Are Senior Clerics As Divided As Iran?

Qom is Iran's holiest city and a central point of the electoral crisis in the country. Islamic scholar Reza Aslan, author of How To Win A Cosmic War, discusses what's happening in Qom and with the Ayatollahs, and how the country might move forward.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, is demanding the release of eight Iranian employees from its embassy in Tehran, describing it as harassment and intimidation. Earlier, state-controlled Iranian media agency Fars reported their arrests for what they call an active role in post-election protests.

This morning, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced what he described as interference by western officials in the wake of the disputed election. But today, we are going to talk about Qom. Qom is Iran's holiest city and home to many of its ayatollahs. It's now a focal point of the electoral crisis in Iran as high-profile ayatollahs debate how to move forward.

Islamic scholar Reza Aslan joins us. He's the author of "How to Win a Cosmic War." Welcome to the program, Reza.

Mr. REZA ASLAN (Author, "How to Win a Cosmic War"): Thanks for having me.

HANSEN: Are senior clerics in Qom as divided as the country at this point?

Mr. ASLAN: Absolutely. In fact, quite publicly so. Just last week there was a massive march in Tehran of a group of clerics. Many of them associated with a group called the Combatant Clerical Vanguard. This is a group that is headed by Mohammad Khatami, the former president of Iran and perhaps Iran's most powerful non-elected member of any government or any of these committees.

Also, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who was also a former president and is now, I would say, perhaps the second-most powerful man in Iran and the head of the Assembly of Experts. There's a whole group of clerics, both young and old, both establishment and some who are against the establishment who have gathered around these two characters, Rafsanjani and Khatami, and they have presented a very formidable challenge to the supreme leader and to some of the more hardline conservative clerics.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit more about the behind-the-scenes efforts of Rafsanjani.

Mr. ASLAN: I think that as you see the protests on the streets diminish, you're going to see an even greater backroom dealings going on, particularly in Qom. We know that Rafsanjani has been working hard over the last week trying to get as many senior clerics on his side in order to pose a direct challenge to the supreme leader.

Rafsanjani is the head of an organization called the Assembly of Experts. This is a body of about 86 clerics, all of whom are elected to an eight-year term. And the Assembly of Experts has only two jobs: one, it picks the next supreme leader when the current supreme leader dies, but it also has the ability to remove the supreme leader from power if they feel that that's - the supreme leader has either compromised himself in one way or another, or is no longer qualified to be in his position.

And I think right now, what you're seeing in these backroom dealings in Qom, is Rafsanjani trying to accumulate the two-third majority that he needs within the Assembly of Experts to do precisely that - to remove Khamenei from power.

HANSEN: Historically, Qom has been the center for Shiite Muslims. Have there been other examples of clerical uprisings that could perhaps give us a window into what's happening there?

Mr. ASLAN: Qom is the center of Iranian Shi'ism, and that's something very important to understand, because Iranian Shi'ism post-Ayatollah Khomeini, went in a very dramatically different and innovative way. Shi'ism is primarily an apolitical religion. As a messianic religion, it looks forward to a time in which the messiah will return to create the perfect state on earth.

And as a result, most Shia clerics throughout the last 14 centuries have believed that any kind of direct political activism would be almost a usurpation of the messiah's role. What was innovative about what Khomeini did 30 years ago is he put together a distinctly Islamic version of Christian millenarianism.

In other words, to put it simply, rather than wait for the messiah to arrive to build the state, why don't we build the state for him so that the messiah will arrive? Now, this became primarily the Qom school of theology, and it's, of course, incredibly influential throughout the world and it is the primary dominant view of Shi'ism in Iran.

However, since the occupation of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the other major school of Shi'ism, the Najaf school, has become much more powerful, much more influential. And the Najaf school, led by the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is much more traditional in its view of Shi'ism. It harkens back to a more apolitical version of Shia thought.

And over the last few years, a growing number of clerics, particularly young clerics in Iran, are saying perhaps the infiltration of religion into politics, the direct political authority given to the clerical establishment, has damaged Shi'ism, has damaged Islam in Iran and perhaps we should go towards a more traditional, more Najaf-based version of apolitical Shi'ism.

HANSEN: Reza Aslan is an Islamic scholar and author of "How to Win a Cosmic War." He joined us from the studios of the BBC in Los Angeles. Thank you very much.

Mr. ASLAN: My pleasure.

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