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An Internet Revolution in Qom”s Religious Establishment | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An Internet Revolution in Qom”s Religious Establishment

An Internet Revolution in Qom''s Religious Establishment

An Internet Revolution in Qom”s Religious Establishment

Hojjatoleslam Afsahy’s sin may well have been his love for cinema that triggered him to produce movies about the religious establishment in Qom , instead of remaining part of it. The city of Qom is where the Iranian revolution first started.The first act of the uprising was to burn the only movie theatre in the city, following orders from Ayatollah Khomeini, who at the time lived in the Iraqi city of Najaf .

Mohsen Kadiour, Hojjatoleslam Hadi Qabel, and Ayatollah Mohaqqiq Damad all faced trouble when they moved way from the world of the traditional clergy, a move where the internet played a great role. All three began to look at the clergy differently. They demanded limits to the authority of the Supreme Leader, since he is appointed and represents a challenge to the power of the elected President. Some of these figures shied away from direct confrontation because of their political status or rank amongst the clergy.

Just as Reverend Martin Luther King was accused of atheism by the traditional religious establishment of his age, when he called for updating the teachings of the Catholic Church, Iranians attempting to revive religious thought, today, face a variety of constraints. Some have been prosecuted, tortured, and imprisoned, like Kadiour, Hadi Qabel, and Yusufi Shakori. The last two were released without being charged, with the Special Court for the Clergy demanding they abandon their religious uniforms and functions. Others, like Montazeri, the late Mohammed Shizary, and Ayatollah Mohammed Rouhani remained under house arrest.

Among the pioneers of the religious revival school in Qom is Professor Mohsen Kadiour. He is distinguished for his courageous views on democracy, the separation of religion and government, and the notion of justice in Islam. His views are very similar to those of Iranian philosopher and intellectual, Professor Abdul Karim Saroush, with regard to religious tolerance and freedom of expression. They are similar to the thought of Jalal al-Din Rumi, Sheikh Abu Said Abul Khair, and Abu al Alaa al Maari.

For his part, Hassan Yusuf Ashakori represents and explains the liberal intellectual school of Ali Shariati which calls for the separation of religion from the state. Professor Shariati was a prominent Iranian thinker who had led, since the 1960s, a revolution against traditional institutions of the clergy. At the same time, he supported Ayatollah Khomeini in his revolutionary efforts and other rebellious and reform-minded clergymen. As a result of this severe contradiction in his beliefs and his vagueness on critical issues like jihad (holy struggle), martyrdom, and the role of knowledgeable religious scholars in politics, 28 years after his death, he is the idol of various schools of thought. He is particularly popular with members of the Mujahedeen Khalq (Fighters for the people) because of his belief in the necessity to separate religion and politics. At the same time, however, he is considered one of the pioneers of the Iranian revolution, because he was the first to involve religion in politics.

Abdul Karim Saroush, on the other hand, proposed ideas that contradicted Islamic beliefs in revolution and martyrdom and the authority of the clergy. Justice for Saroush and Kadiour is a notion suitable for adjustment and development, from a legal viewpoint. In their view, it is not enough to follow Islamic Law to achieve justice. Kadiour wrote a number of articles on the subject in Rah-e Now (The new Way) whose editor, opposition writer and journalist Akbar Kanji, is now in Evin prison. His articles caused uproar in religious circles and lead to his arrest. Kadiour explained, in the series, the contradictory dimensions between the Prophet’s views on government and citizenship and the ruling tradition in Iran , crystallized in the authority of the Supreme Leader. In Kadiour’s opinion, the Supreme Leader acting on behalf of the Mahdi (the” rightly guided one&#34 who will usher in the Day of Judgment) in his absence is harmful for religion and Muslim society. Instead, it is democracy, alone, that offers the best guarantees for a safe society and reinforces the religious and ethical values of individuals.

The distance between the Haqqany School and Mar”ashi School and library is a few short meters. The two schools are a part of the religious establishment in Qom. They are within walking distance of the tomb of Ma”souma, sister of the Shi’a Imam Reza. However, there is a difference of about eight centuries between the educational methodologies of these two schools.

Students in Haqqany, the center of Shi’a fundamentalism, study traditional schools of Islamic law and ways to export &#34revolutionary Islamic ideas.

Mar”ashy students, on the other hand, are educated religious clergymen who spend several hours a day behind their computers, searching for the latest news and political commentaries as well as the latest in intellectual thought, philosophy, art, literature, and music. Hojjatoleslam Afsahy is one of these well-educated students who have studied in a number of schools in the establishment to become a Mojtahed (a student of Islamic Law who has attained the level of ijtihad i.e. the ability to derive Islamic Law from its sources). His life was completely altered when he used the Internet for the first time and was introduced to the Swedish movie director Ingmar Bergman, and US film director Woody Allen. Bergman”s movies brought a new world for Afsahy. Talking about this experience to Iranian director Aily Sofry who lives in Holland, Afsahy says, &#34Ingmar Bergman opened new outlets to a new world that was a thousand times larger than my small world that consisted of a small room in this establishment&#34. American actor and movie director Woody Allen showed Afsahy for the first time the Celluloid image of Jewish rabbis whose manners and behaviors were similar to the behavior of some of the extremist clergymen of Iran. Eventually, his love for cinema surpassed his love for the religious establishment and he bought a small handy video cam and started filming the establishment and its students. Later on, he filmed a religious themed short film about a taboo love story. Before he was done with shooting the movie, he was arrested under orders from Ali Fallahian, former minister of Intelligence and the Prosecutor of the Special Court of the Clergy. He was found guilty of committing religiously prohibited acts, and undermining the religious clergy. A ruling was issued which led to his imprisoned for a year and had to abandon his religious attire.

Afsahy did not only feel the Internet’s influence alone but it influenced the lives of thousands of other clergy in Qom. A few months after the election of Mohammed Khatami, the cabinet gave orders to import 200 thousand computers to meet the needs of universities, institutes and schools of the country. When these were distributed, a quarter of them went to religious schools, establishments and libraries as well as religious propaganda institutions like the Organization for Islamic Propaganda in Qom. Today, more than 300 thousands computers are found in Qom, including those in the homes of clergy and students. The number of Internet cafés is over 200 in the moderately small city. According to official statistics, every 10 clergymen or students of the establishment, 4 to 6 use the computer on a daily basis. More than 20 marjas (very learned and holy religious men who attained the level of mojatahed) and 411 professors and clergymen, all of which are high ranking figures and all have personal websites. The website of Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri is one of the most popular sites. It is a gateway through which marjas can display his latest news, fatwas (Islamic ruling), and media interviews. The site also carries his viewpoints on politics and Islamic law in addition to his interesting autobiography. Montazeri replies personally to emails he receives through the Internet. Another distinguished website is that of the Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Khamenei that exhibits his political and intellectual views and Islamic laws. The website of the Iraqi Shi’a Imam Ayatollah Ali Sistani is one of the most organized and inclusive sites on Islamic law and religion. Moreover, websites of other educated second-generation clergyman like Hassan Kadiour, Sayed Hadi Khasroushahy, Hassan Yusufi Ashkori, Abd Assaheb Al- Khouiy, Mohammed Alajond, Ahmed Al-Kateb, Professor Abolghasem A-dibaji and Professor Fazel Al-Me”lany are bolder and more progressive in tackling controversial issues and modern political and philosophical


The religious establishment in Qom is the arena where the Internet thrives the most in Iran. Traditional clergymen and ruling religious authorities are concerned with the possibility of their students, followers accessing &#34banned material”. Conversely, open minded members of the establishment like

Mohsen Madkour, Mohammed Shbastry. Sayed Hadi, and Mohaqiq Damad,

regard the internet as a tool that would change the basis of education and learning in the establishment. Thanks to the internet, students and clergy can read banned books in Iran like the Satanic Verses for Salman Rushdie, Crime and Reward for opposing writer Shagaa A-Deen Shafa, and the memoirs of the ex-Empress Farah Diba.