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Masoumeh Ebtekar is vice president of the Islamic Republic of Iran and head of the department of the environment. Ebtekar is also president of the Network of Women’s NGOs in Iran and has long been famous as the spokesperson for the students who occupied the U.S. Embassy and held U.S. diplomats hostage in 1979.

She spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels in Davos, Switzerland, last week.

Nathan Gardels: As a Shiite-led democracy under the influence of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq will be making decisions on the same set of issues — women's rights, inheritance, divorce, the role of clerical rule — that you have to grapple with in Iran. Won't that affect you?

Masoumeh Ebtekar: The rulings of Ayatollah Sistani are well understood by the reformists in Iran. There is a lot of debate on his thought, especially the way he is promoting tolerance.

Gardels: The new Shiite role in Iraq could thus help spur democracy in Iran?

Ebtekar: It could. Why not? When we see a different example of governance — but with similar mentality that is also Shiite — that will encourage us to open up and see that alternatives to what we have now can also promote Islamic democracy.

Gardels: Abdolkarim Soroush, the Iranian scholar and so-called "Martin Luther of Shiite Islam," has argued that the new Shiite power in Iraq will renew the preeminence of the Najaf theological school in Iraq — which rejects theocracy — over the Qom school in Iran, which supports rule by religious guardianship. Do you see that?

Ebtekar: That is speculation. At the present time, the unrivaled authority on Shia Islamic jurisprudence is in Qom. There is no question. Will the Najaf school become more influential now? You can't say that is not possible someday. The important point is that the Shia advances in Iraq will help further diversify the fields of study in the seminaries and open them up more to the new realities of the world today.

For example, many scholars in the theological schools are now learning foreign languages, including English. They are engaging, for the first time, the empirical sciences, providing a juridical interpretation that allows them to be taught.

We expect that this trend will not only continue, but accelerate. The theological schools have to respond to new challenges of our society, especially to the expectations of the young generation.

Imam Khomeini, an authority on religious affairs, in a sense, started down this path.He was very courageous in taking positions on controversial issues such as the positive role of music and women's emancipation. He made it clear that he wanted to see women take an active role in politics and social affairs — under the guise of Islam, not outside Islamic principles.

This opened up a new vista for a more modern approach that we need to continue.

Gardels: In Iraq, there were many women candidates for offices on the Shiite ticket.

Ebtekar: Yes, that is true. This will make clear that religious circles today — in Iran and Iraq — have a clear interpretation of women's rights. Iran, in this sense, has served in the vanguard on issues that are on the boundary between Islamic jurisprudence and modernization, setting an example for the rest of the Islamic world.

Take the role of women in politics. When I met the former president of Indonesia, Mrs. Megawati, she told me that when she was initially nominated as vice president before she advanced to the presidency, the Islamists and their illogical followers opposed her running because they said it was "contrary to Islamic principles." She and her party said, "Look at Iran. It is a strictly religious country. It follows Sharia and has a Council of Guardians. Anything contrary to Islam would not take place there. Yet it has a women vice-president." She told me that was the reason they accepted her political role.

Gardels: You belong to an elected reformist government often at odds with the un elected Council of Guardians. While al-Sistani says Islamic values must inform governance in Iraq, the ayatollahs must take no role in government.

How does that affect Iran?

Ebtekar: We have to see how the system evolves in Iraq. Establishing a system of Islamic democracy is a complex process. We sat down to write a constitution for Iran nearly 30 years ago with the mentality we had then. Now we have long experience with actually implementing that constitution in practice.

For any government in the world, legislation promulgated by a parliament must conform to the constitution. That is natural. In a religious democracy, the Sharia is also considered the constitution. Having the Council of Guardians as we do in Iranis thus not strange, or incongruent with, other political systems. The problem is how the Guardianship authority is exercised vis-a-vis popular sovereignty.

If we come up with a situation where the parliament takes a position contrary to the Council of Guardians — which is what happened in the parliamentary elections (when the Council refused to allow reformist candidates to run — ed.) — then who will have the final say? What will the outcome be? That is the delicate issue we face.



Abdolkarim Soroush, the Iranian scholar of Islam, is widely regarded, by critics and supporters alike, as "the Martin Luther of Islam." His most important work is "The Hermeneutical Expansion and Contraction of the Theory of Shariah." He is director of the Research Institute for Human Science in Tehran and is currently a visiting professor at Princeton University.

By Abdolkarim Soroush

PRINCETON, N.J. — The distinction between the "Najaf School" in Iraq vs. the "Qom School" in Iran is an un careful one. To start with, nine out of 10 of the grand ayatollahs in Najaf have been Iranian, with the exception of one, who was an Arab, properly speaking. Further, the idea of "separation of church and state" is an analogy from Christendom that does not adequately describe the pervasive role of religion in daily Islamic life. There is no parallel to "secularism" as understood in the West.

Most grand ayatollahs from Najaf — all Iranian — supported the establishment of a constitutional government and the first parliament in Iran in 1906. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's grandfather— also a grand ayatollah in his time, who predicted his grandson would replicate his role — opposed it, however. Nevertheless, like most other religious scholars, he believed Muslims could obey secular laws if they were in harmony with the Sharia.

Najaf has been the revered center of Shiite Islam for 1,000 years; it is the most respected shrine. Qom seminary is barely 100 years old. Its most famous product, so to speak, was Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the revolution that established the religious guardianship in Iran today.

Yet, his was a fringe point of view, an exception, among all the ulemas (religious scholars) in Qom and Najaf alike. Very few supported the idea of guardianship — Ayatollah Montazeri was another. It is an idea that has always been on shaky theological ground as far as a majority of religious scholars are concerned.

Ayatollah Sistani is a moderate in the sense that he has never made the point in any of his writings that clerics should have a divine right to rule, as Khomeini thought. Indeed, I don't know of any grand ayatollah from Najaf who supports this idea of guardianship. This does not at all mean that they are "liberals" who would embrace the Western conception of secularism. These men want to see Islamic laws and customs observed in daily life.

These grand ayatollahs are not philosophers. They are scholars and jurists concerned with interpreting how religious law should be applied in the modern world. Their concerns are legalistic. That doesn't make them illiberal either. I know that Ayatollah Sistani did not take a position against my writings when they were presented to him. That, in itself, says a lot. He and the people around him are absolutely open, for example, to the education of women and promotion of women's rights.

One of the unintended consequences of the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the wider influence of the Shiites in Iraq, therefore, may well be to enhance the democratic prospects in Iran. Let us see.

(c) 2005, Global Viewpoint
Distributed by Tribune Media Services INC. (2/2/05)