Spotlight on Iran (Week of December 17-24, 2009)

Spotlight on Iran

Spotlight on Iran

Spotlight on Iran

Spotlight on Iran

Spotlight on Iran

Spotlight on Iran

Spotlight on Iran

Spotlight on Iran

From www.amontazeri.com, Ayatollah Montazeri’s official website

From www.amontazeri.com, Ayatollah Montazeri’s official website

The Green Moharram Uprising

The Green Moharram Uprising

Yalda Festival

Yalda Festival

Iranian sportswomen at the karate competition in Munich

Iranian sportswomen at the karate competition in Munich

PAS Hamadan soccer players in shirts showing pro-Khamenei slogans

PAS Hamadan soccer players in shirts showing pro-Khamenei slogans


Spotlight on Iran
Spotlight on Iran
Spotlight on Iran

Highlights of the week

  • Iran grieves the death of top reformist cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri

  • Iranian authorities and opposition prepare for Shi’ite mourning rituals as Muslim month of Moharram begins

  • Yalda Festival: pre-Islamic legacy in the Islamic republic

  • The karate scandal: why did Iranian sportswomen appear without veils at an international karate competition?

  • Picture of the week: PAS Hamadan football players in shirts showing pro-Khamenei slogans

Iran grieves the death of top reformist cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri

From www.amontazeri.com, Ayatollah Montazeri’s official website
From www.amontazeri.com, Ayatollah Montazeri’s official website

Last Saturday, senior cleric Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri passed away in the city of Qom at the age of 87 due to a disease. His heavily secured funeral which took place in Qom last Monday was attended by tens of thousands of people, including senior clerics and leaders of the reformist bloc. As soon as his death was announced, security around the city was reinforced to prevent regime opponents from taking advantage of his funeral to violate public order. Reformist websites reported that the security forces had even detained several dozen Iranians on their way from Tehran to Qom to take part in Montazeri’s funeral. As the funeral ended, several reformist news websites reported on clashes which broke out between Basij forces and civilians who gathered around Montazeri’s house and chanted slogans against the regime. On Wednesday, severe clashes also broke out between internal security forces and Montazeri’s followers, who were taking part in a memorial rally in the city of Esfahan.

One of the most senior Shi’ite clerics, Hossein Ali Montazeri was born in 1922 in the city of Najafabad (Esfahan province). He was one of the leaders of the religious opposition to the Shah’s regime in the 1960s and the 1970s, and was put in prison for several years in 1974 for his activity against the Shah. In 1979 he was one of the leaders of the Islamic revolution, after which he served as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, acting Supreme Leader, and Friday prayer leader in Qom and in Tehran. In the 1980s Montazeri was touted as the successor of the leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The year 1988 saw strong differences of opinion between Montazeri and Khomeini when the former criticized the policy of the regime, protested the executions of thousands of political prisoners, and even questioned the very concept of "rule of the religious jurisprudent” (Velayat-e Faqih). Consequently, Khomeini revoked his designation as his successor. In 1997 Montazeri was put under house arrest for his continuing strong criticism against the regime, to be released due to medical reasons in January 2003.

In recent years, Montazeri has been expressing strong criticism against the Iranian authorities and the way the country is managed, mainly regarding internal policy. In the midst of the political crisis which broke out when the Iranian presidential election results were published, Montazeri issued a religious ruling arguing that a regime which acts against the law and relies on the use of force or forgery was illegitimate. That ruling was viewed as Montazeri’s denial of the legitimacy of the current Iranian regime headed by Ali Khamenei. 

On September 13, the senior cleric published an open letter on his website, calling top Shi’ite clerics to break their silence over the political events in Iran. In the letter, addressed to top Shi’ite clerics in the Iranian cities of Qom, Mashhad, Tehran, Esfahan, Tabriz, and Shiraz and the Iraqi city of Najaf, Montazeri said that the events in Iran were a warning sign for Shi’ite clerics and sources of emulation (Maraje-e Taqlid), requiring them to break their silence. The senior clerics must use their status and influence, as they have throughout history, fight for the people and their rights, and pull Iran out of the crisis it is going through, Montazeri wrote. He accused the regime of offending Islam and the original principles of the Islamic revolution in the name of religion, and taking advantage of the senior clerics’ silence to promote its actions. Montazeri even noted that the current Iranian regime was not based on the principle of "rule of the religious jurisprudent”, but rather a military regime. In addition, the senior cleric expressed his disgust with the acts of oppression and violations of human rights perpetrated by the regime in recent months, strongly criticized the wave of arrests and the showcase trials of those arrested in the riots, and called on the rulers of Iran to acknowledge their mistakes and mend their ways.

Iran’s government-supporting media only briefly reported the death of the senior cleric, some of them even avoiding mention of his religious title (Ayatollah Ozma). In contrast, media associated with the reformist bloc provided extensive reports about Montazeri’s death, referring to him as the spiritual father of the Iranian reformist movement. The two reformist leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi declared December 21 as a national day of mourning.

Rah-e Sabz, a reformist website affiliated with Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s supporters, reported early last week that following Montazeri’s death, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance imposed restrictions on media coverage of that event. The ministry instructed the media in a letter that, in light of Montazeri’s views over the past 20 years and the need to maintain public order, great care must be taken when reporting about his death and funeral, emphasis must be placed on his disagreements with Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, and no mention should be made of his political views, instead focusing only on his religious activity (Rah-e Sabz, December 20). The Parleman News website reported that the Ministry of Islamic Guidance even prohibited the newspapers from publishing Montazeri’s photograph on their first pages (Parleman News, December 20).

In a letter of condolence published by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following Montazeri’s death, the former wrote that Montazeri was a great cleric and teacher, and that he greatly benefited his students. Khamenei also noted Montazeri’s contribution to the Islamic revolution and expressed his condolences to Montazeri’s family. Referring to the differences of opinion between Montazeri and Khomeini, Khamenei noted, however, that in Khomeini’s last years Montazeri faced a "difficult, dangerous test”, and expressed his hope that God will have mercy on him and forgive him (various news agencies, December 20).

Iranian authorities and opposition prepare for Shi’ite
mourning rituals as Muslim month of Moharram begins

Senior officials in Iran’s internal security forces issued a warning last week that the mourning rituals of the Muslim month of Moharram, which began on December 18, could be used for political purposes. As the month of Moharram began, the authorities once again expressed their intention to impose restrictions on Ashura, mourning and lamentation rituals annually marked by Shi’ites on that day to commemorate the death of the third Imam Hossein ibn Ali and his men, killed by the army of Yazid ibn Muawiyah in the Battle of Karbala (AD 680). Similarly to previous years, this year the authorities are likely to prohibit self-flagellation during the traditional mourning ceremonies and impose restrictions on showing pictures of Shi’ite imams and using musical instruments that have not been approved by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. Such restrictions, also imposed in previous years, are meant to allow the authorities to control the way the mourning rituals are held. 

This year, however, the authorities are particularly sensitive about the mourning rituals in light of the reformist opposition’s intention to use them for a show of power as part of the political struggle it has waged since the recent presidential elections. The reformist website Rooz Online reported last week that Iran’s authorities had established a special headquarters for monitoring the Shi’ite mourning rituals to keep them from being disrupted by opposition activists. The website reported that the Ministry of Islamic Guidance had issued various regulations designed to restrict the activity of opposition supporters during the religious ceremonies. Thus, the color green cannot be used in Iranian TV broadcasts showing the mourning ceremonies, and the name Hossein cannot be shown on signboards hanging across Iran to avoid making an association between Imam Hossein and opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi (Rooz Online, December 20).

On the eve of the first day of Moharram, the reformist opposition published a memorandum of opinion stating that this year’s month of Moharram would mark the continuing struggle against modern-day "Yazids”. Imam Hossein fought bravely for his values and died a martyr’s death at the hand of the tyrants of his time, the memorandum says, but his green path is still alive. The green movement continues Hossein’s path and his ideas in its struggle against oppression and injustice. Some two decades after the death of the leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, and 1400 years after the Karbala massacre, the Iranian people is once again facing a conflict between truth and lie. As Moharram begins, the green movement is set to embark on a new chapter in its book of life, and the Iranian people will follow in the movement’s footsteps by taking part in the mourning processions of this month.

The Green Moharram Uprising
"The Green Moharram Uprising”, a poster published on the blog
http://onlymehdi.wordpress.com (December 18)

The memorandum of opinion also details the activities the reformist opposition intends to hold during the month of Moharram, including: memorial services and prayers for those killed in the riots which broke out following the presidential elections; wearing green clothing during the traditional mourning processions; mentioning the name of the leader of the reformist opposition, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, alongside the name of Imam Hossein; carrying signs with the pictures of those killed in the riots and detained opposition activists; holding meetings with the families of the riot victims and the detainees; and carrying slogans of the green movement during the mourning processions, emphasizing the connection between the path of Imam Hossein and the path of the reformist opposition (www.mowjcamp.com, December 14).

Yalda Festival: pre-Islamic legacy in the Islamic republic

Last week Iran celebrated the night of Yalda, marked annually on the night of the Winter Solstice, December 21, symbolizing the beginning of winter.

The holiday originates in pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition. On Yalda, families traditionally get together to eat dried fruit, watermelons, and pomegranates. Tradition has it that eating summer fruits in early winter ensures good health and keeps disease at bay during the cold season. Storytelling and reading the poems of 14th century poet Hafez are also customary. Each family member makes a wish, opens a book with the poems of Hafez at random, and asks the oldest family member to read the chosen poem aloud. It is believed that the poem is in fact a commentary on the wish, answering the question whether and how it will come true. The tradition is called Fal-e Hafez ("The Draw of Hafez”).

Yalda Festival 

The word ‘Yalda’ comes from the Assyrian word for ‘birth’, referring to the rebirth of the sun on December 21. In ancient Persian belief, darkness, symbolizing evil, is defeated by sunlight at the end of the first winter night, and therefore the entire night must be celebrated. Ancient Christians attributed the festivities to the birth of Mithra, the goddess of light and sun, and to the birth of Jesus. According to one tradition, Jesus and the sun were close to each other when they were born, hence Christmas and Yalda are close as well. 

After the Islamic revolution in 1979, the new regime in the Islamic republic attempted to ban pre-Islamic traditions common in Iran, including the Iranian new year (Nowrooz) marked on March 21 as well as the Yalda festivities—it was unsuccessful, however. In recent years conservative circles in Iran have expressed their reservations over holding the Yalda ceremonies in the Islamic republic, and criticized the mention of those ceremonies on Iran’s media.

In recent years, the Yalda festivities also have an economic impact, namely the rise in fruit prices as the holiday approaches. Iranian news websites reported last week that this year, once again, the specific food traditionally eaten on Yalda became more expensive: watermelons, pomegranates, dried fruit, and candy. The Farda website reported that the price of oranges increased by 10.7 percent in recent weeks, the price of grapes increased by 4.2 percent, and the price of watermelons increased by over 37 percent (Farda, December 21).

The karate scandal: why did Iranian sportswomen appear

without veils at an international karate competition?

A scandal erupted last week when IPNA sports news agency and the Farda website revealed that during a "Shitorio” karate tournament recently held in Munich, Germany, Iranian sportswomen appeared without veils, with their hair exposed for all to see. The news agency reported that due to a ban imposed by the World Karate Association on sportswomen wearing veils during official competitions, Iranian sportswomen avoided taking part in official karate competitions, except for certain styles in which veils are permitted. Nevertheless, the Iranian sportswomen did appear without veils at the competition in Munich, and their photographs even appeared in some German newspapers.

The Farda website strongly criticized the appearance of the Iranian sportswomen without veils, and even mentioned the incident of Marwa el-Sherbini, a young Muslim woman of Egyptian ancestry, who was murdered last July by a German national of Russian descent during an appeal of his conviction of offending the young woman, who was wearing a veil. The website noted that according to the regulations of the Iranian Physical Education Organization, inspectors on behalf of the organization must be sent to international sports events to make sure, among other things, that Islamic dress code is enforced. It is unclear, therefore, how it came about that the Iranian sportswomen appeared without veils.

Iranian sportswomen at the karate competition in Munich
 Iranian sportswomen at the karate competition in Munich

(IPNA, December 18)

Following the publication of the report and the photographs of the Iranian sportswomen, the Iranian karate association decided to ban the women’s "Shitorio” karate union. Several Majles members also strongly criticized the incident. Mohammad Taqi Rahbar, the head of the Majles clerics faction, condemned the appearance of the Iranian sportswomen without veils, saying that removing one’s veil during games outside of Iran was a serious incident and that the heads of the Physical Education Organization must give answers. He added that maintaining Islamic values during international competitions was more important to the Iranian people than thousands of gold medals and championships. He also noted that the ban on the participation of Iranian sportswomen in veils in international competitions was designed to undermine the values of the Islamic revolution, and that the Majles intended to take measures against those members of the physical education organization involved in the affair.

Majles member Seyyed Salman Zaker also strongly criticized the incident, calling it a "disaster”. He noted that the Majles intended to summon Physical Education Organization officials for questioning, and called upon President Ahmadinejad to take the necessary measures in light of the removal of the veil by the Iranian sportswomen, and not to allow the beliefs and values of Iranians to be compromised. He said that there was no reason to send Iranian sportswomen to competitions where wearing veils is forbidden.

In recent years the participation of Iranian women in international sports competitions has more than once been strongly criticized by Iran’s conservative circles. Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Alam al-Hoda, senior conservative cleric and Friday prayer leader in the city of Mashhad, once said that the participation of women in games outside of Iran where they "walk around and prance for men to see” in immodest clothing was contrary to Islamic religious law. In January 2008, the Tabnak website reported that due to criticism voiced by senior clerics against the participation of immodestly dressed Iranian women in international sports competitions, it was decided to introduce uniforms for women taking part in such events. The uniform is meant to allow the sportswomen to take part in competitions in a way that will not impair their athletic abilities, but will also be compatible with Islamic religious law. However, the current status of that program is unclear.

Picture of the week: PAS Hamadan soccer players in shirts showing pro-Khamenei slogans

During an Iranian major league soccer match held last weekend between PAS Hamadan and Persepolis Tehran, the Hamadan soccer players wore shirts with the following slogans: "Green [the color of the reformist protest movement]—only the green of [the Shi’ite imam] Ali, the leader—only Seyyed Ali [Khamenei]”.

It should be mentioned that in last June, at the height of the political crisis which broke out following the presidential elections, members of Iran’s national team caused a scandal when they wore green wristbands during their World Cup qualifying match in Asia against the South Korean team.

PAS Hamadan soccer players in shirts showing pro-Khamenei slogans