Iran: The Revenge

Hassan Ghaedi/AFP/Getty Images
An unidentified defendant at a trial of alleged offenders, Tehran, August 16, 2009

The following is by an Iran expert who wishes to remain anonymous.

Grave, soft-spoken, the exiled Iranian religious scholar Abdolkarim Soroush is a living record of the Iranian revolution. As a fanatical young supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini, he helped purge Iran’s universities of leftists and secularists in the early 1980s. Later, as a founder and editor of Kiyan, a monthly journal of religion and philosophy, he upset his orthodox revolutionary colleagues by arguing that Islamic law should be viewed as a product of its time, subject to alteration as society evolves. Soroush has since denounced Iran’s system of government, what he calls its “republic of faith,” as harmful both to Islam and to politics, an argument that led to his expulsion from Iranian academic life in 2000 and, more recently, an extended sojourn in Europe and the United States. Until this year, driving troublemakers abroad has been a useful and politically inexpensive way for the Islamic Republic to deal with dissent. Iranian history is full of people who lost their relevance after leaving Iran. But this, so far, has not happened to Soroush.

Iran’s summer of discontent started on June 12, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won an election that his reformist opponents, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, declared to have been rigged, setting in motion a large, peaceful protest movement. While it had the support of two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the movement was put down with immense brutality, although it remains, as continuing smaller demonstrations show, very much alive.

Soroush is one of a handful of dissident public figures who have had a moral and intellectual influence on the protesters throughout the crisis in spite of being outside the country. During their confrontation with Ahmadinejad and his main backer, the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reform-minded Iranians drew encouragement from the supportive words and actions of Soroush and other expatriates, which they monitored through the Internet and overseas TV stations. In August, Soroush gave his most significant TV interview in Persian in several years, to the BBC’s new Persian-language channel, in which he disputed the legitimacy of a religious government that imposes its writ by force. In September, his Web site carried an extraordinarily forthright and eloquent open letter with the title “With God’s help, religion and freedom will remain, and tyranny will die.” It might as easily have been called “The last rites of the Islamic Republic, by a zealot who turned against it.”

Soroush’s open letter was addressed to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and it conveyed an ironic awareness of their respective standing as religious authorities. Although Khamenei’s supporters refer to him as a grand ayatollah, the highest rank in Shiism’s clerical hierarchy, he is known among leading Shia religious…

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