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How Iran's hard-liners aim to sideline traditionalist clerics

Iranian hard-liners are establishing parallel entities to train clerics in order to marginalize traditionalist clerics at the Qom seminary.
A Muslim Shiite cleric walks past the house of the late founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in the holy city of Qom, 130 kilometres south of Tehran on January 15, 2019. - In the religious capital of Iran, the Islamic revolution still holds a powerful sway even as once-unthinkable signs of modernity creep into the city of Qom to challenge the faithful. Qom, a couple of hours drive south of Tehran, is one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, home to dozens of seminaries and many of its m

The relationship between the state and the clerical establishment in Iran has been unsteady over the last four decades. The state has often criticized the Qom seminary for its lackluster support for the Islamic Revolution and for its lack of involvement in everyday matters of government, as it limits itself to religious issues. Against this backdrop, hard-liners have pushed the Qom seminary to engage more in everyday political and social problems. This effort has been going on since the 1979 revolution, as shown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s condemnation of politically disengaged clerics as “sanctimonious and illiterate” who “cannot even run a bakery.”

To counter this threat, the Iranian state has tried a range of measures against nonrevolutionary clerics, from prosecution and imprisonment to house arrest and banishment. It has also attempted to address the problem more fundamentally by restructuring the seminaries to make them more dependent on the state, providing them with funding, housing, health care and pensions. Despite all this, the hard-liners are not satisfied, and this periodically causes an uproar between the two sides.

One of the latest attempts to sideline the Qom seminary — and promote the hard-liners' cause — is the Ammar Network. The network is one of several social and cultural initiatives with links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), sharing a namesake with the Ammar International Popular Film Festival and the Ammar Cultural Base. Those projects aim to promote the hard-liners’ social and cultural agendas. The symbolism of the name Ammar is revealing: It refers to Ammar ibn Yasir, a companion of Prophet Muhammad who was one of the four main advocates of the first Shiite Imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib. The name Ammar is associated with unswerving devotion to the right leader when he is deserted by society.

The Ammar Network is composed of more than 200 hard-line orators organized in more than a dozen thematic groups. It functions as a hub for connecting speakers with event organizers. The preachers are mostly professionals with university degrees, but also include young clerics educated at seminaries in Tehran. In terms of scale, the Ammar Network is not comparable with Qom’s traditional networks, which annually dispatch more than 50,000 preachers to all corners of Iran. But simply comparing numbers is insufficient in this context.

While the Ammar Network’s reservoir of orators is limited in number, its orators are influential elites who have a much larger potential audience than ordinary seminary preachers. Besides, their audience often hails from the elites: university students, influential activists, artists and statesmen. Some members of the Ammar Network are celebrities with large followings on social media. In comparison, traditional clerics often have meager audiences, mainly in mosques. Furthermore, some Ammar Network events are held in collaboration with sympathetic news agencies or other institutions — and sometimes broadcast live — and thus gain wide circulation. Another difference with traditional seminary preaching networks is that the Ammar Network does not confine itself to traditional religious venues; it holds its events in more diverse spaces such as universities, thereby broadcasting its message to a broader segment of society.

Ammar speakers cover a wide expanse of subjects, from the 2015 nuclear deal to the economy, entrepreneurship, media, management and international relations, revealing their conception of Islam as a comprehensive religion. In Khomeini’s words, Islamic jurisprudence is “a complete and real theory of human life, from the cradle to the grave.” This stands against the views of many clerics who abstain from extending the jurisdiction of Islamic jurisprudence to new realms. Reflecting Khomeini’s perception of Islam, many of the Ammar Network’s orators are notably graduates of hybrid seminary-university institutions such as Imam Sadiq University, Imam Khomeini Educational Research Institute and Motahhari University. Such institutes were established after the 1979 revolution, and their curricula combine traditional seminary material with modern humanities and social sciences. The idea behind this approach is the perceived need for statesmen who can master both the worldly and the spiritual in order to have a truly Islamic government.

A sizable number of clerics in the Ammar Network trained in Tehran, attesting to the widening gap between the Tehran and Qom seminary environments. Residing in the capital and engaging in the realities of governance, Tehran-trained clerics’ views and attitudes toward the state are often different from those of their Qom-based counterparts, with many of them expecting more political support and engagement with the government.

In the words of one member of the Tehran-based clergy, who articulated this disappointment with Qom: “The Qomi clerical environment is abstract and far from reality. They solve problems based on [empty] presuppositions, while in Tehran, seminarians are closely involved with the realities … even the Supreme Leader wants to separate the Tehran seminary organization from that of Qom. … He is disappointed with the Qom seminary.”

This overrepresentation of Tehran-trained clerics in the Ammar Network coincides with the rise of their influence in the state’s religious apparatus. One example is the supreme leader’s appointment of Tehran-trained Mohammad Javad Haj Ali Akbari as head of the Friday Prayer Imams’ Policy Council in January 2018. The body is responsible for nominating Friday prayer leaders for more than 900 cities and towns throughout Iran.

It is clear that traditionalist clerics in Iran are not on good terms with the state — and this rift is widening. Along with their efforts to exert influence over the Qom seminary, Iranian hard-liners also seek to establish their own parallel religious institutions, such as the Ammar Network. In the grander scheme of things, these are all moves to marginalize the Qom seminary.