NY Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recounts his chance encounter with Ayatollah Khomeini's grandson at a dinner in Iraq.
As we sat down for a meal of Iraqi fish and flat bread, he introduced me to a small, black-turbaned cleric who was staying as his houseguest.Now, something like this just before a quiet dinner would spoil my appetite. But that's just me! ;-)
"Mr. Friedman, this is Sayyid Hussein Khomeini" — the grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic revolution.
In any case, Sayyid Hussein Khomeini isn't in the same mould as his grandfather. He may have Ayatollah Khomeini's fiery eyes and steely determination (Friedman's description), but he is as liberal a Muslim as you'll get in the Arab world.
The 46-year-old Mr. Khomeini said he's currently advocating a national referendum in Iran to revoke the absolute religious and political powers that have been grabbed by Iran's clergy. But in other interviews here, he was quoted as saying that Iran's hard-line clerical rulers were "the world's worst dictatorship," who have been exploiting his grandfather's name and the name of Islam "to continue their tyrannical rule."Now, doesn't that come as a breath of fresh air from the mouth of a Muslim cleric (and I'm not referring to the breath, which would not have been smelling anything like fresh air after a hearty meal consisting of Iraqi fish).
This dinner was being enjoyed at the house of another Shiite cleric by the name of Sayyid Iyad Jamaleddine, who like the young Khomeini is a liberal Muslim. His views on religion and state are particularly heartening
"We want a secular constitution. That is the most important point. If we write a secular constitution and separate religion from state, that would be the end of despotism and it would liberate religion as well as the human being. . . . The Islamic religion has been hijacked for 14 centuries by the hands of the state. The state dominated religion, not the other way around. It used religion for its own ends. Tyrants ruled this nation for 14 centuries and they covered their tyranny with the cloak of religion. . . . When I called for secularism in Nasiriya (in the first postwar gathering of Iraqi leaders), they started saying things against me. But last week I had some calls from Qum, thanking me for presenting this thesis and saying, `We understand what you are calling for, but we cannot say so publicly.'Now only if someone explained that to our politicians... and the so-called guardians of secularism in India (I'm referring to the the separation of the religion and the state), though I know that will never happen!
"Secularism is not blasphemy. I am a Muslim. I am devoted to my religion. I want to get it back from the state and that is why I want a secular state. . . . When young people come to religion, not because the state orders them to but because they feel it themselves in their hearts, it actually increases religious devotion. . . . The problem of the Middle East cannot be solved unless all the states in the area become secular. . . . I call for opening the door for Ijtihad [reinterpretation of the Koran in light of changing circumstances]. The Koran is a book to be interpreted [by] each age. Each epoch should not be tied to interpretations from 1,000 years ago. We should be open to interpretations based on new and changing times."
Seriously though, now that Iraq has been sorted out... and the rebuilding underway, US should give some serious thought to using people like these clerics to promote change and real democracy in Iran... rather than using force or coercion. A religious revolution is needed... from within.
The reason why I say this is that we've seen in Iraq that all it takes is to lop off the top layer of leadership. Wrecking the whole structure of the establishment does not help... in fact it backfires. People have a natural affinity for democracy. So, once the top layer of the leadership is dislodged, either by the use of external force like the one in Iraq or by the way of popular uprising initiated by people with progressive ideals like the two Sayyids, the winds of change start blowing. The good thing about a popular uprising is that the question of an alternative governing body is as good as solved. While this is over-simplifying things, I think this is the way to go in Iran.
Are Khomeini, Jamaleddine and GW Bush game for this?
[link requires free NYTimes registration]