The resurgence of religio-political society raises concerns

WASHINGTON, July 11, 2006 (RFE / RL) – Given the opaque nature of the Iranian government, the public might never know how pervasive the activities of the Hojjatieh Society really are.

But former vice president Abtahi was quoted by the hard-line daily “Kayhan” on July 5 as saying that several members of the Hojjatieh Society had recently been arrested. It is difficult to test the veracity of the claim of Abtahi, who served as vice president of legal and parliamentary affairs under former president Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. But it renews fears that the secret Hojjatieh may wield considerable power in the Iranian establishment.

Historical context

The Hojjatieh group was formed by a Mashhad-based cleric in the early 1950s to counter the activities of the Bahai missionaries, who claimed that the long-awaited twelfth Imam of Shia Islam had already returned and had been replaced by the Bahai faith. This cleric, Sheikh Mahmud Halabi, recruited volunteers who could debate the Baha’is and who formed the original Hojjatieh society (formerly known as Anjoman-i Khayrieyeh-yi Hojjatieh Mahdavieh). But benchmark sources say the company expanded its reach and membership in the 1960s and 1970s.

Members of Hojjatieh initially opposed the ideas of Islamic government and the reign of the Supreme Jurisconsult (Vilayat-i Faqih) married by the father of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Instead, they fostered the collective leadership of the religious community and opposed religious involvement in political affairs.

But founder Halabi feared a communist takeover after the Islamic revolution of 1978-79. He therefore urged his supporters to abandon their ideas of collective religious leadership and secular government in the referendum on Iran’s watershed in December 1979.

In 1983, Supreme Leader Khomeini attacked the Hojjatieh company and demanded that it “get rid of factionalism and join the wave that drives the nation forward” or be “broken”. The Hojjatieh Company announced its official dissolution on the same day.

This move would have borne fruit in the form of administrative appointments in the post-revolutionary government for members, whose religious credentials have been described as “impeccable” by author Baqer Moin in his 1999 book, “Khomeini: La vie of Ayatollah ”.

Khomeini and others, however, appear to be concerned about the secrecy of the Hojjatieh members and their success. In 1983, Supreme Leader Khomeini attacked the Hojjatieh company and demanded that it “get rid of factionalism and join the wave that drives the nation forward” or be “broken”. The Hojjatieh Society announced its official dissolution the same day, according to author Moin.

Warnings of extremism

Fast forward more than two decades to a speech just weeks after the inauguration of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in August 2005. Outgoing President Khatami warns of the emergence of an extremist movement that raises concerns about corruption and claims that university curricula are insufficiently Islamic. Khatami adds that these groups are helping foreigners who do not want Islamic states to succeed, according to the Fars news agency on August 19.

Reform commentators quickly pick up on the same theme. Left-wing mujahedin member of the Islamic Revolutionary Organization, Hashem Hedayati, said Khatami issued his warning because extremists are entering the government, “Etemad” reported on August 21. Hedayati adds that the phenomenon represents a strategic change on the part of the Hojjatieh company. , who previously avoided getting involved in political affairs.

Less than a month later, a former interior minister and parliamentarian, a prominent member of the Association of pro-reform militant clerics (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), also warns of a revival of Hojjatieh. Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur said the company was against any involvement in politics before the revolution, but then changed tactics and displayed a more violent tendency, “Etemad” reported on September 18. Mohtashami-Pur compares the Hojjatieh Society with Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group, Al-Qaida, and accuses it of “speaking through various podiums, wielding a baton during a heretical witch hunt, [and] to accuse [Iranian] youth “of wrongdoing.

Warnings from “pseudo-clerics”

Late last year, former Vice President Abtahi noted that many grassroots religious groups had supported Ahmadinejad’s presidential bid. What stands out most, he said, is that these groups praised the twelfth imam, rather than speaking in political terms, the Financial Times reported on November 9. Abtahi speculated that Ahmadinejad has “more important goals than politics”, warning that the new head of state “speaks with the confidence of someone who has received the word of God”.

Ahmadinejad’s references to the twelfth Imam in a September speech at the United Nations drew the world’s attention to his affinity for millennial views. Ahmadinejad’s later observation that he was surrounded by an aura during the speech and that the fascinated audience of the General Assembly were seated without blinking, also drew attention to his unorthodox views.

More concretely, there are suggestions that Ahmadinejad has earmarked millions of dollars in government funds for the Jamkaran Mosque on the outskirts of Qom, where some Shiites believe the hidden imam will reappear. Finally, there has been a boom in Iranian websites that focus on the hidden imam.

A reformist lawmaker, Imad Afruq, warns the reformist daily “Etemad-i Melli” on February 20 that many “pseudo-clerics” who promote mysticism are distorting Islam and deceiving the faithful. Under these conditions, the lawmaker said, the Hojjatieh Company will find it easy to operate.

At the same time, a Supreme Court judge, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Sadeq Al-i Ishaq, was quoted by “Etemad” on February 20 as warning of the lingering danger of reactionaries. He says Ayatollah Khomeini regretted ever using reactionary clerics, and accuses the Hojjatieh Society of hiding its true intentions so that it can gain places in government. The judge argues that the company still exists and that the clerics should take the danger seriously.

A member as a supreme guide?

There have been accusations that Ahmadinejad’s religious mentor Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi is a member of the Hojjatieh Society, a claim he rejected, according to the “Hemayat” newspaper on April 30. The outright cleric sparked controversy when he claimed last year that the twelfth imam prayed for the election of Ahmadinejad, according to “Mardom Salari” on July 21, 2005.

Now, Mesbah-Yazdi’s name has surfaced in the upcoming election of the Assembly of Experts, which oversees the performance of the Iranian Supreme Leader and selects a successor. Mesbah-Yazdi has been mentioned by some as a possible successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In an effort to anticipate the selection of Mesbah-Yazdi, opponents criticized him on various pretexts, including his perceived lack of activism against the monarchy before the Islamic revolution in Iran.

The result of the election of the Assembly of Experts this autumn should help gauge the support Ahmadinejad and his allies have for placing Mesbah-Yazdi at the top of Iran’s theocratic system – if that is their goal. However, given the lack of transparency in the Iranian political process, it will be extremely difficult to get an accurate reading of the influence of the Hojjatieh Society.

The structure of the Iranian government

INSIDE THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC: Iran is a theocratic Islamic republic governed by a 1979 constitution that was revised in 1989, when presidential powers were extended and the post of prime minister was abolished.
Appointed – unelected – offices and bodies hold real power in government. The supreme leader, who serves as head of state, is appointed for life by an Islamic religious advisory council called the Assembly of Experts. The Supreme Leader oversees the military as well as the judiciary and appoints the members of the Guardian Council and the Council of Opportunity.
The Guardian Council – some of whose members are appointed by the judiciary and approved by parliament – works closely with the government and must approve political candidates and legislation passed by parliament. The Council of Opportunity is responsible for resolving legislative disputes that may arise between Parliament and the Council of Guardians over legislation.
The president, elected by universal suffrage for a four-year term, is the head of government. The legislature is made up of a 290-seat body called the Majlis, whose members are elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms.…(Following)

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