By Majid Mohammadi, New York (Source: Mianeh)
In the days after the June 12 presidential election, defeated candidates, political parties, relatives of political prisoners, and others dissatisfied with the outcome appealed to senior members of the clergy to intervene to halt government-led repression. Many reformists hoped that senior clerics would step in following the mass demonstrations, deaths and the arrest of political activists.
Yet the only high-ranking leader to openly condemn the government's actions was Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was once seen as a possible successor to the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but fell out with him shortly before his death in 1989 over a difference of opinion on human rights.
Two other grand ayatollahs - the highest rank in the Shia clerical system - Yusef Sanei, who once famously issued a fatwa declaring suicide bombings to be "acts of terrorism" and Abdulkarim Mousavi Ardebili, who is also seen as close to the reformers, confined themselves to asking the authorities to review allegations made by protestors, and sending their condolences to the families of those killed during the protests.
Of the other clerics, some either said nothing, like Abdullah Javadi Amoli, Ayatollah Musa Shobairi Zanjani, and Hossein Vahid Khorasani, while others like Ayatollah Hossein Nuri Hamedani came out in support of the government's actions. Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi was among those who tried to persuade protesters to accept the election result and move on.
Ayatollah Lutfullah Safi Golpayagani, meanwhile, tried to conciliate between the two sides, urging them to seek a middle way.
Two groupings of clerics, the Assembly of Combatant Clerics and the Qom Seminary Researchers and Lecturers Association, backed the stance taken by defeated reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi throughout the protests. However, these two bodies only represent a small fraction of clerics in Iran.
Two powerful clerical bodies from the conservative camp, the Association of Combatant Clerics and the Society of Lecturers of Qom Seminary, chose to remain silent when demonstrators came out onto the streets, although they had not lent their support to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's bid for re-election.
Some believe these groups were intimidated into silence by the attacks leveled against Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who chairs both Iran's Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, and backed Mousavi's election bid. Allies of Ahmadinejad accused Rafsanjani and family members of corruption.
When a delegation of protestors visited Qom to speak to clerics on June 19, only Ayatollah Sanei agreed to see them.
Elsewhere in Iran, two other conservative clerical associations - located in Tabriz and Isfahan - supported Mousavi prior to the election, an unusual step given the heightened level of repression facing provincial clerics critical of the government.
Once again, however, they lapsed into silence once the demonstrators appeared on the streets, and made no comment when Mousavi said the results were illegitimate.
Despite the clerics' reticence about speaking out after the election, the backing that many gave to Mousavi indicates their concern that Ahmadinejad's administration has acquired too much power and reach.
Iranian clerics may be heavily dependent on the state, and its highest-ranking members enjoy the largesse of an oil-rich government, but they have not desire to lose the public's respect.
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, clerics have been sensitive to developments in society, and have been careful to try to reflect popular moods and trends. They have also long been on their guard against an administration that is shaped by the military and the security forces, and espouses policies that principally benefit these groups.
To understand the Shia clergy's behaviour before and after election day, it is best to break them down into three categories - seminary students and lecturers; mosque and Friday prayer leaders; and thirdly clerics in government employment as judges, teachers, managers and religious instructors.
Although there is some overlapping between these groups, all three groups are dependent on the office of the Supreme Leader for their livelihoods, one way or another. They no longer derive their principal income from religious tithes paid by members of the public, and their lack of economic dependence on the state is merely notional.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei quite clearly prefers to maintain the status quo, given that he has long seen Ahmadinejad as his natural ally.
The first category, seminary students, are naturally more supportive of Ahmadinejad because they aspire to fill government posts that will fall vacant once the older generation of clerics step aside. It is also worth noting that government funding for seminaries has gone up substantially during Ahmadinejad's time in office.
The second group, mosque and prayer leaders, are more traditional and conservative in outlook. They tend not to be so trusting of the president, given his idiosyncratic religious views. They are also in closer touch with ordinary people, and get to hear their complaints about government policies and actions on a daily basis.
The third group, clerics holding down government jobs, are even more solidly supportive of the Supreme Leader than the students. Under Khamenei, favoured clerics have benefited from a good press, with the statements they make accorded far more weight than those of regime critics, who get dismissed as "low-level" clerics by the media. The negative press given to Ayatollah Montazeri is a case in point.
Given the high level of clerical dependence on the state, it was never likely the religious classes as a whole would stand up for the anti-Ahmadinejad protesters. Senior clerics have failed to respond to the many letters they have received from members of the public asking for help.
That silence could undermine public confidence in the clerical establishment, if people begin to believe the authority it has enjoyed in society has been traded for the patronage of an increasingly authoritarian government.
About the author: Majid Mohammadi teaches humanities and sociology. He is the author of more than two dozen books on Iran and has a particular interest in political Islam, judicial reform, and social movements.
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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