Cleric Wields Religion to Challenge Iran's Theocracy

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CAIRO — For years, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri criticized Iran’s supreme leader and argued that the country was not the Islamic democracy it claimed to be, but his words seemed to fall on deaf ears. Now many Iranians, including some former government leaders, are listening.

Ayatollah Montazeri has emerged as the spiritual leader of the opposition, an adversary the state has been unable to silence or jail because of his religious credentials and seminal role in the founding of the republic.

He is widely regarded as the most knowledgeable religious scholar in Iran and once expected to become the country’s supreme leader until a falling-out with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution and Iran’s supreme leader until his death in 1989.

Now, as the Iranian government has cracked down to suppress the protests that erupted after the presidential election in June and devastated the reform movement, Ayatollah Montazeri uses religion to attack the government’s legitimacy...

... These men have now adopted positions that Ayatollah Montazeri has argued for years, that even in a religious state legitimacy comes from the people. “The government will not achieve legitimacy without the support of the people, and as the necessary and obligatory condition for the legitimacy of the ruler is his popularity and the people’s satisfaction with him,” Ayatollah Montazeri said last month in response to questions the BBC sent to him.

In the early years of the revolution, he did not attract a broad following, in part because he was so plain-spoken. He was mocked by the elite and the middle class.

Despite his religious learning he came off as a sort of country bumpkin. In one joke that circulated after the revolution, he visited a medical school where students were studying to be pediatricians. Ayatollah Montazeri, the joke went, told them that if they studied harder they could become doctors for adults.

He was embraced by Ayatollah Khomeini because he promoted the concept of Velayat-e Faqih, which called for a religious leader to reign supreme over the government. The concept was ultimately embedded in the bedrock of the Islamic Republic. But Ayatollah Montazeri has also repeatedly said that he meant the faqih, or leader, should serve as an adviser, not as the final arbiter of all matters of state and religion.

Ayatollah Montazeri’s disillusionment, and his alienation from the state, came within a decade of the revolution. He mocked Ayatollah Khomeini’s decision to issue a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses,” saying, “People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people.”

The breach with Ayatollah Khomeini became irreparable in January 1988, when Ayatollah Montazeri objected to a wave of executions of political prisoners and challenged the leadership to export the revolution by example, not by violence...

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