enough of a change of heart to make him a true democrat then perhaps he is more trustworthy than others.

And by the way when I read your statement: "the fact that someone gains the courage to change is by itself admirable." I thought what would he say of Mr. Montazeri who long before anybody else, even these real/quasi or pseudo-reformists, in so far as reformism is concerned, denounced arbitrary killings and an unnecessary prolonged war, and just lately questioned many of the fundamentals of the regime theocratic tenet of Velayate Faqih?

soashyant at October 11, 2003 10:33 PM [permalink]:

Sorry, in the fourth paragraph, I meant to say that Jalaayeepoor did not express any regret about what he did when he was in Kurdistan in an interview that he gave about two years ago, in fact he said what he did was necessary for the national security and territorial integrity of Iran and thus justified completely on those grounds; I appologize for the awkward sentence.

AIS at October 12, 2003 02:35 AM [permalink]:

Senior Grad,

closing your eyes on people's past , especially when they have not made an official statement that they resent their mistakes themselves, could be very dangerous in a place like Iran. I agree that some of our compatriots take this to the limit of paranoia, but it must remain an essential factor in our judgement about political figures.
A good example that shows how important this is, ironically entails Khomeini (Sr.) himself.
He said a LOT of beautiful words while he was in France (I don't believe he could have done it by himself, he was to much of a moron for that-he was helped by people like banisadr, Qotbzadeh or 'our' Khatami)
and many were mesmerized by it. If people had the foresight of checking his past, his books and his record this catastrophe could have been averted.
Unfortunately we are from a land with many opportunists who change color as the wind blows, especially among the mullahs. If you read Kasravi for example he gives good examples of how mullahs opposed EVERYTHING that was modern and/or to the benefit of the people at first, but later they and their children were the first to use and take advantage of them.

Besides I have problems with this approach of passing judgement 'objectively' and without 'bias' the way these words are interpreted by many Iranians as a fashion now a days. The truth is we never have all the evidence and all the facts (no one has) and those we have, could always have come to us in a package full of spin.(BBC being the perfect example for that!) Besides after Popper, it should be clear that there is no such thing as an evidence per se. There is always an interpretation accompanying it. As Einstein said it, the theory always tell you what has been observed in the first place. The past performance of the different sides of any affair , as well as other side issues and sometimes unrelevant information about them are an important tool in helping us to make the best assessment.(thouugh not necessarily the right one-that kind of certainty is but a myth.)
In other words, any claim of an unbiased judgement is hypocritical. What makes a judgmenet 'objective' and rational is recognizing this fact, analyzing it critically to minimize the error, and as Popper has shown, always trying to refute instead of justify it.
As an example take the controversial Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I usually hear from people (including some of the contributors of this blog a while ago) how the evidence or the numbers of victims speak for themselves, how any unbiased observer would know the right side. The point is there is NO unbiased observer. This is a fallacy. The issue is so complex and the possible ways of looking at any 'fact' as we hear in the news so diverse, that any reasonable judgement must depend also on a study of the history of the conflict, the history of the two nations, their culture, their mentalities, their religions , their worldviews and in 'our' case the featurtes of those who back each side (which we happen to know quite well after 25 years)....

AIS at October 12, 2003 02:41 AM [permalink]:

I meant 'irrelevant' not unrelevant (shame).
Gosh, why do I make so much mistakes when I want express something close to my heart that I am excited about?!
Sorry everyone. :)

Babak S at October 12, 2003 02:50 AM [permalink]:

Senior Grad, deciding whether Mr. Khomeini is frank or just plain nave depends very much on what we are looking at as the goal. If he is after a good share of power, I guess he would be considered nave, but if we consider the general level of sophistry that is common among the clergy circles, he would be considered frank. It's exactly the latter that I meant. The consequences of such an attitude are important, given his lineage to the so-called Great Founder of the Islamic Republic. Otherwise he would have been a nobody talking nonesense.

I am especially bugged when I hear people say Rafsanjani is a "smart" guy, not because he is a fool, but because he is only smart in the layers he has traditionally belonged to, and this adjective just is too big a promotion for him, IMO. The scandalous election affair he went through was just one instance he was out of the dark of his behind-the-curtain, under-the-table businesses and we all saw what happened to him. He crept back where he could again control things, of course, with his web of influence over the closed economy of the country and through his family.

Seor Grd at January 7, 2004 02:25 PM [permalink]:

A few days ago, Hossein Khomeini returned to Iran. According to the news that I have read, he was not bothered at all by the authorities. Google and I have so far been unsuccessful in finding the news in an English-speaking source!

For related stuff (in Persian) see, for example:

syed salman abbas at February 29, 2004 02:45 PM [permalink]:

i think the iranion is doing good.because amarca want to distroy all the muslim world.i am pakistani and i know amarca want,s to cover the large area and grown up hi base