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Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri: 1922-2009

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

21 Dec 2009 00:09Comments
24xjfo6.jpgHe was not willing to sell his soul to stay in power.

[ obit ] Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the spiritual leader of Iran's democratic movement and one of the two top ayatollahs in Shia Islam (Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq is the other), passed away in his sleep on Saturday.

Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was born in 1922 in Najafabad, a town in the province of Isfahan in central Iran. His father, Ali, was a farmer who also taught reading and interpretation of the Qur'an to the townspeople. The young Montazeri entered the seminary at Isfahan at the age of 12. After finishing his preliminary studies in 1941, he moved to the holy city of Qom and began his theological studies. He was a student of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the future leader of the 1979 Revolution. Years after the Revolution toppled the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Khomeini referred to Montazeri as "the fruit of my life."

In the 1950s, Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Hassan Tabatabaei Boroujerdi was the most important grand ayatollah and marja (source of emulation) in Shia Islam. He believed that clerics should not intervene in politics and should act only as spiritual advisers. After Ayatollah Tabatabaei passed away in 1961, other important ayatollahs of that era became the focus of attention: Seyyed Mohammad Reza Golpayegani (1895-1993), Seyyed Mohammad Sadegh Rouhani (1926-2002), Shahabeddin Marashi Najafi (1897-1990), Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari (1905-86), and Khomeini. The question was who would be "the top among the equals." Montazeri and other students of Khomeini promoted him, presumably because the others were not willing to take on the Shah.

When on June 5, 1963, there was an uprising by the followers of Khomeini, who in a fiery speech had denounced the Shah and was going to be arrested, Montazeri and others actively supported their teacher and spiritual leader. After Khomeini was exiled to Turkey and then Iraq in 1964, it was Montazeri and other disciples of Khomeini who kept in contact with him and helped propagate his political messages against the Shah.

Montazeri was arrested by the Shah's security forces many times and spent years in jail. When in March 1966 his son Monammad Montazeri distributed anti-Shah fliers at the shrine of Masoumeh in Qom, the SAVAK -- the Shah's security agency -- arrested the elder Montazeri. He had been released from jail only a few months earlier. His arrest provoked strong protests by the other ayatollahs in Qom and, as a result, he was released from jail in October 1966. After his release, he secretly traveled to Najaf, Iraq, where Khomeini was living, but on his return to Iran, he was arrested again and spent another five months in jail.

In 1967, the Shah crowned himself "King of Kings" and his wife Farah, Empress. To prevent any disturbance, the SAVAK banished Montazeri to Masjed Soleiman in Khuzestan province. He was there for three months then returned to Qom against SAVAK orders. He was greeted by a large number of people and arrested again by the SAVAK and sent off to exile in his hometown of Najafabad. There, he began public Friday Prayers. In his sermons, he harshly criticized the Shah. He was arrested and convicted in a show trial in the Shah's military court. (In that era, civilian courts and judges refused to put political dissidents on trial; as in the Islamic Republic, these trials were a farce and every verdict a foregone conclusion.) He was eventually sentenced to 18 months in Qasr Prison in Tehran, where political detainees were held.

Montazeri was freed in April 1970 and returned to Qom. Because of his influence and popularity, he was exiled by the SAVAK to Najafabad again. He again used his Friday Prayer sermons to criticize the Shah. The Friday Prayers he led became so popular that people from many cities in Isfahan province would attend just to listen to him. The SAVAK reported to the Shah that "Montazeri's Friday Prayers are a base of struggle against the government." Montazeri spent three years in exile in Najafabad, followed by a period in Tabas, a town in the southern part of Khorasan province.

When he arrived in Tabas, over 50,000 people reportedly traveled there to meet with him, and Tabas became a center of anti-Shah activities. Montazeri wrote an open letter about the dangers of what he called imperialism [represented by the United States] and Zionism [Israel] and the necessity of a united front to oppose them. The open letter was widely distributed [as a university student, the author read a copy of it]. The letter angered the SAVAK, so in 1974 he was again transferred from Tabas to Khalkhal in the province of East Azerbaijan; because he did not speak Azeri Turkish, it was hoped the move there would curb the spread of his influence. But that did not stop him from criticizing the Shah, which made him popular even in Khalkhal. Therefore, he was banished to Saqez during the harsh winter in hopes that the foul weather would curtail his activities. But even there, the SAVAK worried about him.

montazeri+mug+shot.jpgFinally, he was brought to Tehran in July 1975, where he was interrogated and tortured at Evin prison. He spent the first six months there in solitary confinement. A SAVAK interrogator told him, "We do not want you to be in Qom, because we do not want another Khomeini there." A military court sentenced him to 10 years in prison. But even in Evin, Montazeri was politically active. He began Friday Prayers at the jailhouse, which quickly amassed a following and prompted SAVAK to put a stop to it. Together with Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Taleghani (1911-79), he advocated unity between Islamic and secular leftist political prisoners.

By 1978, the Revolution was under way and gathering steam. On October 29, 1978, Montazeri was released from Evin and greeted by a large crowd of people. He then traveled to Paris to meet with Khomeini, and was vested with full powers to represent him in Iran.

Upon his release from prison, Khomeini told Montazeri, "It is not surprising that the criminal [political] establishment subjects you to medieval torture. Those who commit treason against the country and the people are afraid even of your shadow." The irony in this statement is that the same would later apply to Montazeri's status in the next regime -- the Islamic Republic he helped found.

After the Revolution, Montazeri was chairman of the Assembly of Experts of the Constitution. Two groups were key in inserting the principle of Velayat-e Faqih (guardianship of the jurist, i.e., the position of Supreme Leader) into the Iranian constitution. One group, consisting of clerics, was led by Montazeri. The second was made up of non-clerical right-wing politicians associated with the Islamic Coalition Society, led by Dr. Hassan Ayat (who was assassinated in July 1981) and closely associated with Mozaffar Baghaei, a politician who had supported the CIA/MI6 coup in 1953. But Montazeri always insisted that he never intended for the Supreme Leader to have executive power, but only to act as a spiritual adviser.

In 1985, the Assembly of Experts -- a constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader and, in theory, monitors his performance -- appointed Grand Ayatollah Montazeri as deputy and successor to Ayatollah Khomeini. But differences between the two had already begun to grow. The grand ayatollah was opposed to show trials, torture, and the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s.

He initially expressed his opposition privately, but gradually went public with it. In 1988, through a quasi-coup led by Khomeini's son Ahmad (who hoped to succeed his father) and other clerics, Montazeri was sacked from his position as Khomeini's deputy.

When asked why he did not keep silent until he succeeded Khomeini, at which time he could address "the crimes and problems," he responded that, "I could not sleep at nights, knowing that innocent people were being killed."

Montazeri demonstrated that nothing and no one, even a charismatic and powerful man such as Khomeini, could influence him when it came to defending the truth. He showed that power meant nothing to him if it came at the expense of defending the rights of the oppressed and repressed.

After Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997, Montazeri in a famous speech criticized Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and declared him unqualified for the position. He advised Khatami to tell Khamenei, "You and your office are respected, but I was elected with 20 million votes and, therefore, I should be allowed to run the country." That prompted the hardliners to put him under house arrest, confiscate many of his properties, freeze his bank account, and subject him to ongoing pressure. The house arrest was lifted in 2002. Since then, the hardliners refer to him as "the simple-minded cleric." But Montazeri was far from naïve.


After the rigged June 12 presidential election, Montazeri came down strongly on the side of the reformist-democratic groups. After Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main reformist candidate, wrote a letter to important clerics, asking them to pronounce their opinions on the results of the rigged presidential election, Montazeri issued a statement rejecting the results of the election, and warned the nation that they should not provide any excuse to those who intend to create an atmosphere of fear and repression in the country. The statement said,

Over the last several days I have been witnessing the glowing presence and the lively and sacrificial efforts of my dear and dignified sisters and brothers, old and young, in the campaign for the 10th presidential election. Our youth also demonstrated their presence on the political scene with hope and good spirit, in order to achieve their rightful demands. They waited patiently night and day. This was an excellent occasion for government officials to take advantage of and establish religious, emotional and nationalistic bonds with our youth and the rest of our people.

Unfortunately, however, this opportunity was wasted in the worst possible way. Such election results were declared that no wise person in their right mind could believe, results that based on credible evidence and witnesses had been altered extensively, and after strong protests by the people against such acts -- the same people who have carried the heavy weight and burden of the Revolution during eight years of war and resisted the tanks of the imperial government [of the Shah] and those of the enemy [Iraq] -- they attacked the children of the same people and nation right in front of national and foreign reporters, and used astonishing violence against defenseless men and women and the dear [university] students, injuring and arresting them. And now they are trying to purge activists, intellectuals, and political opponents by arresting a large number of them, some of whom have even held high positions in the government of the Islamic Republic.

After many protesters were killed by security forces, Montazeri declared three days of national mourning. He bravely apologized to the nation for having a hand in establishing the position of Supreme Leader. He set aside his own earlier opinions that he found to be incorrect.

Then, in a historic declaration, Montazeri declared the Supreme Leader illegitimate and working with the government against religion. This fatwa was issued in response to a letter that Dr. Mohsen Kadivar, a progressive cleric and strong critic of the hardliners, and a former student of Montazeri had sent him, asking pointed questions.

Kadivar had asked,

Taking up positions of power for serving the public -- which according to the law, must be occupied by those who are fair, honest, competent, and require the vote of the majority of the people -- by those who are either not qualified, or no longer satisfy the conditions and qualifications stipulated by the law by exhibiting the characteristics that, with almost complete certainty, are against the required qualifications, requires what course of action [by the people]?

Montazeri responded,

If any of the qualifications mentioned in the question, which religiously and reasonably govern the conditions for occupying the official position for serving the public, is no longer met by the person who occupies the position [to serve the public], that person, automatically and without any need for dismissal, is sacked, which also means all the orders issued by him are no longer valid. But, if the conditions are such that they are not religiously and reasonably necessary for taking up the position, but have been mutually agreed upon by the people and the person [taking the position] who serves them and takes care of their affairs, and have been violated by that person, the people can dismiss him. After the fall [destruction] of justice, honesty, and loss of the vote [trust] of the majority that must be reiterated constantly, which are the conditions for serving [the public] and ruling, the criterion is no longer that the person is innocent unless proven otherwise when it comes to the public affairs that he was in charge of, rather the person must prove his innocence, lack of violation of the laws and the religion, and the efforts for protecting people's right by giving the people a valid reason, in order to satisfy them. If there is still a difference [between the public and the person], the person must prove his claim [of innocence] to a free, fair, and neutral adjudicator who is independent of the government; otherwise, the adjudication will not be acceptable.

Kadivar then asked,

What is the religious duty of the people with regard to the public servants who, despite the warning by the wise and good-intentioned people, insist on continuing to act against religion?

Montazeri responded,

As I said, those who have lost, religiously and reasonably, the credibility for serving the public, are automatically dismissed, and the continuation of their work has no legitimacy. If they want to use force, or fool or cheat people in order to keep their power, people must express their opinion about the illegitimacy and lack of their approval of their performance, and seek their dismissal through the best and least harmful way. It is clear that this [dismissal of the officials] is a societal duty of everyone, and all the people, regardless of their social positions and according to their knowledge and capability, must participate in this endeavor, and cannot shirk their responsibility. The enlightened that have more knowledge about the religion and the laws, and are also more influential, have more responsibility [toward dismissal of the unqualified officials]. They must unify people and through formation of political parties and organizations, as well as public and private gatherings, inform the people and show them the way [to dismiss the officials]. In his will Imam Ali said [Nahjolbalaagheh, letter 47], "the governance and domination of the evil people [in a society] is the natural consequence of not preaching good deed and avoiding sin, because they [the evil people] abuse the opportunities.

Montazeri continued to issue strong statements in support of the opposition Green Movement. He warned the people to avoid radicalism and violence and said that, "The victory of the [democratic] movement is certain. Therefore, there is no need for chanting radical slogans [that provoke violence]."

When pro-government hardliners tore and burned a poster of Khomeini, taped the event, and then broadcast it on national television in order to step up their attacks and pave the way to arrest the reformists, Montazeri, in one of his last statements before his death, said, "The late Ayatollah Imam Khomeini was a very important man. But, he was not masoom [sinless] and had erred many times. He himself never claimed to be masoom. Therefore, there is no need to make an issue of this [tearing and burning his poster]."

Montazeri defended the rights of religious minorities. He saved the lives of several people who had converted to Christianity, when he issued a fatwa saying that, "If someone leaves Islam as a result of his own investigation and research, there should not be any problem for him." He defended the rights of Iranian Baha'is, a religion not recognized by Islam. He said that although Islam does not recognize Baha'ism, "our Baha'i compatriots are entitled to full citizen rights, like any other Iranian."

The hardliners are afraid of him even in his death. IRNA, Iran's official news agency, refused to call him Ayatollah. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has asked the press to talk only about Montazeri's scholarly Islamic work, and not his political activities. Security forces are on alert.

AyatollahMontazeriRIP.jpgAccording to various reports, a huge number of people are flocking to Qom to attend his funeral tomorrow (Monday, December 21). Some of the most important ayatollahs who have supported the democratic movement, such as Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili, Grand Ayatollahs Yousef Sanei and Asadollah Bayat Zanjani, as well as Mir Hossein Mousavi and others have already visited Montazeri's home to pay their respects.

In a joint statement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two symbolic leaders of the Green Movement, declared tomorrow a national day of mourning for Montazeri. In Shia tradition, the dead are mourned on the eve of the seventh day after passing. Fittingly, for Montazeri, the seventh day will fall on the Day of Ashura, which annually commemorates the martyrdom of revered Shia icon Imam Hossein. The Green Movement had vowed to use the occasion to demonstrate against the hardliners, and Montazeri's passing only adds to the significance of the day.

Personally, my own life has been influenced greatly by Montazeri for several reasons. First and foremost, he and others like him taught me that one can be a Muslim, but also a progressive and a democrat and to be proud of it. Second, in the fall of 1978, when the Revolution was gathering steam, I was becoming restless. I had moved to the United States in March of 1978, but had second thoughts because I wanted to go back to Iran to support the Revolution. Through a college friend who was a relative of Montazeri, I asked him what he thought people like me should do. His message: "Tell your friend that one can be a soldier of the Revolution and Iran in several different ways. For him the best is to remain in the United States, learn as much as he can and then serve Iran in any way he can by transferring his knowledge to the younger generations." I have tried to do just that.

Finally, I am indebted to Montazeri for his defense of the rights of the political prisoners. As someone who lost his younger brother at the age of 23 when he and my cousins were executed by the Islamic Republic, I know how it feels to lose loved ones to political violence. Thus, I greatly appreciate anyone's efforts on behalf of the political prisoners. Montazeri's work in this regard was unique.

Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, declared in a statement, "I call you father because I learned from you how to defend the oppressed without using violence against the oppressor. I learned from you that being silent is helping the oppressor. Father, I learned much from you, although I never [got the chance to] show my appreciation for being your child and student. Father, forgive us."

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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