The controversial views of an Iranian cleric

The city of Qom, between Tehran and Isfahan, is to the Shi’ite Muslims what the Vatican is to Catholics. Graduates of its madrasah (seminaries) include the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran following the people’s revolution that toppled the Shah, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an Iranian who is the religious leader of the Iraqi Shi’ites, perhaps the most powerful political figure in the chaos that is Iraq after the fall of Saddam. At the top of the pyramid formed by the religious hierarchy of Qom are the Grand Ayatollahs, led by about 10 mujtahid, a term loosely translated as «leader.» Every Shi’ite who does not belong to the religious elite is obliged to choose a mujtahid, whose advice and rulings (fatwa) will act as a guide to problems and dilemmas. The very powerful popular base of the mujtahid has always given them an important political role, even under the Shah’s rule, and particularly today when the clergy is a major factor in the power alliance of the Islamic republic. The Grand Ayatollah Youssef Saanei, whom Kathimerini met at his madrasah in Qom, is one of the most popular and quite an unusual mujtahid. He was a favorite pupil and close associate of Khomeini, who once wrote of him, «I raised Saanei like a son.» A year after the revolution, in February 1980, he was one of the six people appointed by Khomeini to the all-powerful Guardian Council, one of the main non-elected bodies that can short-circuit Parliament and the elected president – as happened with the reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Some of his views are extremely liberal considering the situation in Iran, and he soon clashed with hardliners; 10 months after his appointment, he resigned from the council. Khomeini appointed him chief prosecutor but Saanei soon withdrew, finding it difficult to influence the harsh judicial system. Today, Saanei is a major rallying force for the protection of rivals of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, taking an even more radical line than that of Khatami’s followers. His position and his prestige allow him to say things that no politician would dare, although he never crosses the red line laid down by the clergy, whose leader he remains. He justifies the law that obliges women to wear a headscarf, saying that Islam bans women from circulating «uncovered or half-naked» (two concepts that appear as equal on the scale of sinfulness). Still, the political positions he expresses are extremely controversial, as are his views on most social issues. A defender of rational thought, science and technological progress, he has set up a website that receives thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hits a month (Tehran has about 1,500 Internet cafes) asking his opinion on everything from nuclear weapons to whether facelifts are allowed under Islam.