Iran Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
IranSource December 14, 2022

Iran’s protests intensify calls for Shia clerics to step back from politics

By Fardad

The entry of Shia clerics into political affairs in Iran dates back at least five centuries to when this sect of Islam was declared the country’s official religion under the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736). It reached its peak after the 1979 revolution, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became “Supreme Leader” and his disciples dominated Iran’s other institutions, including elected offices.

However, in the last decade, this role has been on the decline of its own accord. Even before the outbreak of nationwide protests following the beating death of Mahsa Jina Amini by the so-called morality police for “violating” mandatory hijab, voices within the seminaries have been calling for a reduction of the role of the clergy in political affairs.

After the 1979 revolution, it was rare to find a workplace in which clergy were not present, from factories, sports, medicine, military, and universities. Clerics justified this by identifying themselves as the guarantors and supervisors of Islamic values. Ayatollah Khomeini, who, in exile, devised his theory of Velayat-e Faqih or rule by a guardianship of the Islamic jurist, defended the role of clerics, noting that it was under deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi that the belief spread “that clerics should not intervene in politics. Even the clerics had accepted this belief.”

The clerics made their presence felt in governmental and religious organizations and foundations. Representatives expanded in all regions and ministries, including the military— especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—the police, and judiciary, as well as offices representing the Supreme Leader and as Friday prayer leaders.

There are dozens of cultural and religious institutions funded by the government. In the budget bill of the Iranian calendar year 1401 (March 21, 2022 to March 20, 2023), the share of the seminaries’ service centers, which take care of the salaries, housing, and health of clerics doubled compared to the previous year to about 28 trillion rials ($756 million)—that is 30 percent more than the budget of the Iranian Department of Environment. (In June 2022, some members of parliament presented a bill for review that would have given seminaries licensing authority for establishing social and psychological counseling centers. Medical authorities objected, however.)

According to scattered statistics from Iranian religious institutions in a 2018 BBC report, there were four hundred thousand clerics in Iran, or one cleric for every two hundred people. In the same year, there was one doctor per one thousand population and one lawyer per 1,600 Iranians.

Under the Islamic Republic’s political system, seven types of important government posts are assigned to clerics with a degree of religious expertise known as “ijtihad,” or the certified ability to interpret Islamic principles. These positions, which number nearly a hundred, include Supreme Leader, the jurists of the Guardian Council, which vets all candidates for elected office, the head of the judiciary, the attorney general, the head of the Supreme Court, the minister of intelligence, and the members of the Assembly of Experts, which are supposed to choose a successor to the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, when he dies or otherwise leaves office.

Four decades after the revolution, however, the dominant role of the clergy has come under severe criticism. Even in the seminaries that train clerics, there appears to be a decline in support for the interference of religion in politics.

In part, that is because of the rising role of the seminaries in Najaf, Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein two decades ago. The dominant school there dictates that religious scholars should not intervene in politics and that secular politicians should be in charge of government. Abbas Abdi, an Iranian political analyst close to Iran’s reform movement, believes that the involvement of the clergy in politics did not lead the government to become sanctified but actually de-legitimized the institution of religion. “This does not make [people] religious [but] it politicizes religion,” he said.

Although Iranians’ resentment of the role of the clergy has been evident for years, it became especially obvious in the recent protests since September 16. There have been numerous viral videos of protestors knocking the turbans off the heads of clerics as a sign of their opposition to the Islamic Republic.

The dominant image for many Iranians is of a cleric sitting in a government car with a personal driver, a government paid house, and bodyguard. He is above the law, rich, and does not answer to civil society.

One such example was Gholamreza Mansouri, a corrupt cleric who suppressed the press, took bribes, and was responsible for the torture of journalists, according to rights groups. Two years ago, Mansouri fled to Romania where he allegedly fell to his death from a window. Many believe that he was killed by Iranian intelligence agents.

The clergy’s decline in popular esteem has led some clerics to refrain from wearing clerical clothes in public places in order to avoid people’s anger, especially as attacks on clergy have increased over the years.

In April 2019, in the western city of Hamadan, a cleric was killed by a man with a weapon, and the killer confessed by publishing photos on Instagram. On April 5, at Mashhad’s Imam Reza Shrine, a pilgrimage and holy place for Shias, a man brought a knife and attacked three clerics, two of whom died.

This situation has caused some prominent clerics to oppose the entry of clerics into politics publicly. Majid Ansari, a member of the Expediency Discernment Council, former member of parliament, and a former vice president, considers the involvement of clerics in politics as the cause of the downfall of their values.

Ayatollah Mostafa Mohaghegh Damad, a former high-ranking manager of the judiciary and the grandson of the founder of the famous Qom seminary, said, “The Qom seminary was supposed to be an observer of politics, not a political administrator, and it achieved some successes, but because it did not fulfill this condition, it suffered damage.”

In recent years, some seminaries have turned away from involvement in political and executive spheres.  

This process has been interpreted as the “de-revolutionization of the seminaries” by Supreme Leader Khamenei. However, it reflects the rise of a new generation of seminarians who believe in the secularization of seminaries.

During the protests, some clerics—especially those with government jobs—have supported the repression. But an anonymous group of clerics and seminary students in Qom and the northeastern city of Mashhad issued a statement on September 30 demanding an end to the killing of protesters. In this statement, they questioned the religious credentials of the Velayat-e Faqih and notably called on grand ayatollahs to break their silence.

Some grand ayatollahs have already done so. On September 16, the day Amini died after two days in a coma, a senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani, described the morality police’s behavior as “illegal, irrational, and illegitimate.” Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Javad Alavi-Boroujerdi said, “The people have the right to criticize the leader of Muslim society, whether the criticism is justified or not.”

In the past years, some clerics, especially the younger generation, have turned away from involvement in the political and executive spheres due to factors such as a decrease in people’s trust in them and the secularization of seminaries. The recent crisis in Iran has given more strength to this idea.

The author was granted anonymity to share candid observations from the ground in Tehran. Fardad is a pseudonym.

Further reading

Image: A cleric walks along a street in the holy city of Qom 145Km (90 miles) south of Tehran at sunset on March 10, 2022. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto)