Mind Versus Matter









Middle East Economic Digest (MEED) - Iran Quarterly Report - 24 June 1996


. . . Willing to accomodate women, the establishment has been having problems dealing with a leading religious reformer, Abdol-karim Soroush. The government is alleged to be involved in violent efforts to shut up Soroush by giving support to a new group of extremists.

At the centre of the controversy is Ansar-e Hizbollah (literally supporters of hizbollah), a group of religious and political zealots formed in 1995. The group became prominent earlier in the year after disrupting lectures by Soroush, who advocates less clerical involvement in government and greater political freedoms, and physically attacking him. Criticised for its violence, the group announced in October it would operate as the Ansar-e Hizbollah and promised debate rather than physical force. However, after a short absence from the streets, the group returned to violent tactics in 1996.

Ansar-e Hizbollah is supported by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. It is said to be connected with IRGC commander Rezai. The group is also said to have links with the Information (intelligence) Ministry and with Khamenei. It is believed to be led by Karim Allahverdi, who is described as a former military man. Its hardcore membership is thought to be limited to a few hundred, but its readiness to use violence and threats have intimidated many.

However, a 5 May attack against cinemagoers in central Tehran outraged many people and officials, bringing a strong condemnation from the Islamic Guidance Ministry, and forcing the group to issue a grudging apology. The group was however back in action within days, attacking women cyclists in a Tehran park and threatening students at the Amir Kabir University for inviting Soroush to a lecture on 12 May.

Soroush, a university lecturer and reformer who has been a favourite target of the extremists, wrote an open letter to President Rafsanjani on 9 May, asking what he intended to do about the "birth of barbarism". In subsequent days, some newspapers and several majlis members joined the protest, warning against the dangers of an "unholy phenomenon."

In his open letter, reprinted in the local Akhbar on 18 May, Soroush asks if Rafsanjani, "as the chairman of the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, (is) aware of the situation? And will you do anything to eradicate it?" Using very strong words, Soroush complains of being under constant threat and, instead of receiving protection, of being pressured by the Information Ministry to keep silent.

At least three members of the outgoing majlis have also taken a stand. One deputy, M Gharibani from Ardebil, compared the group to thugs who supported the late Shah in the 1953 CIA coup, and demanded that the government stop their illegal acts.

Soroush's letter is unusual in that it cites Ayatollah Khamenei's university representatives as among those supporting the attacks on him. This apparent criticism of Khamenei is linked by observers to an 18 May complaint by Khamenei that the country's universities are not Islamic enough; the ayatollah said that while preserving academic standards "lecturers who fight against the sanctities of the Islamic system" should be purged.

Ayatollah Jannati has also come to the defence of Ansar-e Hizbollah, saying that in times of trouble such as war and unrest, it is "the hizbollah (who) will defend us."

Ansar-e Hizbollah would appear to have powerful supporters. But the reliance of this small group on crude force puts it on an inevitable collision course with the government.


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