What is Going On in the Islamic Republic is not in Accordance With Islam

Fereshteh Ghazi
Fereshteh Ghazi

» In an Exclusive Interview with Rooz, Representative of Grand Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi:

Close associates of grand ayatollah Shirazi say that on Wednesday, security agents gathered in front of the ayatollah’s home in Qom and chanted such slogans as “The home of the seditionist authority of emulation must be destroyed” and “Shame on the pro-British marja .” They then resorted to destroy parts of the wall of his house. The ayatollah’s chief of staff has been in detention since the beginning of the month of Moharam (October 15) while his son has been summoned by security authorities. The ayatollah himself is not willing to give interviews to explain why. While members of his household say he cannot give interviews for security reasons one exception: Sajjad Nikayin. He is the grand ayatollah’s representative and denies the charges against the cleric and calls them merely tools of the Islamic republic. Here are the excerpts.

Rooz: Reports have been published about the summons and arrest of close associates of ayatollah Shirazi. What is the problem that the Islamic republic of Iran has with the ayatollah and what are the reasons for these arrests?

Nikayin: The problem between the Islamic republic and ayatollah Shirazi is not a new one, it has been there since the beginning of the 1979 revolution. His house and that of his brother Mohammad Shirazi who is a critic of the Islamic republic was sealed off about ten years ago. After that it was seyed Sadegh Shirazi’s turn who now lives in Ghom. He is a religious critic of the Islamic republic. He makes only one annual public speech, two or three days prior to the month of Moharam, to his followers. In his speech, he talks about the activities that should be done during the month of Moharam. It has been his practice that he critics the Islamic republic in various fields such as social freedoms or religious duties related to Moharam.

Since a few years ago, he has launched a number of satellite programs that are broadcast in Persian and Arabic in which special events take place for Moharam which are not in line with the propaganda activities of the regime. The name of Mr. Khamenei is never mentioned and there is no defense of the revolution. The issue of Palestine too is not mentioned. The talks are strictly religious which are confined to Moharam and the Ashura event. The regime is not happy at all regarding these two issues, one that he criticizes the Islamic republic and the other that this pulpit is not used in any way to advance the policies of the regime. So every year, summons, detentions arrests etc. start to take place around the month of Moharam and they continue until the Arbain day (celebrated by the Shiites on the 40th day since Ashura when Hussein, Prophet Mohammad’s grandson was killed and pronounced a martyr). Last year about this time the special clerical court summoned many individuals. This year they specifically demanded that in the annual speeches there absolutely be no implied or express criticism of the Islamic republic and its senior officials. In addition they stressed that satellite networks close the ayatollah had no right to broadcast live the ayatollah’s religious ceremonies or his speeches. The ayatollah’s son was summoned and they specifically asked these of him and then his chief of staff, Mr. Nematollahi, was arrested, who also happens to be the director of the followers’ network.

Rooz: What do you mean by a religious critic?

Nikayin: As the term suggests, the Islamic republic claims that whatever it does and whatever happens and whatever laws, regulations, government circulars etc. are passed by it are in accordance with Islam. In other words it says that whatever the regime says it is the official view and that these are absolutely and precisely pure Shii and purely Islamic. Both Mr. Khomeini and Mr. Khamenei say whatever they say is the only interpretation of Shiism, that it is correct and any other interpretation is wrong. Mr. Shirazi and the religious and traditional Shii marja (source of emulation, a religious authority) who have been in around since the beginning of the 1979 revolution such as ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, seyed Hassan Ghomi and Shobeiri Khaghani are among a group of clerics who have said not to this and believe that whatever takes place in the Islamic republic is in fact not in accordance with Islam. They can make any claim they want, that they are followers of the velayat faghih etc., but they cannot claim that everything that they do is Islamic. We have no confiscation of property in Islam. For example, one of the famous fatwas that Mr. Shirazi issued and was broadcast on BBC last year is that you cannot confiscate the property of political prisoners through revolutionary courts or religious courts. We have no political prisoners in Islam and so cannot detain someone because of criticism. These acts are not Islamic or religious. There is a series of criticisms inside religion. When Mr. Khamenei, for example issues a circular that a specific mourning ceremony is banned and is un-Islamic, Mr. Shirazi says this is a state ruling and not a religious or Islamic one. These opinions have nothing to do with religion. They should not ask religious people to obey them. Do not give them a Shiite or fatwa dimension: these are non-Sharia. Another example is the treatment of dissidents. For example, they arrest an Irfan group (a group following Islamic mysticism or gnosis) or they confront Sunni followers. Mr. Shirazi says that during the rule of Imam Ali, opponents or anybody who changed their religion were not treated the way they are in the Islamic republic. Still another example is in the implementation of hodood violations (essentially those that are considered to be against God) Mr. Shirazi believes that what is practiced in this regard is un-Sharia. During the period when the absent Imam is not here, you cannot cut a person’s hand, you cannot stone a person. Such practices require that other rulings too must be implemented and by the innocent Imam who does not fault and who is just. So the execution of these rulings is against the Sharia and un-Islamic.

Rooz: You mentioned the treatment of Sunnis. One accusation against Mr. Shirazi is that he does not believe in the unity of the Shiite and the Sunnis and that his activities are against the Sunnis.

Nikayin: This is a tool that the Islamic republic has been using recently. I will mention two points. According to the students at the number one seminary, the Islamic republic is the last place who can claim that someone is against the Sunnis because the official broadcast media of the regime propagate the most confrontation and war against Sunnis. Just listen to Mr. Mesbah Yazdi who is the closest to the regime and has nothing to do with Mr. Shirazi, with whom he is in fact opposed by 180 degrees. About a year ago, he accused Usman, the third Muslim caliph who enjoys great respect among the Sunnis, of corruption and ganging up. Following this when Jondollah apprehended a number of Iranian border patrols it issued a statement which said it did this as a response to the insults made by Mesbah Yazdi against the Sunni caliph. There is no mention of Mr. Shirazi or his remarks. Another example is Syria. Who is said to be killing Sunnis there? Is it any one else other than Iran and Hezbollah who are killing Sunnis? In Iraq, is it any body other than Ghasem Soleymani killing Sunnis? It is groups that are affiliated to the Islamic republic. In the Islamic republic itself is it Mr. Shirazi who is among the rulers that not a single Sunni is allowed to attain a cabinet post, the presidency, a management position in the state-run national radio and television network? This is a void claim in which the Islamic republic wants to portray itself as the defender whereas it is the one that is denying Sunni rights the most.

The other point is that Mr. Shirazi does not have a single remarks or written line against the Sunnis. His brother was a champion of coexistence between the Shiites and Sunnis. He had a plan 30 years ago called the council of senior clerics and argued that instead of a single velayat faghih (a single supreme cleric) there should be a council of clerics. In addition, he said the council should not be made up of just Sunni clerics but should comprise of Sunni clerics as well. In his speeches, Mr. Shirazi has said that it is our duty to have coexistence in the Islamic society, and this includes Bahais, Jews and even those who change their faith, let alone Sunnis. Yes, there are places where they present historical criticism and specialists in such networks that are close to him do present historical criticism of specific personalities. This is historic criticism not insults, like what Mr. Mesbah Yazdi does when he says that a person is corrupt and a gangster. So he has personally not insulted anyone and has invited others to unity. There are whom he has appointed, just as Mr. Khamenei has appointees, who have said things about Sunnis but he himself has not supported or defended these. This is like any other marja (religious authority) who has close associates who may do certain things.

Rooz: Then how do you explain the ceremony to commemorate the killing of Omar? Omar too was a caliph who is respected by the Sunnis and ayatollah Shirazi holds such ceremonies?

Nikayin: Separate two issues here; the first relates to his close associates which must be separated from him. He has never invited for such a ceremony called the killing of Omar, nor has his household. No such ceremony has ever been held in his own house. The second point concerns the networks associated with him. His official tribune, which is his office, has repeatedly officially announced that our position is announced officially through our own network. This a difference between him and the Islamic republic but it is presented under the guise of religion by the regime. Even in the worst possible scenario, if such a posture were propagated by him, which in fact is claimed by the regime, it is Mr. seyed Taghi Ghomi who is launching such Omar killing ceremonies in his own house in Ghom. In Mashhad, Isfahan, and Kashan there are clerics who hold such ceremonies while Mr. Shirazi does not. Why does the Islamic republic not confront them? Because they are not political critics of the regime and have no political differences with it. But these accusations are levied against Mr. Shirazi because some of his appointees have done this. If he were in support of Omar killing then why is there not a single line or a word to hold such ceremonies? In Iraq, Mr. Shirazi has appointees who have no restriction and the Islamic republic is not there but his office there has no such ceremonies in Kerbala. If he supported it then one would expect it in place where they are free to do this.

Rooz: You say it is close associates of Mr. Shirazi or his appointees who do this while he disagrees with them. Why is he silent on such an important point?

Nikayin: Those who launch such ceremonies have not claimed that Mr. Shirazi has told them to. The view of Mr. Shirazi’s office is that if it issues a statement and says these events have nothing to do with it, i.e., denies something or some event, there are many such events taking place during the year and so it will be continuously issuing such denials. No precedence or rule accepts such a denial. Those who undertake such events have never attributed them to Mr. Shirazi. There are people who hold certain ceremonies, and have done for years and who do not heed to fatwas. Last year in Khomeini Shahr the representative of the velayat faghih arrived and meet some clerics and issued a fatwa that knife-hitting oneself announcing it to be haram (forbidden). An official there said that while they follow ayatollah Khamenei, they would not follow him on this. So you see some things that religious people do is not in the hands of the sources of emulation. So even if they deny it, the issue will not be solved.

Rooz: You said that this conflict creation between Shiites and Sunnis has nothing to do with Mr. Shirazi. But he has named “Unity Week” (between various Islamic factions) to be the “Week of Disavowal of Infidels.”

Nikayin: This is the problem of the Islamic republic. The regime launches this Unity Week for its political purposes. This is not a Sunni tradition. This is a tradition that the Islamic republic has launched. The original message was not to celebrate but to observe a week in disavowal of enemies of Islam. This week is held without attacking anyone. This is one of the issues that the Islamic republic has with Mr. Shirazi. He creates alternatives to what the regime does for political purposes. Unity Week is a new thing launched by Mr. Khomeini for specific purposes. So Mr. Shirazi launched the Disavowal Week in response to that. We did not do it last year because it was providing the Islamic republic with an excuse. It took place two years ago for two or three days only.

Rooz: What does Disavowal Week mean? Unity has a meaning; unity between Muslims, Sunnis and the Shiites. But what is Disavowal?

Nikayin: This relates to Shii identity and traditional sources of emulation. This is an issue that should be critiqued. I don’t want to discuss everything that he has said, but this is one of those issues where the problems between Shiites and Sunnis will not be solved by launching a Unity Week or the Disavowal Week. The issue is that the Islamic republic uses this as a cover to settle political scores. Why is it being used a political pressure? This tradition is rooted in denouncing enemies of Shiism and Muslims. Why does the government make a security intervention when a group wants to perform some religious activity in the course of a year? People are free and he, a marja (source of emulation) has presented his view.

Rooz: But this tradition that you talk about relates to the Sunnis. This is why he is accused of creating discord among Sunnis and Shiites.

Nikayin: As I said, the network that had organized the event ultimately cancelled it. Disavowal is not limited to this either. This is not the invention of Mr. Shirazi. Even Mr. Khamenei does not deny disavowal in Shiism. Furthermore, Mr. Shirazi has not invited people to go and criticize a specific person. This was criticism over the political actions of governments after the Prophet. And it can be done without insults. Nobody said go and insult the caliphs or Sunnis. Disavowal does not mean the intensification of differences. In America or Europe it is essentially outside the purview of governments to tell a church what to say or do. Within the sects of Christianity and Judaism, one sect denounces another but they do not see this as a problem. The US government does not say that a specific church should not say something because it may create discord; the French government does not say this either. Even if such actions bring discord. This is exactly where Mr. Shirazi, as a religious critic, has a problem with the Islamic republic. He has a problem with the essence of the Islamic republic. This is a regime that presents only one interpretation and tells others that’s all there is. In democratic countries do they say do not critic a period of Christian history because Protestants and Christians will be displeased? Government there does not represent any religion or religious faction and keeps its equidistance from all of them. This is why they accuse Mr. Shirazi of being a proponent of liberal Islam who wants to remove the government from faith.

Rooz: What do you think about the actions of those who self-flagellate or those who put a dog’s collar around their neck and (maddah) eulogists who are close to Mr. Shirazi?

Nikayin: Which eulogist?

Rooz: Seyed Ali Momeni.

Nikayin: He is not affiliated with Mr. Shirazi.

Rooz: He has photos with Mr. Shirazi.

Nikayin: Mr. Shirazi has photos with many, including Mr. Vahid, Honarvar Shojai and even Peyman Aref. Photographs do not create affiliations.

Rooz: So Mr. Shirazi does not accept the putting of a dog’s collar on a person?

Nikayin: I do not know if he has passed a religious comment on this or not but he has not issued any instructions or permits to do it.

Rooz: What about self-flagellation?

Nikayin: This is viewed from two perspectives: one is what Mr. Shirazi believes, the other is what the Islamic republic says. Mr. Shirazi is not the only marja (religious authority) who supports it. If this is an issue for the Islamic republic then it has issues with a group of Shiite marja . Mr. Shirazi does not represent that group either. Mr. Vahid supports self-flagellation on his website. This is an old issue. Sheikh Ansari and Naini both permitted it. Mr. Safi Golpaygani who is a senior authority in the Revolutionary Guards also sanctions it. So this is not exclusive to Mr. Shirazi; others support it as well. But they present this as if it was an invention of Mr. Shirazi. In Najaf, which is the capital of Shiism, where Mr. Sistani lives, self-flagellation groups take to the streets every year. When did anyone say that they should see if Mr. Sistani agrees with it or not. This is practiced in Shii towns and nobody objects. If the Islamic republic has an issue then it should ask Mr. Sistani to comment on it.

Now on the other point whether it is prudent or not. It is possible to say that in today’s world this act harms the spiritual nature of society from a civil law perspective. Ok, but don’t give it a Sharia cover. Don’t say the Sharia does not allow it. Say this is the civil law, secular law, not Sharia. Giving it a Sharia cover opens the door to all kinds of issues. Anyone who writes in a newspaper can be then viewed as a mohareb (fighting God) so we should arrest the writer and execute him. This is what Mr. Khomeini used to say. If you want to break tradition in this manner then you will have the execution of political prisoners in its interpretation as well. Mr. Shirazi says that our limits are these very traditions that exist, with all their good and bad. We are like a peaceful island in a corner of a turbulent ocean. We do not want to govern nor do we have claims to rule. We view government to be the reserve of the missing Imam. We do not want an Islamic government or the Islamic republic or any other government. This has some positive points and some negative. Its negative points hit us. Excuse me for using this example to make my point. Let’s say I want to have sexual relations; this is a private issue. Same with self-flagellation, if I want to do it. There is no law that prohibits self-harm. A person who is harming himself is not harming others. It is his own body that he is hurting and it is his natural right.

Rooz: But when he does it in public, in a street, is it then still a personal issue?

Nikayin: That is debatable. The rules for self-flagellation do not say it has to be done in public. Mr. Khamenei has said that this act is forbidden by the Sharia. Doing it inside a house is not a public display. Today in California, in America, some Pakistanis engage in self-flagellation with the government’s permit. They do it voluntarily and whoever wants to see it goes there. A group of people wants to get together and hurt themselves, from your perspective. It is not more than that.

Rooz: Is this argument not like the public executions that the government performs? It says anyone who wants to watch it can go there; if someone does not like it, he does not have to go.

Nikayin: No, because, an execution in public involves the rights of another person. In self-flagellation the rights of another person are not involved. But even in public executions we should engage in cultural critique of this. Our society is a backward society where people like to go watch things. Still, this is about the rights of another person, not the self. In America there are Islamic centers where such activities take place in the presence of police and with permits. There is no violation of anybody’s laws there. Ok, they can say don’t do it in public, but they cannot say it is forbidden by the Sharia. When someone wants to do it in his own house, don’t say this is forbidden by Sharia and then deal him as if he is a security threat. When it is done in public too, nobody is forced to go and watch it. The problem with public executions is that people are invited to go and watch it. Let me give you another example. Gay people want to march and demonstrate, with their special clothes etc. Can I as a Muslim tell them that you are disturbing my peace or that you are destroying my children’s morals and so must not march? Do you as an intellectual give us the right to us religious people to say that such a march disturbs our children’s ethics so they should not march? When it comes to our intellectuals they take a 180 reversal role when it comes to religious issues. When a person hits himself on the head, and does not violate any public law, you expand the circle of this right so much that the demonstration by gays falls into its circle.

Rooz: People who engage in self-flagellation do it because they are under the influence of religious teachings or propaganda. Or do you want to say that they do it freely?

Nikayin: You can argue the same thing about gays.

Rooz: People do not become gay, this issue ..

Nikayin: I can also argue that nobody becomes a self-flagellator. I deliberately compare this with gays because both are private affairs. Why is it that in one case we accept that a person can choose his own partner but cannot accept that he should have the ability to hurt himself? Why do we have a double standard on this?

Rooz: This is comparing apples and oranges. A person does not choose to become gay while he does make the choice of self-flagellation.

Nikayin: Why does he not choose to become gay? There is a group of people who until yesterday were bi-sexual and today are homo-sexual. He has made that choice. Whatever the origin, there is no scientific basis for this over which he is not making his own choice. Some say he has made that decision himself while others say that it is in his nature and that it is acquired. It is not something that a person is born with.

Rooz: From scientific perspective your view is not correct.

Nikayin: Some say this is an illness, others say it is not. Gays themselves do not accept that this is an illness. Still others say it is the effect of family education. You cannot say that a person who chooses to self-flagellate is under the influence of other self-flagellators.

Rooz: What is the condition of Mr. Shirazi today? Can he act freely and is it just these summons and arrests which come up occasionally around him and does he himself too have some restrictions?

Nikayin: The reason for the increased pressure is because of the pressures on the television networks. This year, some people got together in front of his house and burnt his book of religious edicts and chanted death to anti- velayat faghih slogans. Last year, they disrupted his 28 Safar event. His events mostly do take place but under pressure and threats. Propaganda is the other issue. A few nights ago, channel 3 of the national state television network had a long program on Mr. Shirazi and his work in which a series of accusations were made against him. The 40-minute program addressed its forces to go to his house in Ghom and do what they did to Mr. Montazeri to defend velayat faghih and Mr. Khamenei. Individuals around Mr. Shirazi are banned from leaving the country. His children have been summoned for the second time. Their attorneys are taken to special court and the managers of the (television) networks are arrested, of which Mr. Nematollahi is the latest.

Rooz: Is this not an excuse to say that the religious authority has not told the television networks what to say? In any case, these networks work under the supervision of Mr. Shirazi.

Nikayin: In the religious authority system when we say somebody is close to another person this does not translate into a pyramid organizational structure. Supporters of Mr. Shirazi for example have created and launched a television network called Imam Hussein. That is all there is as far as relations go. Not that someone is dictating what to say or do. Mr. Shirazi has his own official office and an outlet. He has repeatedly announced what his official positions are. Mr. Vahid is not questioned because of his closeness to Mr. Shirazi just as Mr. Makarem is not because of the Velayat network that is close to him. This is an accepted tradition and norm that a marja (religious authority) has his own official office and a spokesperson.

Rooz: What is the financial source of these television networks?

Nikayin: Mr. Shirazi’s authority is not restricted to Iran only. Mr. Shirazi may be less known in Iran but in some of the rich neighboring countries there is a wealthy Shiite community that follow Mr. Shirazi. Kuwait is an example. Almost all Shiites in Kuwait view Mr. Shirazi as their most important religious authority. In other words there are even more supporters than for Mr. Sistani. The same is true for Bahrain, Qatar, in the eastern regions of Arabia and in Lebanon. The same is true about Shiites in America and Europe. There are many wealthy Shiites in Europe with many financial sponsors for these networks. Another mistake that is made is that is propagated by the Islamic republic which is that there are millions of Dollars spent by these networks. This is not true. I was involved in the creation of some of these networks and their financial details. The largest expense is air time and those related to the satellite company. The rest is just expenses to record speeches. Making programs is not expensive. A devoted Shiite merchant spends money to propagate imam Hussein and his religion. We have even had cases where someone gave all of his wealth for this. In any case these are not expenses that a marja cannot afford. This is true with other religious authorities such as Mr. Makarem and Mr. Sistani, the latter producing the best children’s programs through animation which is very expensive. But they are not questioned but Mr. Shirazi is, which brings us back to the same political point that I made earlier.