Asserting his authority as supreme leader but exercising it with compassion, the Rahbar of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, brought the rising temperature of political debate in Iran under control during his khutbah on Friday, October 1. Leading the prayers at Imam Khomeini’s mausoleum in south Tehran, as hundreds of especially invited foreign guests joined Iranians for the centenary celebrations of the late Imam’s birth, the Rahbar touched on some of the most burning issues of the day.
For nearly four weeks Iran had been gripped by a debate over the sacrilegious content of a satirical play published in Mowj (Wave), a small magazine published by students at Tehran’s Amir Kabir university. The play ridiculed Imam Mahdi, touching the sensitivities of all sections of society in a country where the Twelfth Imam (in ghaybah) is greatly revered. While the content of the play was denounced across the political spectrum, in the charged political atmosphere some factions used the issue to attack their opponents, thus blowing the incident up out of all proportion.
Ayatullah Khamenei’s khutbah restored the political balance and placed the issue in perspective by first expressing his deep personal anguish at the play, and then stating categorically that people had no right to take the law into their own hands. In order to ensure that this point was clearly understood by all, he stated that this was a hukm-e shari. The Rahbar reminded the people that investigation into the matter, and the punishment (if any) of the offenders, was the job of the Islamic government. As a father-figure of the Revolution, the Rahbar warned against denouncing all students for the actions of a tiny minority (the Mowj has a circulation of only about 150-200). In fact he had high praise for the student population whom he called the “fruit of the revolution”.
Ayatullah Khamenei also praised president Mohammed Khatami, who was present at the jum’a khutbah, thereby laying to rest speculation that there are differences between them. In a gesture that was both symbolic and graceful, after leading the prayers, the Rahbar turned to president Khatami, embraced him and kissed him on both cheeks, in the traditional manner of greetings in Iran. This was shown on television throughout the country and in many neighbouring countries, sending the clear message that a close rapport exists between the two leaders, one the leader of the Revolution, the other the head of the government.
In response to the Rahbar’s call for all factions to respect differences in opinion, which he described as being healthy for society, representatives of different factions called upon the Rahbar on October 5 to pledge that they will work within the framework of the constitution and according to instructions issued by him. On October 8, leaders of the two rival groups of ulama, Ayatullah Mahdavi Kani of Jama-e Ruhaniyat-e Mobarez , and Ayatullah Mahdi Karrubi of Majma-e Ruhaniyoun-e Mobarez, also met in Qum to draft a communique of common principles.
In a note of caution, the Rahbar warned officials responsible for cultural affairs to be more vigilant and not allow publications and activities that were irresponsible and against the basic values and adab of Islam. There appears to be considerable penetration of western cultural practices and values, especially among the young, in the Islamic Republic. In north Tehran - the city’s wealthy area, still occupied by members of the
pre-revolutionary elites - it is not uncommon to see young boys and girls in jeans with dyed hair, the latest craze in the west as well. Western pop-music is also making its way into Islamic Iran.
There is a general feeling, even among committed revolutionary Muslims, that the Islamic Republic has not developed an adequate Islamic cultural alternative to the young. This cultural alienation is limited to a tiny minority, but they are the trend-setters of society; if the trend goes unchecked, it will lead to the weakening of Islamic values.
The Rahbar’s khutbah (sermon) was delivered on the eve of an International Congress on ‘The Elucidation of the Islamic Revolution’ (October 2-4), that launched the hundredth birthday celebrations of Imam Khomeini. The Congress was opened by president Khatami, who delivered a wide-ranging address reflecting on the late Imam’s political and spiritual contribution. Hundreds of scholars from all over the world participated in the Congress held in the new hall built for the summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference in 1997. The Congress was preceded by a women’s congress in which speakers addressed the Imam’s contribution to the re-awakening of Muslim women.
Tehran is alive with talk about the forthcoming Majlis elections, due to be held in early March. Already political alliances are being forged with each faction trying to secure a working majority. Despite minor irritants, Islamic Iran remains a vibrant society where people express their opinions with vigour and passion. The economy and culture seem to be emerging as the dominant themes for the March elections.
The interest, passion and commitment for political questions seen in Iran today is a tribute to the popular awareness and freedom created by the Islamic Revolution, and bodes well for Iran’s revolutionary and Islamic future.
[Zafar Bangash, the Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), was in Tehran for the Congress marking the 100th anniversary of Imam Khomeini’s birth.]
Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999