The Magazine

Going Rogue

Hosein Ali Montazeri, 1922-2009.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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When I first encountered the Persian word mofangi, I struggled to grasp its meaning. It implies a certain timidity, physical weakness, and awkwardness. Seeking to put some flesh on that definition, my language tutor told me to envision Grand Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri. "He's more than a little mofangi," remarked the tutor, expressing the condescension that well-educated, leftwing Iranians often have for the clergy who stole their revolution.

That was in the mid 1980s, and Montazeri was the number two cleric in Iran, a mullah who once passionately believed in exporting Iran's revolutionary tumult and was instrumental in building the institutions of Islam's first theocracy. Yet, unlike his former teacher and friend, the formidable Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Montazeri didn't scare anyone. With his big owlish glasses, squeaky voice, and sartorial dishevelment, Montazeri was clearly a man of the people--to the extent that any accomplished Shiite jurist can be an ordinary man.

Yet in the end Montazeri, who died last week at 87, caused, and will continue to cause, untold trouble for the regime. By the end of his life, he had come to represent the fusion of three unstoppable ideas: that the Islamic Republic as built by Khomeini and led by Khamenei is illegitimate; that only democracy can redeem the republic and save Islam as a vibrant faith capable of shaping society's mores; and that clerics who support Khamenei are intellectual dullards and moral reprobates. It was Montazeri's religious passion, his argumentative rigor, his common-man roots, and his courage that drove the regime nuts. His disciples are everywhere.

No outsider can precisely date an inner change of such consequence, but it appears that Montazeri began to lose his faith in what he'd built when the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) started consuming tens of thousands of young men--the faithful for whom Khomeini never once wept. After Iran's defeat, Khomeini "defrocked" Montazeri for having the temerity to question his execution of thousands of jailed Iranians. Under house arrest, Montazeri became the leader of the dissident clergy.

Fallen from power, Montazeri wrote a six-volume critique of the velayat-e faqih, the "regency of the jurisconsult," or "office of supreme leader," which allowed first Khomeini, then Khamenei, dictatorial control of the state. Although Montazeri never took issue with the idea that clerics should have an important role in government, he relentlessly pursued Khamenei for his lack of religious qualifications and for the very idea that the supreme leader is unelected and not subject to law and tradition.

For Montazeri, the Islamic Republic was born in sin because the velayat‑e faqih was not prescribed by Shiite tradition. Montazeri put forth the notion, later refined and lethally sharpened by Mohsen Kadivar, a dissident cleric and probably the greatest orator of the opposition, that only religious leaders who are elected possess legitimacy. Iran's religious political system, accordingly, must be transformed into a velayat-e entekhabi‑e moqayyadeh, an "elected, limited regency of jurists," where ultimate political power rests with the people and their parliament, and not with mullahs. Montazeri is best seen as an iron prow, crashing into and splintering Khomeini's state. And in Montazeri's wake, democratic dissidents of all stripes--from the religiously inclined to the religion-hostile--have grown strong.

Montazeri's most lasting achievement may prove to be the deepening marriage between religious -democrats and increasingly nonreligious, Western-style democrats. He didn't intend this when he first started challenging the regime's legitimacy. But Montazeri evolved, as has the entire Iranian democracy movement--now easily the dominant intellectual force in the country. Indeed, this rapid evolution is perhaps what is most striking about Iran's leading religious democrats--Montazeri, Kadivar, former president Mohammad Khatami (in office 1997-2005), and the lay philosopher/sociologist Abdul Karim Soroush. They have become much more explicitly democratic as they have reflected on the revolution. And they have become more tolerant of dissident ideas and people. On his deathbed, Montazeri remained deeply traditional, yet he was not the man he had been even in 1988 when he expressed his outrage at the casual killing of Iranian "political" prisoners. He had become, in his own very clerical way, a progressive.