Iran: Speak Your Mind — If You Can

Why are some able to speak their minds in today’s Iran — while others cannot?

November 1, 2002

Why are some able to speak their minds in today's Iran — while others cannot?

Among Shi’a Muslim clerics in Iran, there is a sharp and oft-stated distinction between “elites” and “masses.” The elites are religious scholars and clerics.

Certain things may be said in front of these elites — but not the masses. These usually involve complex religious discourse, the sort of talk that might “confuse the simple believer."

There are also some things that elites might have license to say in public, but the masses do not. For example, a cleric can question the mysteries of God. But a "simple believer" cannot.

Iran's Islamic Republic, borrowing from this tradition, distinguishes between insiders (khodee) and outsiders (gheyreh khodee).

The "insider" is a revolutionary who sided with Ayatollah Khomeini and the other religious revolutionaries in overthrowing the Shah, thus excluding the nationalist democrats, secular leftists, Communists, or Islamic Marxists who also played a key role in the revolution.

Today’s “insider” is an elite who adheres to the so-called velayat-e-faqih. Literally, this translates as “rule by clerical jurisprudent” — the system created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini that gives power to Iran’s Shi’a Muslim clergy and supreme power to one senior cleric.

This distinction between elites and masses — or, insiders and outsiders — taken to a government level means this: Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani can stand up in front of a crowd of reporters and say openly (and slyly in typical Rafsanjani style), "90 percent of what we do in the Islamic Republic is un-Islamic," and get away with it, as he did.

If someone else — not considered part of the elite “inside” — said the same words in front of reporters, there could be serious repercussions.

In fact, most of Iran’s clerics and religious scholars are not “insiders.” Of the 5,000 Ayatollahs living in Iran, only 80 take part in government.

Most senior clerics view the velayat-e-faqih as an irreligious aberration, though when they say so out loud, the insiders — with the help of their “insider” security services — swoop on them with house arrest, trial or, in some cases, execution.

The country's current president, Mohammad Khatami, is also an insider. In the 1970s, he opposed the Shah, supported Khomeini, and later took part in the governing apparatus of the Islamic Republic.

That’s why the other insiders allowed him to run for office in the first place in 1997 — though they underestimated his reformist tendencies and his appeal to a population eager for more political and social freedoms and tired of revolutionary fervor.

The ever sharper struggle between reformists and conservatives that has become the hallmark of contemporary Iranian politics remains, thus far, an insider-only struggle.

Few outsiders — secular nationalists or liberal democrats or opponents of the Islamic Republic — have a public voice in the debate. A conservative election supervisory body stymies outsider attempts to run for Iran's parliament and presidency — thus denying them insiderness.

But President Khatami and other insider reformists have gone too far, or so their conservative opponents complain. Khatami talks too directly to the people, "the simple believers."

His insider hard-line critics complain that he "confuses" the plain folk with these ideas of democracy and civil society. Some whisper that Khatami may not even be a true “insider,” that his ideas on democracy seem to go too far, that he may even be guilty of “blasphemy.”

Ironically, the population — the masses — think Khatami has not gone far enough and display impatience with the pace of change.

Several former insiders, like the revolutionary-turned-investigative journalist Akbar Ganji, have been booted out of the circle. Mr. Ganji is currently in jail on charges of "insulting Islamic sanctities" and "defaming public officials" for his book and articles which criticize what he deems as the "religious fascism" of conservatives.

In today's Iran, the circle of insiders shrinks as the opposition grows. As more reformists speak out vigorously and boldly, conservatives cry "betrayal," and yet another insider becomes an outsider.

Fortunately, though, as the circle shrinks, it will become increasingly untenable for the insiders to silence the outsider and “insider reformist” voices crying for change.

The ultimate public proponent of this elite/masses (insider/outsider) idea is the hard-line and powerful cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. He once said: "It doesn't matter what the people think. The people are ignorant sheep."

For how much longer will the ever-shrinking circle of insiders be able to dominate the lives of a weary public hungry for change? As long as they possess the means of coercive force to do so.

Still, if the silent majority of clerical outsiders join with the frustrated population in reminding the elites — or “insiders” — that all Iranians are equal before God, it would send a powerful signal to Iran’s “insider” autocrats.

Adapted from “Persian Pilgrimages” by Afshin Molavi. Copyright © 2002 by Afshin Molavi. Used by permission of the author.