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Coup Leaders Afraid to Face the People

06 Sep 2009 22:527 Comments
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By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI | 6 Sept 2009

Friday prayers, religious holidays and religious ceremonies have always been used by the Islamic Republic to showcase the support that it supposedly has from the people. Friday prayers are even called the "political-religious prayers" to emphasize their political significance.

But, after the rigged presidential election of June 12, everything seems to have changed, including the use of Friday prayers and other religious ceremonies by the political establishment to advance its agenda.

This all started a few weeks ago when former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was the leader of Tehran's Friday prayer. The supporters of the Green Movement used that occasion shrewdly to showcase the strength of their movement by calling on the people to participate in the prayer. At least a million people showed up, by far the largest of such gatherings since the first few months after the 1979 Revolution when a comparable number of people would take part in the prayer. And Rafsanjani did not disappoint, by talking about some (but not all) of the demands of the people, and in particular the Green Movement.

Ever since that Friday prayer, the leaders of what former president Mohammad Khatami has called "a velvet election coup" against the people, have been terrified by the prospect of facing the people in such gatherings -- or allowing any gatherings at all for that matter.

First, they prevented Rafsanjani from leading the Friday prayer again when it was his turn to do so. After announcing that he would lead the Friday prayer two weeks prior, it was abruptly canceled. It was reported widely that the hardliners and members of the paramilitary group, the Basij militia, had threatened that they would disrupt the prayer which would have inevitably led to violence. So, Rafsanjani's office issued a terse statement saying that he would not lead the prayer "in order to prevent it from being abused and to prevent trouble."

But since it would be too embarrassing, even for the election coup leaders, to completely prevent Rafsanjani from being a Friday prayer Imam in Tehran, they resorted to the next "best thing," namely, trying to "dilute" the effect of his presence at the prayer. They did so by adding Hojjatoleslam Kazem Seddiqi, a hard-line cleric, to the list of Tehran's "temporary" Friday prayer Imams [they are called "temporary" because the "permanent" one is Ayatollah Ali Khameni himself]. This list now totals five. The other three, aside from Rafsanjani, are Ayatollahs Mohammad Emami Kashani, Ahmad Khatami (no relation with the former president), and Ahmad Jannati (secretary-general of the Guardian Council), all conservative, with the last two being in the hard-liner camp.

On Aug. 29, in his first session as the Friday prayer Imam of Tehran, Seddiqi did what he was supposed to do as a hardliner: He praised Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and claimed that "The country has weathered the post-election unrest." That is the type of Friday prayer Imam that the election coup leaders approve of, even if it means that only a small number of people will take part in the prayer.

The fasting month of Ramadan began on August 22, and will end on either September 18 or 19. It is customary in Iran during Ramadan to have people over for Iftar dinner. The gatherings are for breaking the fast, visiting one another, and discussing various issues. This year, the election coup leaders have not allowed any public Iftar by the reformist groups or the Green Movement, even though they are highly recommended by Islamic teachings and are considered great savaab (good deed). The coup leaders are simply afraid that such public Iftars will lead to demonstrations!

On three nights during the fasting month of Ramadan, there are special religious sermons and speeches given by well-known clerics all over Iran. Those take place on the nights of the 19th, 21st, and 23rd of the month, and are called the Laylat al-Qadr [Night of Decree, or Night of Measures, also known as the Night of Excellence]. The night represents the anniversary of the night that Muslims believe the first five verses of the Holy Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad by the angel Jibril (Gabriel). Some Muslims believe it is the night in which the entire Holy Quran was revealed. The exact night is not known (to my knowledge), but the three nights in the last 10 days of Ramadan are considered the most plausible nights. In Iran, Laylat al-Qadr are also called the Shab haaye ehyaa (nights of revival). Many also include the 17th night of the month in the sermons.

Since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, there have been Laylat al-Qadr sermons at his grave site (a huge compound on the southern edge of Tehran, next to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery). The sermons have usually been given by Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a moderate conservative cleric and former Speaker of the Majles (parliament).

Once again, the Green Movement called on people to participate in the ceremonies on these nights. Given its highly important religious nature, given that it is in the fasting month of Ramadan, and that the 21st of Ramadan is the anniversary of the murder of Imam Ali, the first Shiite Imam, a cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, and a most revered figure in Iran, the predictions where that a huge crowd would show up. I received reports from Tehran that according to the Ministry of Intelligence, an estimated four million people might show up, even larger than the 3 million people that took to the streets after the rigged presidential election to protest the outcome.

So, what happened? Better be "safe" than face the people, the election coup leaders apparently thought! There is no way to have Khatami and four million people in the same place! Thus, a long tradition was canceled. No sermons at Imam Khomeini's shrine on the Laylat al-Qadr! Yes, let's simply forget about Islam, the Holy Quran revelation, the fasting month of Ramadan, and everything else!

Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani, a progressive cleric and an outspoken critic of the election aftermath, said that, "Perhaps they [the election coup leaders] will even close the doors of Imam Khomeini's shrine on people. They want to devoid the Islamic Republic of any of its original ideals."

The same sermons on the same nights have also been held for ages in Qom, the most important religious city in Iran, and along with Najaf, in Iraq, considered the "center" of Shiism. For many years now, the sermons have always been given by Ayatollahs Abdollah Javadi Amoli, Ebrahim Amini, Reza Ostadi and Hojjatoleslam Nategh Nouri, all conservatives. So, the Qom sermons should be safe, right?

Wrong! Although conservative, the four have been critical of the rigged election and its aftermath. The first three are also the Friday prayer leaders of Qom on a rotating basis; they even refused to lead the prayer in Qom for a few weeks. Ayatollah Ostadi was highly critical of the followers of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the ultra-reactionary cleric and the spiritual advisor to Ahmadinejad.

The coup election leaders could not, of course, cancel the sermons in Qom. That would be admitting complete defeat. So they replaced the four! They have announced that Alireza Panahian, a cleric and disciple of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, together with other ultra-conservatives and allies of the coup leaders, will be the main speakers on Shab haaye ehyaa.

The end of the fasting month of Ramadan is celebrated in the Islamic world with Eid al-Fitr. This takes place on the first day of the new month after Ramadan usually with a large feast. Because it is celebrated in the entire Islamic world, Eid al-Fitr is considered the most important Islamic holiday. There is also a special public prayer on that day.

Ever since Ayatollah Khamenei was appointed the Supreme Leader in 1989, he has always led the special prayer of the Eid al-Fitr. The government has built a huge compound in Tehran for the occasion, called the Mosallaa, which can hold up to 2.5 million people for the prayer. In the past, a huge number of people always participated in the prayer, regardless of their political leanings, simply because the occasion is so important in the Islamic world.

But suddenly, it was announced that the Eid al-Fitr prayer at the Mosalla had been cancelled due to "construction that has been going on there." But there has always been some construction going on there! That never stopped the prayer! In addition, just a few weeks ago there was a book exhibition there. So, what happened?

The election coup leaders were terrified by one of the two possibilities: either very few people would show up, which would look really bad for Ayatollah Khamenei; or members of the Green Movement would overwhelm the place by their presence, another terrifying prospect. So, the prayer there was canceled. It has supposedly been moved to the campus of the University of Tehran, the site of Friday prayer, presumably because it is a much smaller place and therefore it would look "fuller" with a much smaller crowd.

Ayatollah Khomeini had named the last Friday of Ramadan as Quds Day, the day Muslims are supposed to protest the occupation of Jerusalem (or at least the eastern part of it) by Israel. There are usually large demonstrations in Iran on this occasion.

This year might be different though. Leaders of the Green Movement, including Mehdi Karroubi, have asked the people to participate in the demonstrations to once again showcase the strength of their movement. It remains to be seen whether the Quds Day parades will also be canceled, because the election coup leaders are terrified by a show of strength by the Iranian people.

So, here is a government that claims to have the support of a great majority of the people, whose president supposedly received 24 million votes in the June 12 election, and whose Supreme Leader is called by the hardliners the Vali Amr-e Moslemin-e Jahan (the religious leader of all the Muslims and who must be obeyed by all the Muslims). Yet, the leaders of this government -- the election coup leaders -- are terrified of facing people, and the possibility that any gathering, even on religious occasions, may lead to demonstrations and a show of strength for the democratic movement of Iranian people.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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7 Comments

There is emerging feeling that in the midst of discontent and perceived ineffective leadership, an authoritarian regime has delivered Iran all the problems. How long still can Iranian people withstand the anarchy and factionalism of democracy? Coup leaders piss on their pants when people starts to express their views openly. An effort for them to present the best answers to the multifarious problems Iran is facing and provide the people with a better quality of life.


Many has become frustrated of the lack of democracy in Iran. Everyone argues, everyone has a favorite point of view, the media especially. All too often, people become cynical and distrustful and they become lured to the call of parliament of the streets.


Iran does need leaders not authoritarians who are capable of inspiring as well as delivering.


The fate of democracy is in your hands.

shetty / September 7, 2009 6:46 AM

Personally, Friday Prayer should be now called a different name since it no longer serve its purpose.


Thank you Dr. Sahimi for this article.

shetty / September 7, 2009 6:58 AM

If the Reformist movement in Iran was made up of honest and principled individuals-which of course it isn't-they would stand up and honestly proclaim that they are following western values and traditions in their goal of reforming their country. This of course would condemn them to isolation as a fringe movement limited to the secularist enclaves in upper class northern Tehran. Therefore we have this charade of men and women trying to impose their version of Western European social democracy pretending that they are following the ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini.


Enough with the lies; if Khomeini were alive today he would be leading the campaign to crush the liberal reformists. This is the same leader who had no problem sending thousands of prisoners to the firing squad in 1988 totally ignoring Montazeri's whimpers. The S.L. today and AN are pacifists compared with a firm leader like Imam Khomeini.


Again, if the Reformists of today were not two faced hypocrites they would show their true colours (and it's not Green) like the Chinese students at Tianamen Square who openly and brazenly identified with the West by creating a replica of the Statue of Liberty in the U.S.

Samuel / September 7, 2009 12:51 PM

Thank you, Dr. Sahimi, for exposing the continued erosion of confidence on the part of the coup leaders in their own ability to face the people of Iran, on the part of the people of Iran in those leaders.


While a strong sign of hope in improvement, the strength of the IRGC and its willingness to use thugs, illegal detentions, murders and threats of beatings and more murders are a powerful negative force in Iran.


The recent arrest of an international arms smuggler who was important to the IRGC, and who has described how corrupt the IRGC is, may help open up the chinks in their armor.


Keep up the great work!

Roger / September 7, 2009 2:00 PM

It is not surprising that the authorities would ban all public gatherings that may lead to further erosion of their grip on power. This is standard practice of absolute rule and repression. What was once considered holy to them, will be spun in the stat-controlled media to be a tool of the general "enemies". Although it is very important to point out the trampling of human rights and even tradition, it is analogous to pointing out the symptoms of the disease. The symptoms are what this regime is doing to its own citizens. The disease is what this regime is and what it stands for.


This is a dictatorship trying and failing to disguise itself as an islamic democracy. Islam by its very nature is incompatible with a democracy. Also, with humans any time you have unelected leadership who can appoint their own successors with the final word on all matters of state, the only possible end result is a totalitarian regime. The problem is compounded when the leader(s) claim divine guidance and consent. This is true of all societies and that is the reason checks and balances of power need to be put in place for ALL levels of governance.


The islamic republic is a horribly failed experiment. The positions of president (previously prime minister) and parliament were to give the people some semblance of reduced choice. However it has become painfully clear that this reduced choice is not enough to curb the natural progression towards totalitarianism through the unelected portion of government. This should have been obvious from the beginning to most educated people. But then again, the mullahs have never been known for intelligence.


Another atrocious mistake of this dictatorship has been the sepah and by extension, the basij. They have given a group of young men years of indoctrination into a religious cult, relatively advanced military & police training, and an edict from "god" that they need to protect the establishment from all threats foreign and domestic without the proper checks on their power. I keep hearing about the children of the revolution. In my opinion, the true children of the aftermath of the revolution are the sepah. And these kids are all grown up and want their piece of the glory and think that they are deserving of it in contrast to the wants of the general public.

Maziar / September 7, 2009 6:43 PM

Samuel, good post.


But, I'm not so sure that the reform party is as black & white as you've said. There are probably quite a few "Green Path" followers who NAIVELY think the islamic "republic" ideal can be achieved.

Maziar / September 7, 2009 6:50 PM

To Roger,


Thank you for the post and I agree completely. If I may ask, is this the Roger Cohen post????

Minoo / September 7, 2009 9:52 PM