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"...Qom is not homogenous. Besides, it imports ideas as well as exporting them. Mofid University, for example, holds regular human-rights seminars in which Jews and Christians from outside Iran take part. Its students read books on Western philosophy, and many travel to America and Britain to study. Moreover, Qom is wired: every student, says Hojatoleslam Maybodi, has access to the internet. That may be one reason why, as with young people the world over, the study of English has lately become a preoccupation."
The verdict of Qom
Theory and practice
THEY call Qom “the Shia Vatican”. President Ahmadinejad is reported to have said that when Islam ruled the world Qom would be its capital. Rome need not worry: Qom will never compete for its tourists. At first glance, despite the imposing golden cupola of the Sayyeda Fatima shrine, this desert city some 100km (60 miles) from Tehran is a backwater, devoid of grace and greenery. Its seminaries, however, are home to perhaps 60,000 clerical students. And the broad highway that slices from Tehran to Qom through a moonscape of scrubby desert and salt lakes is a clue to the city's importance. It was from Qom that Ayatollah Khomeini began to denounce the shah, and it was in Qom that he set up his revolutionary government after returning from exile in France. This seems the right place to see whether the system he created can be changed from within.
Why suppose that Qom of all places might become an agent of change? Conventional wisdom from afar saw the success of Khomeini's revolution as Qom's victory too. Didn't the revolution stop modernisation in its tracks and jerk Iran back to the Middle Ages, delivering political power to turbaned clerics in thrall to an unfathomable theology? And does it not follow that the turbaned clerics of Qom have a strong belief, buttressed by a strong vested interest, in preserving the theocratic principles of that revolution?
As a matter of fact, no. Khomeini's central idea, the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, gives the Islamic Republic its theological underpinning. This holds that until the appearance of the Shias' “hidden imam” (of which more below) society should be governed by a supreme leader, the clerical judge best qualified to interpret God's will and the meaning of Islamic law. It is this doctrine that makes Ayatollah Khamenei supreme leader and all others subordinate to him. But Qom itself has never felt completely at ease either with Ayatollah Khomeini's idea or Ayatollah Khamenei's succession. Indeed, many of the most revered clerical minds in Qom see this doctrine, and especially the way it has been implemented since Khomeini's death, as negating their tradition.
Politics and the hidden imam
To understand why requires a digression into theology. The quarrel between Sunnis and Shias is about succession. Shias believe that the last rightful imam to follow Muhammad was his son-in-law Ali, but that he and his ten successors were murdered by Sunni caliphs. The twelfth imam therefore went into hiding, promising not to return until the end of time. Most Shia clerics have long held that during this period of “occultation” there can be no lawful political authority. Until the emergence of the hidden imam, politics must be inherently invalid and men of religion should be careful not to implicate themselves in it.
Velayat-e faqih seems to turn this long-standing assumption upside down, especially when it is interpreted as implying that the faqih derives his authority from God and is not answerable to the people. Many of Qom's clerics flatly repudiate this idea. They say that there exists no blueprint for government during the time of occultation, and that nobody has special authority to guide society during this period.
It is not clear exactly how the theological arguments of Qom travel from the seminary into Iran's politics, but they do. President Khatami's reform movement drew heavily on the views of clerics, some of whom were astonishingly outspoken. One, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar, began to argue in the 1990s that Iran could not have clerical rule and claim to be a democracy at the same time. He was jailed for saying that the freedom Iranians had sought through their revolution was being replaced by a new clerical despotism. From house arrest, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hossein Montazeri, a revered cleric who was Khomeini's designated successor before complaining too much about the mass execution of political prisoners after the war with Iraq, supported Hojatoleslam Kadivar. “What the conservative leaders are practising today is not Islam, and I oppose it,” he said.
Such criticisms are especially damaging to the present supreme leader. Ayatollah Khomeini was not just the father of the revolution but also a charismatic scholar of immense learning. In the eyes of Qom, Ayatollah Khamenei is by contrast a clerical lightweight (but effective politician) whom Khomeini prematurely fast-tracked to ayatollahdom when he was looking for a successor. What was acceptable in the charismatic is not necessarily acceptable in the apparatchik.
Although the government has tried to stifle dissent, Qom remains an argumentative place, continuing to exert a potentially disruptive influence on politics. Even during the present crackdown, the visitor to its seminaries quickly encounters a spectrum of clerical opinions on everything from velayat-e faqih to the wearing of the hijab to relations with Israel and America. “Qom's seminary is like an ocean in which you can find anything you desire,” Hojatoleslam Kadivar told a recent interviewer from Asharq Al-Awsat, a pan-Arab daily.
To sample the range of opinion, meet two clerics from opposite ends of this spectrum. Hojatoleslam Fazel Maybodi teaches at Qom's Mofid University, a traditionally liberal seminary. A jolly, grey-bearded cleric proud of his smattering of English phrases, he explains at once that although Qom is not a place for political decision-making—that is the job of the government—“theoretical” debate about Islam's relationship with politics takes place freely. On velayat-e faqih he says that the views of the most senior ayatollahs are not uniform. For example, Ayatollah Sistani, a revered cleric based in Iraq but also widely admired in Iran, has approved Iraq's post-Saddam constitution. This gives ultimate authority to elected politicians rather than clerics. “I don't believe that all political ideas should come from within Islam,” says Hojatoleslam Maybodi. “Politics is an experimental, man-made activity and Islam should respect it.”
In Qom, unlike many parts of Iran, all the women wear full black chadors; around the town billboards with anti-Semitic motifs still advertise the recent exhibition of cartoons poking fun at the Holocaust. But liberal clerics like Hojatoleslam Maybodi are happy to dissent from the party line. He says it was “not correct at all” for Iran to have raised this issue: the genocide of the Jews was an ugly phenomenon and the number murdered was for historians to determine. As to whether Iran could ever accept the right of Israel to exist, Hojatoleslam Maybodi says the two countries could well make peace provided the Israelis and Palestinians reached an agreement. Both sides have their extremists, he admits, but “what's the problem with Muslims living next to Jews?”
The spirit of ijtihad—the idea that Islamic law can and should be reinterpreted to match the circumstances of the day—is strong in Shia Islam. Hojatoleslam Maybodi says bluntly that sharia law discriminates against women and should therefore change. He argues that the unequal treatment of women (such as their smaller claims on blood money or inheritance) stems from a time before women were economically active. As for the crackdown on “bad hijab”, Hojatoleslam Maybodi expresses a view often voiced by Iran's clerics. When the state uses coercion in the name of religion, it is in danger of turning the people away from Islam.
The views of individual clerics should not be given too much weight. If, as Hojatoleslam Kadivar boasts, Qom is an ocean, it is difficult at any particular moment to judge which way its tide is running. Many of the ayatollahs are arch-conservatives in social matters. Some were scandalised by Mr Ahmadinejad's suggestion that women should be allowed to watch football matches—an idea he had to withdraw.
So, at the other end of Qom's spectrum, meet the suspicious, unsmiling Hojatoleslam Mohsen Gharavian. He is a student of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the extreme hardliner said to be Mr Ahmadinejad's spiritual adviser. Ayatollah Yazdi and those who think like him have little regard for democracy and no compunction about employing coercion if the people refuse to embrace piety voluntarily. “The prophets of God did not believe in pluralism,” he once said. “They believed that only one idea was right.”
And yet the views of Hojatoleslam Gharavian turn out to be more nuanced than his teacher's. Although he claims that velayat-e faqih is accepted unanimously in Iran by conservatives and liberals alike, he concedes that there are differences of opinion about the extent of the supreme leader's rightful authority. He agrees that it may be time to grant women equality in respect of blood money but wants cautiously to “wait and see” when it comes to the law on inheritance. He is unflinching on the compulsory wearing of the hijab: like gold, silver and jewels, he says, it is natural for society to want to keep women safe from the avarice of men.
He is implacable on Israel, too: it belongs to the Palestinians and its government should be in the hands of the Muslims, he says. But that does not mean that Jews cannot live there; and he concedes, when pushed, that if the Palestinians chose to make a gift (hebeh) of part of it for a Jewish state, that would be their affair.
Open to the world
Qom—or at least the idea of Qom—sums up many of the things the secular mind finds frightening about Iran's revolution. From here the clerics' view of the righteous way is projected not only throughout Iran by the machinery of the state but also into the world beyond by the power of the internet. Behind one unprepossessing façade you will, for example, find the Aalulbayt “Global Information Centre”. Affiliated to Ayatollah Sistani, this outfit operates four global websites in some 30 languages, pumping out personal, spiritual and political teaching to the faithful in scores of countries. Its director, Hojatoleslam Lajarvadi, boasts that Qom hosts more websites per head of population than anywhere else in Iran.
All this helps to explain how it is possible from Israel or America to see Qom as the nerve centre of global fundamentalism. But Qom is not homogenous. Besides, it imports ideas as well as exporting them. Mofid University, for example, holds regular human-rights seminars in which Jews and Christians from outside Iran take part. Its students read books on Western philosophy, and many travel to America and Britain to study. Moreover, Qom is wired: every student, says Hojatoleslam Maybodi, has access to the internet. That may be one reason why, as with young people the world over, the study of English has lately become a preoccupation.
Above all, it is a mistake to associate Qom with the messianic views of Mr Ahmadinejad and his coterie. A lot of senior clerics are appalled by the new president's frequent claims that the appearance of the hidden imam is imminent and its timing somehow connected with the political zeal of the present government. Their distaste for Mr Ahmadinejad helps explain why, when he endorsed a slate of candidates affiliated to Ayatollah Yazdi for election to the Assembly of Experts last December, they were roundly defeated by candidates associated with his centrist rival, Ayatollah Rafsanjani.
Well before the election of Mr Ahmadinejad, Qom was home to clerics who said the revolution had taken a wrong turn, creating a new despotism and turning people off religion by using state power to ram it down their throats. Even in the Shia Vatican, out in the desert, Iran's beleaguered revolutionaries are finding it hard to keep dangerous ideas at bay.courtesy: The Economist.com
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