As host to the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran’s holy city of Qom today witnessed pro-government vigilantes directly taking on key opposition leaders – with violence and with stealth; reformist activists reinvigorated by a reason to take to the streets again; and attempts by the regime to dismiss the importance of Iran’s chief clerical dissident.
Mourners in the funeral procession for Montazeri expressed both regret for the loss of the spiritual mentor of Iran’s opposition “Green Movement” and confidence that his legacy would endure.
Chant leaders led a crowd of hundreds of thousands that spilled beyond one of the most sacred shrines in Iran. Among them was a 19-year-old engineering student, who covered his face with a surgical mask to avoid being identified.
Montazeri’s “demise, although very hard for us, is also a blessing – it brought people out again,” said this student from Tehran. “Hardship and sadness usually unite people. That is what happened for this revolution in the early days; people used the sadness of Moharram to unite themselves against the Shah.”
Montazeri’s last wish: ‘to end this dictatorship’
That “sadness of Moharram” is upon Iranians again, as Montazeri’s death falls early in the annual 10-day period – the beginning of the holy month of Moharram – during which Shiites mourn the death in 680 AD of their most hallowed saint, Imam Hossein.
Protesters in Qom have come to this moment after fighting running street battles for weeks in June – and on every key date since then – in response to the disputed election that reinstalled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a second term. The street battles left scores dead, thousands arrested, and a trail of claims of rape and torture in detention centers.
“Rape, atrocities, an unworthy government,” mourners chanted in Qom Monday. “This is the month of blood, Yazid will fall,” sounded another, referring to the 7th-century caliph who killed Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Today, Yazid is seen as the symbol of evil, and of every oppressive ruler.
“The silence of each Muslim is treason against the Quran,” rang out another slogan. And yet another: “Montazeri’s last wish, an end to this dictatorship.”
Dissident cleric had ‘immunity’ that enabled him to challenge regime
The sight of the aluminum coffin on the top of a truck, all draped in black and inching its way through the sea of mourners, had a sobering effect.
“This is a great loss for the Green Movement, and it will hurt us greatly,” said a female political science student from Tehran. “Montazeri was a great influence among the clergy. Because of his status, he had a sort of immunity which allowed him to at least mention some of the most dangerous issues.”
One middle-aged cleric, also in the crowd, said the timing – and its religious significance – would mean that Montazeri’s decades-long commitment to combating authoritarian rule would not be forgotten.
“The fact that this happened in Moharram means that his name will forever be remembered,” said the cleric. “Moharram is when the Oppressed won over the Oppressor. This will show and prove [that] again.”
Montazeri opposed the June election results as fraudulent, and spoke out against the absolute rule of the supreme theologian – a post in the Islamic republic that Montazeri did much to create. “He was a critic. He started his criticism when he was powerful, not when he was weak,” said the cleric. “He could have remained silent and received benefits from that silence, but he didn’t. He was always siding with the righteous and not the powerful.”
Newspaper presses stopped; Mousavi attacked
In Iran on Monday, the regime sought to undermine the legacy of Montazeri – the man who was once the chosen successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
An edition of one newspaper with stories dedicated to Montazeri was stopped at the printers on Sunday by a representative of the prosecutor’s office. The representative ruled that the paper must only print the statement from the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which had asked God to “forgive” Montazeri for his mistakes. If the paper refused, it would be shut down.
And those who continue to carry the reformist mantle in Iran felt the tension of the day early on Monday, when the man who claimed victory in the June election and has effectively led the Green Movement ever since – former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi – stepped out from the compound of Grand Ayatollah Saanei, a fellow reformist, to cross the street to Montazeri’s house in Qom.
At that moment, a group of 30 bearded men, holding Montazeri pictures to blend into the crowd, dropped the portraits, started attacking Mr. Mousavi and shouting “death to the hypocrite.” The former candidate had to be hustled quickly into the Montazeri compound.
The same thing happened when cleric Mehdi Karroubi – a two-time presidential candidate and former parliament speaker, whose public charges of rape of detainees shocked Iran’s political establishment – stepped into the street. This time, groups of reformists were ready and pushed back the vigilantes, so that Mr. Karroubi could pass.
But the violence was not finished. The reformist Kaleme website reported that Mousavi’s convoy was later attacked on its way back to Tehran by “plainclothes men” on motorbikes, who smashed the rear window of Mousavi’s car and injured a member of his entourage. The vigilantes forced the convoy to stop several times and insulted Mousavi, according to Reuters.
Inside the shrine – one of the holiest in Iran – where Montazeri’s body was laid to rest, opposition activists gathered and chanted “Death to the dictator.” When one group of pro-regime basiji militiamen came toward them, chanting “Death to the hypocrites,” the crowd changed to an anti-basiji slogan.
Then they took out money, offering it to the basiji, and chanted that they were acting as paid mercenaries of the regime: “Where is the oil money? Spent on the Basiji,” and “Basij’s great pride, rape in prison.”
The atmosphere in Qom on Monday, a Qom resident was overheard saying, had changed so much from its usual staid reverence that the Basiji and pro-Khamenei loyalists would have to spend weeks demonstrating to return it to “normal.”
Police disperse protesters, but not pro-Khamenei group
Back at Montazeri’s house, riot police on motorcycles chased mourners. At least one canister of teargas was fired. Police fired paintball guns.
Eventually two groups formed, one supporting Khamenei and carrying his pictures, and one of Green Movement protesters, both shouting at each other. Basijis took up the chant on the side of Khamenei: “So much army is here out of love for the [supreme] leader.” And another: “God’s hand is over our head, Khamenei is our leader.”
At prayer time, the Khamenei group began praying in the middle of the street. One hundred policemen sat ready on about 50 motorbikes. Little by little, they started dispersing the reformist mourners, without beating, until they were gone.
The police did not disperse the pro-Khamenei vigilantes, however. Someone said that, because they carried the supreme leader’s pictures, the police could not touch them.
The special correspondent from Qom could not be named for security reasons.