The Supreme Leader's Not-So-Grand Tour

Ayatollah Khamenei's latest bid to shore up his religious credentials was a miserable failure.

If you're skeptical of the recent coverage from Iranian government sources showing how enthusiastic crowds greeted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, on his recent trip to Qom, one of the theological centers of Shiite Islam, you should be.

Photos and film from IRNA, Iran's state news agency, depict him meeting thousands of cheering admirers, arms waving with fervor. Last week, IRNA published a blizzard of stories running down Khamenei's meetings with religious scholars and seminary students, all intended to send the message that the leader is not only firmly in charge of his country, but also revered as its highest religious authority.

But when one takes into consideration that many of those supporters were not spontaneously assembled masses, but rather basiji (members of the paid militia that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), the waving crowds are suddenly less impressive. True, Khamenei's real mission was to secure the blessings of Qom's top ayatollahs, and he did meet some important ones: Loftollah Safi Golpayegani, Hossein Nuri Hamadani, Mohammed Hosseini Shahroudi, Naser Makarem Shirazi, and Mousa Shobeiri Zanjani.

But the most senior and influential grand ayatollahs stayed away in droves. Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, Bayat Asadullah, Hossein Vahid-Khorasani, Mohammad, Muhammad Ali Gerami Qomi, Sadegh Rouhani, Yusef Sanei, and Seyed Hosseini Shirazi, among others, would not meet with Khamenei. One press account by the Tabnak website, closely associated with former Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai, noted that Khamenei met with the children of prominent cleric and Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid-Khorasani, but not with the ayatollah himself, a prominent critic. The supreme leader -- a man who rose to his exalted position through political hardball, not religious scholarship -- had clearly hoped to shore up his shaky religious stature during his trip to Qom. Instead, he only showed just how isolated he has become.

The story of the Qom clerics' rejection of Khamenei, a biting irony in a theocracy, stretches back decades and is entangled in the opaque intricacies of Shiite Islam as practiced in post-revolutionary Iran.

After the 1979 revolution, Iran's constitution mandated that the supreme leader be a cleric of senior rank, a major mujtahid. A major mujtahid is a cleric whose collected judicial rulings in all areas of life have been popularly acclaimed as demonstrating ijtihad, a comprehensive expertise in interpreting Islamic law. The position of the Supreme Leader was restricted to those very few senior clerics who could be deemed a marja, a major mujtahid universally recognized as being highly worthy of emulation. Such marjas usually have very large and devoted personal followings; they are theological rock stars. There are no exact rules, but generally speaking, major mujtahids are usually grand ayatollahs. Below that rank is ayatollah, and below that rank is hojjatoleslam, a rank similar to a monsignor or minor bishop in Catholicism. Each of those ranks is usually separated by years of study, thought, and an accumulation of judicial rulings examined for theological soundness in "peer review" by the clerical establishment. Anyone designated as a mere hojjatoleslam should therefore have fallen far short of the theological horsepower and popular following required by law.

How then, did Hojjatoleslam Ali Khamenei come to be the supreme leader, and what does that have to do with his October 2010 trip to Qom?

Once upon a time, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was the designated successor to Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, but after criticizing the many excesses of Khomeini's regime, Montazeri was pulled from the running and eventually placed under house arrest in Qom, where he continued to lambaste the Iranian government until his death in late 2009. Not liking the field of potential successors, Khomeini had the Iranian constitution changed shortly before his death in 1989 to allow someone with a far less distinguished pedigree in Islamic jurisprudence to take the helm as supreme leader. This rejiggering of the constitution, along with the support of the powerful Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, helped paved the way for Khamenei's ascension. Suddenly, it was as if this "monsignor," a minor mujtahid whose only book of judicial rulings had never even been printed in Farsi, was catapulted past more learned and senior bishops, archbishops, and cardinals to become pope. Little wonder that the ayatollahs of Qom have quietly dug in their heels and resisted Khamenei's attempts to gain religious stature by associating himself with them.

Nor is this his first attempt at the ruse.

Roughly 10 years ago, Khamenei traveled to Qom and "bent the knee" by going to personally visit many senior Shiite clerics, an effort that won him no noticeable support and had little effect on his theological stature. The unstated hope of "round two" in Qom was that the senior clerical establishment would endorse Khamenei's religious authority by either personally going to see the leader at his temporary residence, or by attending his public rallies and prayer services. One account before the trip began even suggested that the purpose of the trip was to gain endorsement for the supreme leader to attain the rank of marja-e-omoom, the definitive source for emulation and a clerical rank that has not been filled since 1961 -- one that even Khomeini did not seek to claim.

With limited exceptions, the senior clerics stayed away, and the hoped-for validation of Khamenei's religious stature has once again failed to materialize. In an interview last week with Radio Farda, Hamburg-based Iranian dissident Hassan Shariatmadari, son of Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Kazem Shariatmadari, commented on Khamenei's dismal reception, "If they accepted his authority, he would have not spent so many days [in Qom] and exerted such pressure to force marja to meet with him."

One notable exception was the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers, a group that until the Iranian presidential elections of 2009 could have been described as solidly pro-government. A second day of meetings between society clerics and the supreme leader was inserted into the agenda at the last minute and took place on Thursday, Oct. 28, which extended Khamenei's trip one day.

Meeting with this group, though, is unlikely to bolster Khamenei's credentials. In 1995, the society named Khamenei as a possible marja, but there were one or two bobbles with that particular nomination. Usually the death of one marja produces the nomination of a single ayatollah as a replacement. The society used the occasion to nominate seven replacements, Khamenei among them, and at the same time, claimed that two ayatollahs already deemed worthy of emulation should no longer be considered so. Whatever the society may have sacrificed in religious legitimacy, it was admittedly efficient for them to combine a blatant ballot-stuffing exercise with a clerical "Night of the Long Knives." After the society's nomination, Khamenei was generally accepted as an ayatollah (although he terms himself a grand ayatollah), but some top clerics still refuse to recognize him as such.

According to Rooz Online, a reformist website, the reason for Khamenei's trip extension was to convince the society to do the same favor for his hard-line son, Mojtaba Khamenei, as they did for the supreme leader in 1995: getting Mojtaba declared a marja, thus opening up an eventual path for the son to succeed his father.

In his autobiography, Montazeri wrote that Khamenei's first mention of holding the rank of ayatollah did not actually come from any Shiite religious authority, the normal path of advancement, but rather from booklets produced by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, printed in Urdu and sent to Shiite communities in Pakistan and India, who immediately questioned the nomination. Upon notifying the ministry that its attempted end run to elevate Khamenei had not worked, Montazeri was rebuked by Iranian officials and people were warned not to communicate with him. It seems, then, that Khomeini's shenanigans with the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers were hardly the first time he has tried to secure undeserved clerical rank.

Looking down the road, Khamenei's future prospects for support from Qom are only growing worse. The clerics' rejection of the supreme leader was not solely based on a thinly veiled contempt for a theological hack's efforts to wrap himself in a mantle of unearned authority. Just as important is the philosophical difference that has evolved in post-revolutionary Shiite Islam about the proper role for a cleric in political life. After witnessing decades of abuses under a government helmed by clerics, Montazeri, one of the architects of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, reversed his earlier views and stated that clerics should serve only as advisors to the temporal ruler, not as the ruler themselves. This is a view shared by other ayatollahs, including Grand Ayatollah Dastgheib and the widely revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is Iranian by birth though now lives in Iraq.

Iran continues to show new signs of the economic strains on a daily basis; one of the latest being a ban by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the publication of any negative statements about the planned elimination of economic subsidies that have been the bedrock of popular support for the Iranian government. Bad economic news continues to exacerbate the internal divisions brought to the forefront by the rigged 2009 presidential elections. The Green Movement is quiet -- violently suppressed but by no means finished forever.

If Khamenei was hoping to turn things around with a dramatic show of religious unity and power, then his visit to Qom was a miserable failure. Indeed, what is most notable about the trip is what did not happen: Neither Khamenei nor his son got any official elevation in their status; no grand religious initiative arose from the trip, and he was most definitely not greeted with open arms by most senior ayatollahs. The supreme leader won't be resting easy this week.

AFP/Getty Images


Bin Laden's Backfire

In taking up the cause of French Muslims, al Qaeda is only bringing the government and the Islamic community closer together.   

In his recently released audio recording targeting France, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was likely trying to further antagonize the tense relationship between the French state and the country's Islamic population to further his goal of radicalizing European Muslims. But bin Laden demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the current French social landscape: Rather than exacerbating tensions, his clumsy intervention might actually help fix some of the damage done by the French government's hot and cold relationship with Muslim communities.

The country's record during the last two years has been mixed for Muslims in France. At the local level, integration is indeed taking place: Islam is increasingly accepted as part of the French landscape; Muslim chaplains have been appointed in the armed forces; and mosque construction is no longer controversial, as it was earlier this decade. Today, French Muslims are more inclined to demonstrate in the streets over controversial pension reforms, than in support of cultural or religious issues. And radicalization remains at a low level.

But judging by its recent initiatives, President Nicolas Sarkozy's government seems to be doing all it can to reverse these gains. In 2009 and 2010, an official, state-sponsored debate on "national identity" took on xenophobic and anti-Islam undertones, singling out the Muslim community. One government minister notoriously declared that she expected young Muslims to stop wearing their baseball hats backward, stop speaking slang, find a job, feel French, and love France. The recent debate over a law banning the burqa, passed by Parliament on Oct. 11, has only reinforced that impression. (Another cabinet member said the law was necessary to "eliminate the cancer of Islamism.") Among the roughly 3.5 million Muslims in France, there are only 2,000 burqa wearers -- and though the vast majority of French Muslims and community leaders condemn the wearing of full-body coverings, the government's single-minded focus on the issue made many feel stigmatized and singled out.

Enter bin Laden. On Oct. 27, the al Qaeda leader issued a two-minute declaration threatening the death of seven hostages taken six weeks ago in Niger by offshoot-group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and warning of attacks if France continues fighting alongside the United States in Afghanistan and proceeds with the burqa ban. "Since you have acted tyrannically, believing that you have the right to prevent free-born women from wearing the veil, don't we have the right to expel your invading men by slicing their necks?" he said.

This was a purely opportunistic intervention by bin Laden, on several counts. There is little evidence of operational contact between al Qaeda leaders and AQIM; bin Laden most likely has little to no control over the fate of the hostages, and his warning was likely more about reinforcing the group's global brand. But al Qaeda's latest gambit will not lead to any change in the burqa ban or curtail French involvement in Afghanistan. "Obviously, France doesn't let anyone dictate its policies, and certainly not terrorists," a defiant Sarkozy told reporters at an EU summit last week. But paradoxically, the unintended effects of this declaration could be quite positive for French Islam and could actually help heal some of the wounds in a society divided by religion.

Consider what happened six years ago when France adopted a law banning the wearing of headscarves by girls in public school classrooms. Many Muslims found the urgency and vehemence of that debate to be disproportionate to the actual number of girls who wore a foulard to school (estimated to be around 1,250 when the law was passed). At the time, 71 percent of French Muslims thought there was "too much" discussion about the headscarf issue.

Three months later, two French journalists were taken hostage in Iraq, and their kidnappers demanded the immediate repeal of the ban in return for their freedom. Yet this only served to unify a country that had otherwise been divided over the politics of the veil debate: Even opponents of the ban who had organized demonstrations led unanimous calls for all schoolgirls to respect the new law. Muslim leaders almost universally denounced the foreign interference in their internal affairs. When one high school student remarked, "There will be no blood on my headscarf," the phrase became a rallying cry for French Muslims, appalled by the violence being perpetrated on their behalf. 

Of course, there is little chance that burqa wearers will suddenly welcome the law (which enters into force on April 11, 2011) banning the religious garments from the public space. Still, bin Laden's message has offered a welcome opportunity to clarify once again where French Muslims stand when extremists attempt to hijack French domestic political issues to further their own agenda.

Here again, Muslim leaders have reaffirmed their loyalty to the French Republic and demonstrated their solidarity with overall public opinion by issuing denunciations of bin Laden's statement. The French Council for Muslim Faith (CFCM) issued a statement saying, "these questions are an internal affair for France" and "in the name of Islamic values… the CFCM totally condemns any act of hostility targeting our nation or our compatriots, no matter its source." Even the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, which has traditionally promoted a more assertive and politicized Islam in France, was similarly unequivocal: "Any attack on French security is a direct attack on its Muslims."

Could it be that bin Laden has succeeded in renewing the bond between French Muslims and the state after two bitter years of division and recriminations over national identity and burqas? French Muslims' ready denunciation of terrorism is further evidence that they are at home in French society, but it is also a depressing reminder of the misgivings that they face. The specter of al Qaeda has cut two ways for French Muslims since 2001 -- spreading fear of Islam but also providing the opportunity for better integration.

By all appearances, it seems that bin Laden's latest communiqué may have the effect of actually repairing the relationship between the French Muslim community and the wider electorate -- and uniting them in a common cause: the battle over retirement benefits and budget cuts.