Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Second coming for imam is first concern for Iranian president

Financial Times-At the mosque of Jamkaran, 110km south of Tehran and just east of the holy city of Qom, tens of thousands gather on Tuesdays to pray and drop messages for the "missing" imam into a well.

Abul-Qassem Mohammed, the 12th leader whom Shia Muslims regard as a successor to the prophet Mohammed, entered "occultation" in 941 and will one day return to rule justly before Judgment Day.

...Veneration of the 12th Imam is common among Iran's 68m population, whose religious practices mix piety, respect for learned clerics and age-old mysticism. But the new president, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, has placed a special emphasis on the 12th Imam, even referring to him in his October United Nations speech.

While many analysts highlight Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's background in the Basij Islamic militia or his promotion of former Revolutionary Guards to key positions, the discreet talk among those close to the regime is more about his religious beliefs.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has not only reached out to millions of pious Iranians through venerating the 12th Imam, but has engaged with deeply conservative religious groups that shunned politics for much of the 26 years of the Islamic Republic.

...Hojjatiyeh, a group laying special stress on the Imam's return, was banned by Ayatollah Khomeini in the revolution's early years. But a crucial development came in 1989 when, after Ayatollah Khomeini died, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced him as Iran's supreme leader.

Lacking his predecessor's political and religious credentials, Ayatollah Khamenei turned to religious conservatives for support. "Ayatollah Khamenei spoke of Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi [seen by many intellectuals as Iran's most uncompromising cleric] as a great teacher," remembers Mohsen Kadivar, a reformist cleric and philosophy professor. "Later Mr Ahmadi-Nejad also looked to such conservatives for legitimacy."

Three months after Mr Ahmadi-Nejad became president, whispers about his view of the 12th Imam are growing. According to one rumour, as mayor of Tehran he drew up a new city plan for the imam's return.

Some senior clergy are alarmed. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a conservative, has attacked maddahs for singing about dreams and "fake meetings" with the imam.

In foreign policy, officials worry an emphasis on the 12th Imam not only puzzles Europe and Russia while Iran tries to revive talks over its nuclear programme but alienates Sunni, a majority in the Muslim world, who do not share the Shia view of the Imam's return.

The consequences of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's religiosity are also uncertain for Ayatollah Khamenei, to whom many look to rein in the president. "So far, the leader has seen Mr Ahmadi-Nejad as loyal, someone who should reach the 12th Imam through him," says a senior reformist. "But this is an unstable situation..."

According to Shia Islam, the 12th descendant of Prophet Mohammad went into hiding when he was a child, some 1,300 years ago. Shias believe he will reappear when the world is brimming with corruption and injustice. He and his desciples will then end all that and instead create the most just government ever witnessed on earth. Mahmoud Ahamdinejad's religious ideology is to make sure that he sets the stage for the return of Shias' 12th Imam which--he believes-- is only possible by precipitating the world into a full-scale crisis. Within this context, his remarks on Israel and his nuclear defiance aimed at seeking a direct military confrontation with the United States make perfect sense. The West could pay a dear price in the future if it doesn't take Ahamadinejad seriously now - Kash