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Influential cleric urges reforms in Iran's Assembly of Experts

In an exclusive interview, Al-Monitor spoke with Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani, an Iranian marja in the city of Qom.

Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat-Zanjani is a Shiite marja who resides in the holy city of Qom. Born in the city of Zanjan, where he began seminary studies as a teenager, he later moved to Qom and studied under notable Ayatollahs Allameh Tabatabei, Morteza Motahhari and Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Bayat-Zanjani held a number of positions in the newly formed Islamic Republic, serving three terms in parliament and acting as a member of the Council for Amending the Constitution in 1988. A critic of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration, he supported Reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi in the contested 2009 presidential elections. He condemned the crackdown that followed the 2009 elections, and his website was blocked in 2010 as a result.

This was Ayatollah Bayat-Zanjani’s first interview with an American publication. I emailed his office questions about the rise of sectarianism in the region, Iran’s cultural policies, his views on the Assembly of Experts (which is tasked with supervising and electing the supreme leader), the house arrest of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement leaders and his views on Hassan Rouhani’s administration.

When I asked him about regional events, such as the Islamic State (IS) and radical Sunni groups, he responded: “Although certain Sunni groups and Salafists might have cooperated with ISIL [an alternate acronym for IS], I do not consider the ideology of ISIL to be the same as the Sunni ideology. I believe that we need to come up with a new terminology for this problematic ideology that has some of its roots in certain Islamic sects. Pretending that it is a completely Sunni ideology is an attempt to present this problematic ideology as completely Islamic or in line with Islamic traditions and blurring it with the classical traditionalist movements in Islam.”

Al-Monitor:  Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani is trying to strengthen the relations between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Why aren’t his actions supported inside Iran? Why doesn’t Rafsanjani receive any support from the Shiite marjas and other Shiite notables?

Bayat-Zanjani:  I should say that in spite of what the questioner imagines to be the case, the majority of Shiite clerics are supportive of Ayatollah Hashemi’s actions and defend them. The occasional oppositions come not from the Shiite clerics and marjas but from people who benefit from sectarian conflicts.

Al-Monitor:  What cultural activities are the Shiite marjas [who have the authority to make legal decisions under Islamic law] undertaking to lessen the tension between the Shiites and the Sunnis, considering the tension has increased as the result of recent developments in Syria and Iraq?

Bayat-Zanjani:  Shiite marjas are doing their utmost to lessen the tension. Their actions are not always noticed, given the large amount of propaganda coming from the opposite side. However, it is possible that without these attempts we would have been faced with a much more terrible reality today. Best evidence for this is the religious rulings and opinions, given as responses to proposed questions, which all emphasize the importance of respecting other religions.

Al-Monitor:  What is your opinion regarding the current situation of the Council of the Experts, considering that you have been influential in the formation of different organization within the Islamic Republic, including the Assembly of Experts for Constitution and the Parliament of the Islamic Republic?

Bayat-Zanjani:  As I mentioned before within the Council for Constitutional Ratification and Reform, I believe that the Assembly of Experts should include not only Islamic jurists but experts from other fields such as sociology, economy and management. My reasoning is that while one of the characteristics of the leader is having ijtihad (independent reasoning within Islamic law), and naturally Islamic jurists are there to make sure that he does have ijtihad, the leader also needs to be a wise and capable manager who is familiar with political and economic issues of his time. Therefore, it makes sense for the experts of those fields to be involved in the process of choosing a new leader and supervising him.

Also, since the members of the Assembly of Experts are choosing a jurist as the leader of the Islamic Republic, they should be known and accepted in the educational circles, both traditional centers of education as well as universities. This is why I had suggested that the members of the Assembly of Experts have their qualifications approved by the scholars of the land and independent scientific organizations and not by the Guardians Council, whose members themselves are often candidates for the Assembly of Experts. I believe these two issues should be given serious consideration.

Al-Monitor:  Do Hassan Rouhani and his administration have a good relationship with religious authorities in Qom? Are you satisfied with the relationship between the administration and the hawza?

Bayat-Zanjani: As I have mentioned, there is no direct connection between me and the administration. However, considering the news that I have heard, this administration has a much more pragmatic relationship with the majority of the marjas and ulama compared to the previous administration.

Al-Monitor:  Considering your position as one of the most politically prominent Shiite marjas, what is your opinion on the successes of the administration of Rouhani? How successful do you consider Rouhani to have been in fulfilling his promises? How much can the Shiite marjas help an administration that has taken power based on gaining popular votes? Do you consider the efforts of this administration in annulling the house arrests of [Zahra] Rahnavard, [Mir Hossein] Mousavi and Hojjatoleslam [Mehdi] Karroubi to be enough?

Bayat-Zanjani:  I always pray for the success of this government, since I see it as truly having come from the votes of the people. However, I must make it clear that considering both the official and non-official numbers, the administration has been successful in many fields and their actions are defensible. Naturally, such success could not have been reached without proper planning, logical assessments and the correct understanding of the social and financial situation of the country.

The government has also made its own effort at solving the house arrests [of 2009 Green Movement leaders]. Although there might be differences between me and the administration in the form and intensity of these efforts, one cannot claim that they have abandoned the issue of the arrests. This was among the campaign promises and also part of their policies. So, I hope that these efforts, along with those of the clerical establishment and the marjas, results in the release of those under house arrest.

Al-Monitor:  Have you presented the administration with solutions regarding the removal of the house arrests?

Bayat-Zanjani:  Through certain intermediaries, solutions have been presented and we hope that they will have a result.

Al-Monitor:  Considering the social potential of the marjas, what efforts can the clerical establishment undertake to end the house arrests?

Bayat-Zanjani:  The clerics have no executive powers, so to speak, but they can use certain influences. These have been used in various meetings and discussions between some marjas and some of those in the government. Of course, we should mention that if the clerical establishment and the marjas as a whole make this a demand, its effects will be much greater.

Al-Monitor:  In your opinion, how much force should be used for [the Islamic teaching of] "enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong" ("amr bi maruf wa nah’y min munkir") and is it OK to use violence in this matter?

Bayat-Zanjani:  I believe that "amr bi maruf" has more of a cultural side than an executive and forceful side. On the other hand, what has been called “the best of the efforts” ("afdal ul jihad") is when those in power are implored to do good by the people. So, this actually would require a certain socio-cultural context and cannot easily be brought to the level of violence, otherwise the good and the wrong can change places.

Al-Monitor:  In Shiite legal commentaries, does a section on the supervision of the government over the attire of men and women exist?

Bayat-Zanjani:  The issue of hijab itself is a Quranic matter and also one discussed in the early commentaries and it cannot be denied. However, the exact quality of this is related to social norms, cultures and traditions of each people, and as such, there is no specific commentary within the legal code on this. I should emphasize that the issue cannot be ignored, but considering that “there is no obligation in following the religion,” there naturally cannot be one in following the hijab and style of attire either.

Hijab, like so many other religious matters, needs a sociocultural context, and governments must use cultural institutions to create such context. So, within this context, if enough cultural background and effort has been made and people have actually accepted such norms out of their own free will, then we can argue for the placement of legal mechanisms to control abnormalities, within the boundaries of decency and human rights.

Al-Monitor:  As an Islamic scholar and Shiite marja, what are your greatest concerns in matters of culture, politics, economy and the religion itself at present?

Bayat-Zanjani:  My main concern currently is the way that the religion and religious culture are being presented in an illogical, indefensible and violent way by certain movements. This has resulted in skepticism and a drive away from religion in the younger generation. All my efforts have been to present an interpretation of the religion that is appealing to the intellectuals and progressives but is also defensible by the religiously inclined factions as well.

My main economic concern is the way that the economic structure has been damaged through the harmful and indefensible actions of some of the previous politicians. This has resulted in an increase of poverty in the cities and creation of new problems. I hope that these difficulties are resolved by the present government, which at least has made political clarity its main focus.

Al-Monitor:  Do you see the presence of religious leaders in politics as something positive?

Bayat-Zanjani:  If from presence in politics you mean their supervisory role as observers and analysts of social phenomena and advisers to those in power, this is a basic role of the clergy. Indeed, "enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong" has no other meaning but this. However, if from this you mean a role as those who justify wrong political actions of the modern politicians, then this is a far cry from the proper place of the clerical establishment.

Al-Monitor:  What do you think about the present Majlis?

Bayat-Zanjani:  As Imam Khomeini once said, “Majlis is on top of all administrative structure.” I have not considered this to be a simple slogan and believe that the Majlis, by enjoining the three functions of legislation, deciding the budget and its role as a supervisory chamber, is well placed to be a force for the good. Of course, if it does not use these powers correctly, then it itself becomes the source of illegal behavior, violations and injustices, and eventually, these wrong behaviors can lead to absolutism as well.

So, a strong government is based on a strong Majlis. If an administration is weak, a strong Majlis can guide it to the correct path. It can also supervise the judicial branch and prevent it from creating injustice as well.

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