The Washington Post
By John Ward Anderson
Saturday, June 2, 2001
TEHRAN, Iran -- When a popular Iranian newspaper published a series of attacks on what it called the "fossilized thinking" and "reactionary Islam" of the country's arch-conservative clergy, about 1,500 seminary students in the holy city of Qom gathered in angry protest.
A furious cleric addressed the crowd, calling some Iranian writers and supporters "domestic Salman Rushdies," referring to the author accused of blaspheming Islam. "Death to liberals!" the crowd roared in response. "Shame on you!"
The Feb. 13 demonstration might not have been particularly noteworthy in a country known for its radical defense of Islam, except for one extraordinary detail. Entekhab, the newspaper that had published the assault, was firmly aligned with the right wing, so much so that many here consider it the mouthpiece of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's highest political and religious authority.
It was one of the first examples of a deep and growing split among Iran's conservatives, who have used their control of the country's most powerful institutions -- including the judiciary and the state security and intelligence agencies -- to thwart the democratic reforms of President Mohammad Khatami.
Many conservatives are now trying to distance themselves from extremists in their ranks, whom they blame for a string of election defeats to reformists and an expected shellacking in the presidential race on June 8, which Khatami is expected to win handily. Moderate conservatives claim that their hard-line colleagues, particularly in the clergy, have pushed Iran's youth away from the conservative camp and religion, and have given Islam a violent and backward image around the world.
"The wrong presentation of religion and the wrong interpretations of [Iran's] constitution have caused the youth to hate this state, and because the wrong face of Islam is being presented, secularism is on the rise," said Taha Hashemi, the conservative owner of Entekhab. "It has alienated our people because of the violent face" being given to Islam.
In response, Hashemi and other conservatives have launched a movement called "new religious thinking" that favors a more modern, flexible reading of Islamic codes and customs, in contrast to the strict, authoritarian reading demanded by hard-liners.
Liberals and conservatives have long had conflicting interpretations of Islam and its holy book, the Koran. But the emergence of a such a deep split in Iran's conservative camp over modern and traditional readings of Islam is a new development that could eventually change the shape of Iranian politics and society. It is gradually moving the country away from an authoritarian-style theocracy toward a more tolerant, pluralistic religious democracy in which people someday could have the freedom to choose their own Islamic values and influence those espoused by the state.
The breakaway by moderate conservatives seems part of an effort to expand the political center in Iran and find a so-called third way between the extremes of both camps -- the totalitarians, who believe the Koran gives them the divine right to rule, and the radical secularists, who favor complete separation of mosque and state. Analysts say it advances a trend spearheaded by Khatami to forge a political consensus around a concept already widely accepted in society: transforming Iran into a modern religious democracy.
"The new generation in the right wing accepts that we need a modern Islamic democratic state, and they are being accused [by hard-liners] of deviating from the right path," said a university professor who asked not to be identified. "But they realize that change in the system is inevitable and necessary, and they represent a new way of thinking that is going to stay and dominate."
Many see this as the chief work of Khatami, who despite numerous political defeats has raised expectations of freedom and demands for democracy so far and wide that even conservatives have had to embrace the concepts. And the recent electoral thrashings suffered by conservatives have forced them to do some deep soul-searching, says political scientist Mahmood Sariolghalam, creating a gradual shift toward the center that Sariolghalam describes as a sea change in Iranian politics.
"It's a question of efficiency," he said. "The religious establishment has always claimed political authority and legitimacy. But they had their chance, and they didn't deliver. Historically, it's a very important development in Iran."
That shift is reflected in public attitudes as well.
"There are very strong and extremist criticism and negative opinions regarding the clergy in our society," said Behrooz Geranpayeh, head of Iran's National Institute for Assessing Public Opinions, a public-private polling group that has worked for Khatami's campaign.
Geranpayeh said his surveys put the clergy's negative ratings at 65 to 75 percent -- the same level as the positive rating for Khatami and "the modern type of Islam that advocates a reading closer to liberty and justice."
"People think that the clerics have confronted the cultural issues of society in a very negative way and have misused the power they have," he explained. "But the overwhelming majority of people, particularly youths, see Khatami as the link between freedom and democracy and modernism and religion."
With such strong attitudes being translated into landslide victories by reformists in every national and local election since 1997, some analysts see the drive by conservatives to redefine themselves as an election-year gimmick to win more votes. The new religious thinking movement "looks like a group of people trying to jump out of the Titanic as it's sinking," said reformist newspaper editor Saeed Laylaz.
Amir Mohebbian, a leading conservative columnist with the Resalat newspaper who has strongly advocated modern religious perspectives among conservatives, said he was worried that if the movement becomes tied to the election, it will die with it.
"New religious thinking is not a tool to obtain votes, but it is a way for conservatives to gain the trust again," he said. "I personally believe that the priority for us is not victory in the election. Reconstructing the political doctrine of the whole right wing is our main goal."
That the new religious thinking movement has sprung up from the right gives its proponents cover to explore how Islam can be adapted to modern life and democracy. Reformists who have engaged in such debates often have been labeled secularists and thrown in jail for allegedly insulting Islam, challenging the authority of the supreme leader or threatening to topple the Islamic regime.
"There are many occasions when people talk in the taxis and the shops, but if the issue has a serious audience at a university or in a magazine, you could fall into a lot of problems," said Mohsen Kadivar, a popular liberal theologian who was imprisoned for 18 months for "disseminating lies and disturbing public opinion," partly by questioning Iran's theocracy. "What makes it forbidden is that it is not permitted politically, but there's no problem as far as sharia [Islamic law] is concerned."
Hashemi, the newspaper owner, insisted that new religious thinking is a sincere effort to bring Islamic thought in line with the 21st century and reclaim women and young people who have lost touch with the faith.
"We believe that the performance of the right wing has caused people to turn their back to the Islamic state" by adhering to antiquated ideas and trying "to impose their reading [of the Koran] on society."
"This stream of thought, which is against scientific movements, against development, against cooperation with the West, against maintaining constructive relationships with modern society, can never reflect the right understanding of Islam and can never be in coherence with the modern world," he said.
Mohammad Javad Larijani, one of the chief theoreticians of the right wing, said there was a "practical urgency" for conservatives to modernize their thoughts "so educated, young, devoted Muslims know how to be devoted and faithful Muslims at the beginning of the 21st century. These are not things to be ordered. We should discuss it; we should acquire it."
For example, he said, young Iranians are moving away from home much earlier in their lives nowadays, breaking family traditions and raising concerns about "unhealthy activities."
"They want to be independent, listen to their own music, chant and write and talk to their friends. This is not bad; it's a new way of thinking about life. It's not against Islam. But the older generation feels unsafe, because they're not ready to accept new ideas. But [new ways of thinking] are good, and we should provoke and participate and enrich that rather than being afraid of it."
Many analysts, like the students who demonstrated against Entekhab last February in Qom, say that one of the chief aims of new religious thinkers is to silence Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, an influential, radical hard-liner who, according to the official state news agency, has "justified the use of 'legal violence' against enemies of Islam." He declined to be interviewed for this article.
"We shall wait to see what place these foxes who set claim to be the supporters of reforms will occupy in hell," Yazdi said in a recent speech. "According to the Koranic interpretation, these very people who claim to be reformers are the true examples of corrupters on Earth."