Iran: Khamenei and Rouhani Face Off on Culture War

June 16, 2014 Topic: Domestic PoliticsDemocracySociety Region: Iran

Iran: Khamenei and Rouhani Face Off on Culture War

Does President Rouhani have enough power to implement important cultural reforms?


Responding to Khamenei, in a speech at a conference on public health on May 24 Rouhani said:

We should not futilely worry the people and make them concerned [about their divine fate]. Do not intervene so much in people’s [private] lives, even if it is with good intentions. We should let the people choose their own path [in life]. They cannot be sent to paradise through use of force and lashing. The Prophet did not have a lash in hand; he was a teacher and kind; we should emulate him.


Rouhani’s response angered the hardline and conservative clerics. Ahmad Alamolhoda, a leading conservative cleric and Friday-prayer Imam of Mashhad, the religious city in northeast Iran, angrily declared, “Not only will we use lashes, but also all of our power to stand up against those who block people from going to paradise.” Reactionary cleric Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi asked sarcastically, “Where did you [Rouhani] learn about your religion? In Feyzieh [seminary in Qom] or in Britain?” Another leading conservative cleric, Ahmad Khatami, said, “You [Rouhani] should not pave the path to hell by your speeches.” Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi reacted by saying, “We should not open the hell’s gates to the people.” The country’s prosecutor, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejehei, who has played a leading role in cracking down on the dissidents for years, said, “They say do not bother with people going to hell or paradise. Such statements are mocking the great work of senior clerics.”

Most recently, on June 12, the judiciary chief, conservative cleric Sadegh Larijani, said, “The root of the claim by those who say that we cannot force the people into paradise is in liberalism and [Western] modernity. Rouhani responded to Larijani almost immediately, “What have we said that has disturbed some people? We only said that culture belongs to the people and it is them that should [choose the] best path for their lives. Are we supposed to make pills of culture, write prescription for the people, and ask them to buy the pill at a pharmacy? It is as if some people are still living in the medieval age.”

Where is the confrontation heading?

In undemocratic societies, confrontations between senior officials restrict the breathing room of the common people. A smart opposition can take advantage of the opportunity and activate the people through social networks. Democracy is the result of a balance of power between the state and civil society.

The most important promise of Rouhani to the people is letting them decide for themselves and running their own affairs. If he delivers on this promise, civic and nongovernmental organizations will be formed that will strengthen the civil society. As the civil society advances and becomes more inclusive, the democratic forces can organize the people and use their power to negotiate with the state, in order to make the transition to democracy possible. But, if the people do not organize themselves through civic organizations, the state will make no concessions to them. When the people have no significant power, an authoritarian ruler, such as Khamenei, has no incentive to make concessions to the people.

Whether Hassan Rouhani is a good or bad president will be decided based on what he is doing. Even though he does not have Khamenei’s power, and the Majles [parliament] and unelected officials are not controlled by him, he still publicly repeats his promises and thoughts. It would be a mirage if Rouhani’s critics—the intellectuals, the reformists, and so on—wait with the hope that he will make Iran democratic. He does not have the power to do so on his own. Iran has all the prerequisites for a democratic state. What is missing are independent civic organizations and NGOs, formed by the opposition.  

Akbar Ganji is an Iranian investigative journalist and dissident. He was imprisoned in Tehran from 2000 to 2006, and his writings are currently banned in Iran. This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.

Image: Iran President photo.