A group of Principlist MPs in the Iranian parliament submitted a proposal for a parliamentary act that would legalize the undertaking of "enjoining good and forbidding wrong." This act, proposed on June 23, could curtail personal freedoms by legalizing the act of any individual wishing to intrude into the private lives of others.
"Enjoining good and forbidding wrong" is a ritual Islamic act, which means a Muslim may suggest to others, or order them, to do what is considered proper according to logic and Sharia, or conversely, not to do what is considered inappropriate to Sharia. According to Shiite Muslims, it is also one of the “ancillaries of the Islamic Faith” (furu ad-din).
While authorities encourage all Muslims to engage in this practice, paramilitary Basij or seminary students mostly carry out these acts, which sometimes result in altercations with ordinary citizens. According to local police officials in Sabzevar (northeastern Iran), in April a member of the Basij attempted to stop alcohol consumption at a wedding but was assaulted by the guests. In March, Ali Khalili, a Basij member, was killed under unknown circumstances. Hard-line media referred to him as a “martyr in the path of enjoining good and forbidding wrong.” There have been numerous cases claiming that others have been injured in similar circumstances.
These cases have resulted in certain MPs talking about the necessity of “special support” for people who promote Islamic values in the streets. “Recently, we have witnessed that the people who are engaged in promoting Islamic values have been insulted,” said Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, the MP from Ghazvin. He said the proposed law would protect those who engaged in enjoining good and forbidding wrong. According to the proposal put forth by the Cultural Commission of the Iranian parliament, no institution would be allowed to arrest those engaged in the practice.
Despite the push by legislators, there appears to be little religious justification for proposing such a law.
Mohsen Kadivar, a famous religious dissident thinker, currently a visiting professor of religious studies at Duke University in North Carolina, told Al-Monitor, “We have very little evidence and hadith from the Prophet [Muhammad] or the Shiite Imams regarding this Islamic ritual in comparison to other Islamic rituals such as fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca, praying or zakat [alms giving]. Most of these hadith regarding the issue of enjoining good and forbidding wrong are in the context of people criticizing and advising the rulers and those responsible for governance. The most famous reference to this Islamic ritual is the rebellion of Imam Hossein against the cruel Umayyad caliphs.”
Mahmoud Sadri, a scholar of religion and a professor of sociology at the University of Texas, told Al-Monitor, “In Sharia, the requirement of encouraging others to do good and preventing them from committing evil is the manner which increases its success. This means that advice should be appealing to the listeners and it should not anger them, humiliate them or force them to cover their wrong act and continue it.”
One MP who signed the proposition, Morteza Agh Tehrani, is a member of the most radical of Principlist factions, the Resistance Front. In an interview with Mehr News Agency, he said that religious figures such as Ayatollah Mohammadreza Mahdavi Kani, the chairman of the Assembly of the Experts, and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, another member of the said council, were consulted before this proposition was submitted to parliament. Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi is the spiritual leader of the Resistance Front of the Islamic Revolution and one of the most radical and influential clerics in Iran.
In May, during a conference on "Ways of Realizing Enjoining Good and Forbidding Wrong," Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi expressed his strong support for the proposed law, saying, “Enjoining good and forbidding wrong is among the most important Islamic duties which has been suggested in the most reliable of hadith.”
The proposal has not been sent to the floor yet. If it passes into law, it will be sent to the 12-member Guardian Council for a final decision. Kadivar believes that due to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s interpretation of Sharia, this act will pass. He warned that it would “limit the social and cultural freedoms of the citizens.”
A member of the Basij Resistance Base located in a mosque in Narmak, a neighborhood in eastern Tehran, is happy about this proposal and its possible passing, telling Al-Monitor, on the condition of anonymity, “We are doing what the Quran, our Prophet, the Revolution and the Ayatollah Khamenei want us to do. We are doing our duty, whether the law supports us or if it does not.” He added, “Of course, it is much better if we do have the backing of the law.”
He lamented that in an Islamic country a person who is trying to promote Islamic values might face punishment. Echoing the concern of many of the Basij who support this bill, he said, “The city is full of corruption and filth. There are parties in every street and girls will soon try to come to the streets with bikinis and underwear. The administration does not care, but we will not stand quietly on the side.”
There has been no serious discussion regarding this issue on social networks and Reformist media outlets. It does appear, however, that if the issue of its passing into law becomes more serious, then the Reformists, political activists and even President Hassan Rouhani's administration will react to it.
A political activist and a former student of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri said this is all part of the cultural wars between Rouhani and conservative clerics. “The timing for this proposal and related activities is very interesting and noteworthy,” the activist said on condition of anonymity. “As soon as Rouhani said that one cannot send people to heaven by force, the parliament decided to put this act forward.”
He was referring to late May 2014, when senior right-wing clerics such as Ahmad Alamolhoda and Ahmad Khatami attacked Rouhani’s speech, in which he said: “Let people find their own way to heaven. One cannot send people to heaven through force and a whip.”
There is no doubt that legal backing for enjoining good and forbidding wrong at least demonstrates the strong will of some of the strongest radical factions of the Iranian right. Their ability to pass this bill into law will determine to what degree Rouhani’s speeches reflect his abilities to block laws that oppose his positions.