Home inFocus Iran’s Sakharovs

Iran’s Sakharovs

Nina Shea Summer 2012

Among today’s most underreported stories is the persecution and pressure faced by reformist and heterdox Muslims within the Muslim World. The common post-9/11 refrain—”Where are the moderates?”—is partly answered by the Islamist practice of hurling legal charges of blasphemy, apostasy, and related accusations at those who express innovative ideas regarding their politics, society, and culture or criticize anything or anyone claiming to be Islamic.

Such charges morally discredit and silence the reformer through harsh sentences, including steep fines, prison terms, or capital punishment by the state or physical attacks on person and property by vigilantes and extremist groups who can act with impunity.

As the late Islamic scholar Abdurrahman Wahid, the former Indonesian president and head of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization, warned, the efforts to crackdown on blasphemy “play directly into the hands of fundamentalists, who wish to avoid all criticism of their attempts to narrow the scope of discourse regarding Islam, and to inter 1.3 billion Muslims in a narrow, suffocating chamber of dogmatism.” Nowhere is this practice more pronounced than in Iran’s theocratic state, which ruthlessly applies blasphemy codes to crush political dissent from clerical rule.

A State of Repression

The population of Iran is 89 percent Shi’a Muslim. Its state institutions, according to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary doctrine, are under Shi’a establishment control. The main state institutions—the Supreme Leader; the Council of Experts, which determines the Supreme Leader; the Council of Guardians, which determines whether legislation is compatible with Islam and screens legislative candidates; and the Expediency Council, which arbitrates legal and theological disputes in the legislative process—are all manned by clerics or Islamic experts. Those who criticize the decisions or challenge the power of these groups, or question the theological doctrines that are used to legitimize them—such as Khomeini’s declaration that he was the representative of the successor to Islam’s Prophet, the “hidden Twelfth Imam”—are treated as blasphemers of Islam.

Critics are tried in Iran’s Islamic revolutionary courts, notorious for their arbitrariness and lack of due process. The judges are clerics, who are believed to know the “right path” (serate mostaqim) and allow every means—including beating, lashing, solitary confinement, amputation, rape, sexual abuse, burning, starvation, and strangulation—to force defendants to follow that path.

Many of Iran’s dissidents are clerics themselves. As University of Pennsylvania professor and human rights scholar, Ann Mayer, wrote: “A symptom of the inherent repressiveness of [Iran’s] official Islamic ideology can be seen in the scope and vigor of the persecutions and prosecutions of Shi’a clerics, many of whom have been martyred for failing to submit humbly to the official Islamic ideology.” Many other dissidents are lay people from Iran’s Shi’a community, including human rights activists, women’s rights activists, journalists, writers, and lawyers. Such persons have been charged with blasphemy or even apostasy because they dared to question or criticize the regime’s “divine” rules.

No less a security expert than former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has admonished that the West’s struggle with Islamist extremism will ultimately depend not on military engagement, but on “the overall ideological climate within the world of Islam.” Though Iran without doubt presents an acute threat to Western interests at this time, the United States has paid scant attention to the bitter theological struggle within Iran today and the religious dissidents who hold the potential of moderating the system. They have not received the acclaim, support, or even name recognition once accorded to Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the leaders of the Helsinki human rights movement during the Cold War. Iranian journalists, bloggers, student leaders, and other secular figures also play a very heroic part and should be championed to a much greater extent than they are in the West. But the theologians and religious leaders who speak out for freedom and reform carry a moral stature that is uniquely important in the context of Iranian theocracy. Their challenge, stated in theological and moral terms, erodes the regime’s claims to moral legitimacy, which Iran’s ruling ayatollahs require both as a revolutionary regime and as a religious one. Publicity of their cases and their views—through the American government’s bully pulpit, in United Nations forums, the media, Congressional hearings, and private activism, including by American Muslims—will help keep these brave voices alive.

Iran’s Clerical Brave

In 2007, Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Kazemeini Boroujerdi was sentenced to death in a secret trial, later commuted to 11 years imprisonment. Boroujerdi was penalized for arguing that “political leadership by clergy” was contrary to Islam, and emphasizing “there is no compulsion in religion.” Ayatollah Boroujerdi is known for being outspoken in his support of the separation of religion and state. The 30 or so charges laid against him include “waging war against God,” which carries the death penalty, “publicly calling political leadership by clergy unlawful,” and publicly using the term “religious dictatorship” instead of “Islamic Republic.” Hundreds of his followers and a number of his family members, including his 86-year-old mother, have been arrested and detained. According to the redoubtable Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, Boroujerdi is currently imprisoned in Evin prison where he suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure, Parkinson’s disease, vision loss, and kidney and heart problems, some of which are due to previous imprisonments and torture. Held largely incommunicado, he managed to smuggle out a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pleading for her to help his country.

Hojjatoleslam Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari was trained as a cleric in the holy city of Qom. He has published widely in scientific and religious periodicals, and among other positions served as editor of the Encyclopedia of Shi’a. In a 2000 interview with Iran Press Service, he criticized compulsory veiling for women and said that mixing religion and politics “spoils, corrupts and empties both of their substance” and that no leader should have powers above those of the Constitution. Soon afterwards, at a conference in Berlin, Eshkevari spoke on “Dictatorship and its History”—a speech that was criticized publicly by conservative clerics in Iran, including Supreme Leader Khamenei. He was arrested upon his return to Iran and subjected to a closed trial on charges of apostasy, corruption on earth, waging war against God, conduct unbecoming a clergyman, insulting Islamic sanctities, and spreading lies. On October 17, 2000, Eshkevari was sentenced to death, later commuted on appeal to seven years’ imprisonment.

Hashem Aghajari, a university professor and philosopher, delivered a speech in 2002 in which he built upon the ideas of Ali Shariati—an ideologue of the Islamic Revolution. Entitled “Islamic Protestantism,” Aghajari argued that “Muslims are not monkeys to blindly follow the clerics.” He went on to say: “Governments that suppress thinking under the name of religion are not only not religious governments but are not even humane governments.” He was soon arrested for “insulting Islam” and sentenced to death. After two retrials prompted by student protests, he was finally sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and released on bail in 2004.

Grand Ayatollah Hussain-Ali Montazeri was the most illustrious of all the clerical dissidents and, for his stances on human rights, religious tolerance, individual freedoms, and Iran’s nuclear provocations, his name should be memorialized in human rights annals throughout the world. Montazeri had major religious stature and emulation as a grand marja, and, until 1989, was reportedly the designated successor to Khomeini as Supreme Leader. Like the Soviet Union’s Andrei Sakharov who sacrificed his top position in the scientific field and all the perks and privileges of an esteemed establishment figure, Montazeri’s theocratic career came to an abrupt halt and his property was seized when he strenuously objected to mass executions then taking place, and stated after the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie that “[p]eople in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.” He taught that apostates should not be subject to earthly punishments. In 1997, he was placed under house arrest and his religious school was forcibly closed. Through the Internet, he continued to criticize the regime and issue dissenting religious fatwas, including one demanding equal rights for Baha’is—the religious minority most oppressed in Iran, stripped of all constitutional rights for heresy. Due to his stature, the regime did not dare imprison him; it indirectly tried to silence him through attacks on his followers.

One religious student and follower of Montazeri, Mojtaba Lotfi, was sentenced in 2008 to four years of imprisonment and five years of exile for posting, among other of Montazeri’s sermons, one challenging Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by name: “You call Iran the freest country in the world when you are outside, but inside Iran you deprive us of our basic and legal rights.” Montazeri’s post went on to say that even he, a key participant in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, had had his property confiscated and his speech censored and, if this could happen to him, how much worse it must be for the average people of Iran.

Following the disputed 2009 presidential elections in Iran, Montazeri wrote on his website that the country had become a “military regime” rather than an Islamic government and called upon senior clergy to stand in solidarity with the Iranian people and speak out. “The grand ayatollahs are well aware of their influence on the regime…. Their silence may give the wrong impression to people that the grand ayatollahs approve of whatever is underway,” he stated. Montazeri died of a heart condition on December 20, 2009, sparking student protests and visits by thousands of mourners to the religious center of Qom, while other Grand Ayatollahs visited his home to pay their respects.

Mohsen Kadivar, Abdollah Nouri, and many other Shi’a scholars and clerics, as well as ordinary Shi’a laypersons, have spoken up against the grave injustices perpetrated by the Iranian theocratic regime. The specific charges brought against them are usually related to blasphemy and include “fighting against God,” “dissension from religious dogma,” “insulting Islam,” “propagation of spiritual liberalism,” “promoting pluralism,” and even “creating anxiety in the minds of…Iranian officials.” These vague and amorphous charges are subject to arbitrary and political enforcement and in themselves demonstrate injustice.

The ‘Sin of Thinking’

Even more than other secular political opponents of the regime, these religious dissidents are the intellectuals of Iran’s establishment elite and, as such, exemplify a potent moderating force against Islamism, whether of the Iranian Shi’a brand or of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood variety. While there is a sharp sectarian divide in the Muslim World, as is graphically seen in the battle lines drawn today in Syria and Iraq, Iran, nevertheless, has had a significant influence in spurring radicalization within the Sunni Muslim world. It was Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie, it bears recalling, that triggered a concerted demand from the Sunni-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation for worldwide punishments to deter blasphemy against Islam—even when uttered by non-Muslims in the West. Iran’s fatwa has put in motion an effort to create a new norm in much of the West, as seen from the convictions in France of Brigitte Bardot for criticizing Muslim animal slaughter practices in Austria, of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, for defaming Islam’s prophet Muhammad, in Germany, of a business man who defamed the word, not the book, “Qur’an” (the latter case occurred after a demarche of Iran’s government), and others.

In the ideological contest against extremism, the inspiring words and experiences of the Iranian Sakharovs—tried, tortured, and stripped of privileges for, in Hashem Aghajari’s words, the “sin of thinking”—need to be uplifted and honored.

Nina Shea is Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author with Paul Marshall of Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford University Press, 2011).