The Magazine

Going Rogue

Hosein Ali Montazeri, 1922-2009.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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And those to the left of Montazeri, which includes almost everyone in Iran's democratic movement, have in turn moved farther left. ("Left" and "right" are tricky terms to apply to the Islamic Republic, but their Western meaning is increasingly apt.) What Khomeini feared most--the satanic whispering of Western ideas that transforms good Holy Law-abiding Muslims into inquisitive, disrespectful devils--is happening. Thirty years of theocracy has been a powerful teacher.

It was just six months ago--on June 11, 2009, the day before the Iranian presidential election--that American officials, government analysts, and a good slice of the journalistic and academic community downplayed the idea of a powerful anti-regime democratic movement in Iran. For these folks, Montazeri was a has-been, if not something of a crank. They saw an Iran where opposing regime loyalists argued essentially about little pieces of the pie, and the population went along for the ride, accepting the regime's inadequacies as it had the failure of Khatami to change the system.

But this analysis was ten years out of date. Behind the scenes, among intellectuals, academics, and an ever-larger slice of the educated youth, the advocates of democracy actually grew stronger as President Khatami got politically stuffed. Montazeri knew this and played on the growing dissatisfaction--which is why he became even more influential in the second decade of his opposition than he had been in the first.

Iran is an odd place, where old men can become beloved by the young, where youths who don't have a religious bone in their bodie and wouldn't give clerics the time of day, can nevertheless be deeply respectful, even impassioned about, a grand ayatollah who fought the good fight against tyranny.

Montazeri's humanity and religion came together to create in him a profound respect for popular government, with all its enormous flaws (which Montazeri himself bitingly enumerated). What the regime perhaps detested most about Montazeri is that he made arguments and emotional appeals aimed directly at well-educated clerics and peasant believers alike, encouraging their spiritual migration away from Khomeini's state to an imagined new Shiite republic where basic decency could be seen in the conduct of officials. Inspired by experience, inspired by Montazeri, millions of faithful Iranians have put their affections and hopes beyond the reach of the regime.

The massive turnout for Montazeri's funeral, and the palpable nationwide sense of loss, are likely to be just the first tributes that a democratizing Iran will pay to Khomeini's most beloved student. In Iran the dead live on through their disciples, through the honor and duty that the young owe to the old, that the untested owe to the fearless. Once provoked and outraged, Iranians, who often dismissively refer to themselves as sheep, can turn into lions.

Montazeri was one of the lions of modern Iranian history. With his writing and his oratory, he unrelentingly challenged what he'd once held holy. His disciples--the army of Iranian intellectuals who've been for twenty years quietly obliterating the legitimacy of Khomeini's state--and the democratic dissidents who've poured into the streets since June 11, now command the high ground. Though the regime continues to rule because the Revolutionary Guard Corps hasn't (yet) cracked, Khamenei and his office have permanently lost their religious credentials.

With his unrivalled stubbornness and scholarly reach, Montazeri deserves much of the credit for the regime's predicament. Americans, who generally don't have an acute appreciation for Islam's religious authorities or the tumultuous debates about popular sovereignty inside Iran's clergy, owe Montazeri a great debt. Not a lover of the United States, its all-consuming popular culture, or its indefatigable ally in the region (Israel), he would not expect a word of thanks. Nevertheless, we should pay homage where homage is due. He earned it.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.