October 2, 1999 > Top Leader in Iran Tries to Calm Rage Of Its Hard-Liners


Top Leader in Iran Tries to Calm Rage Of Its Hard-Liners

By JOHN F. BURNS (NYT) 1345 words
Published: October 2, 1999

Iran’s supreme religious leader moved decisively today to head off a fresh confrontation with the country’s reformist President, instructing hard-line Muslim clerics and their loyalists among the police not to ”take matters into their own hands” in a potentially explosive dispute involving university students.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a conservative cleric who wields paramount religious and political power here, used a major sermon to defuse tensions over a recent satire in a Teheran campus magazine that hard-liners had denounced as insulting to one of Islam’s most revered saints. His appeal came 10 weeks after student protests had touched off the worst rioting in Teheran since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.

”I have heard that some people in some quarters have said that they will take matters into their own hands and will mete out punishment,” Mr. Khamenei said. ”Never! Never! In an Islamic system, punishment is the authorities’ prerogative.”

”Any such act from any person is forbidden,” he continued, ”and now that I have forbidden it, it is not only legally barred but religiously forbidden.”

Equally stunning, Mr. Khamenei gave effusive backing to President Mohammad Khatami, his rival in a tense power struggle between conservative clerics and a reform bloc led by Mr. Khatami, a leading cleric himself, who won a landslide election in 1997 on a promise to make Islamic rule more democratic.

Until now, most Iranians have seen Mr. Khamenei as the main obstacle to President Khatami’s efforts to make Government accountable, to subordinate the police and courts to an impartial legal system, and to broaden freedoms of speech and press.

In wording with a broad resonance among the conservative clergy, Mr. Khamenei said that President Khatami ”is pious; he loves the household of the Prophet Mohammed, and he is working for the rebirth of Islam.”

Among reformers, the reference to the President working for a renewal of Islam was taken as particularly significant, since it appeared to be an acceptance, even if only tactical, of Mr. Khatami’s insistence that what he wants is a more tolerant Islamic state, not Western-style secularism in which the Muslim faith is relegated to the private domain.

In other remarks, Mr. Khamenei hinted that his shift of tone, after months of pronouncements that appeared intended to isolate President Khatami, resulted from concern that a showdown might not end in a triumph for the hard-liners, given Mr. Khatami’s strong popular support.

Even in the senior clergy, the hard-liners have suffered major defections, including several high-ranking clerics who were enthusiastic supporters of the event that traumatized Americans 20 years ago — the Islamic militants’ seizure of the United States Embassy, and the holding of American diplomats as hostages for 444 days.

Mr. Khamenei said he had met with ”leading officials” of the conservative and reform factions within the Government in recent days in an effort to reduce tensions, and claimed that his efforts had been successful. Failing to find common ground, he implied, could lead to both sides losing out to more radical elements who favor sidelining Islam.

”The country and the revolution need unity,” he said. ”The regime’s two main forces, both faithful to the revolution, must reconcile themselves so as to isolate those who do not belong to us.”

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks were assured of maximum impact by virtue of their having been delivered at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the forbidding cleric who imposed a puritanical Islamic regime on Iran after 1979 that began to moderate only after Mr. Khatami won the Presidency, with more than 20 million of the 29 million votes cast.

Mr. Khamenei’s sermon at Friday prayers, rebroadcast across Iran, capped 10 days of commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mr. Khomeini, who died in 1989.

In his references to the student satirists, Mr. Khamenei appeared to take a leaf out of President Khatami’s book, saying that it would be wrong to ”defame all students” because ”two or three, either deliberately or through ignorance,” had insulted Islam.

In demanding that the students not be subjected to summary justice, as many opponents of Islamic rule have been since 1979, Mr. Khamenei described his instruction that they be given a proper trial as a fatwa, a religious decree that is considered binding on all Muslims.

But he coupled this with a demand for a policy change by the Education and Culture Ministers, Khatami allies who have licensed reformist newspapers, broadened intellectual freedoms in schools and colleges, and otherwise worked to soften Islamic rule.

”I expected more from the country’s cultural managers,” he said. ”I do not want the cultural atmosphere to be such that a person feels he can offer insults with impunity, even where such insults occur through carelessness.”

He added: ”I seriously call on the cultural officials to rethink and revise their policies.”

The mixed signals left Iranians to ponder where the balance of Mr. Khamenei’s message lay. Among Khatami supporters, the prevailing view was Mr. Khamenei and his allies saw profound dangers in a new showdown. In this, the reformers said, there were echoes of 1979, when the Shah decided not to fight for his throne. Like the Shah, they said, the clerics in power now either abhor the prospect of a bloodbath, or fear that trying to settle the issue by force could end with the army, the police and even the Revolutionary Guards, the main bulwark of Islamic rule, splintering between conservatives and reformers.

In any case, Mr. Khamenei’s decision to hold out an olive branch came as a relief to Iranians, who had braced themselves for a new showdown on Teheran’s campuses after the conservatives took up the issue of the student satire.

After quelling the July riots by busing tens of thousands of supporters into Teheran for a show of force, Islamic hard-liners went on a broad offensive, holding secret trials of some student leaders, banning a leading reformist newspaper, and warning of further crackdowns through the speeches of hard-line conservative clerics.

Last week, they appeared to have found a pretext for a new crackdown in the publication of a satire in an obscure campus magazine. The magazine, Wave, was circulated among students at the Amir Kabir University in Teheran, a scientific college, and took the form of an imaginary dialogue between a student and the Imam of the Age, an Islamic saint whose reappearance on earth ushers in a new age of justice, which is a major tenet of belief among Iran’s Shiite Muslims.

In the dialogue, the student asked the Imam to delay his re-appearance for a few days to allow the student to complete exams and other chores.

The affair quickly mushroomed, with hard-line newspapers running banner headlines, conservative students staging protests demanding that the authors be hanged, and a senior police commander saying he would personally carry out any sentence imposed by Muslim clerics.

Sensing the risk of a replay of July’s events, when police units joined with Islamic militia gangs in an attack on a student dormitory, killing at least two students, President Khatami stepped in with a condemnation of the satire as ”insulting” to Islam, but said the greater offense was the hard-liners’ efforts to turn ”a small wave into a storm.”

After Mr. Khamenei’s sermon today, the risk of the affair getting out of hand appeared to have been contained. But there were doubts as to how long a truce could last, given the countdown to parliamentary elections in February, when President Khatami hopes to win a majority that would strengthen the reform drive. In recent weeks, conservative clerics have vowed to use their powers in a powerful overseer body, the Council of Guardians, to reject any reformist candidates they deem threatening to Islamic rule.

Growing Uncertainty in India About Nuclear Testing


May 28, 1998

NEW DELHI, India — Only two weeks after India detonated the last of five underground nuclear tests to popular acclaim, the Hindu nationalists who lead the government ran into a storm of protest in Parliament Wednesday that reflected growing disquiet among Indians about the risks and costs of acquiring nuclear weapons.

“The nuclear tests are a great achievement for India, no doubt, but we can’t even supply ordinary drinking water and electrical power to the people of this country,” said Indrajit Gupta, a Communist who was interior minister in the coalition government that ruled for 20 months until March, when a new, 14-party coalition headed by the Hindu nationalists was voted into power. “Where does all this lead to, how does it all add up?” he said.

The scene in Parliament, meeting for the first time since the tests, appeared to dismay Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other senior Hindu nationalists, who listened in stony-faced silence. Other signs that the wave of support for the Hindu nationalists since the tests might be breaking have included several incidents in the capital in which angry crowds in areas deprived of electrical power for days attacked electricity sub-stations, smashing equipment and beating employees.

In one attack on Monday that was reported by many Indian newspapers Wednesday, a mob in a northern district of New Delhi that had gone without power for 15 days, in temperatures above 115 degrees, ransacked a local office of the main Hindu nationalist organization, the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose parliamentary leader is Vajpayee. The attack came 24 hours before the United States, implementing economic sanctions announced after the nuclear blasts, forced a delay in $865 million in World Bank loans for the upgrading of India’s badly outdated, vastly underpowered electricity grid.

Vajpayee entered Parliament in a subdued mood that contrasted with the triumphalism displayed by many Hindu nationalists after the tests. He noted that his government had declared a “voluntary moratorium” on tests, and renewed an earlier offer by India to sign a pact with Pakistan that would bind each nation not to be the first to use nuclear weapons against each other. He also repeated a longstanding Indian offer to foreswear nuclear arms as part of a global pact binding the United States and other nuclear powers to abandon their arsenals.

“India is now a nuclear weapons state; this is a reality that cannot be denied,” the Indian leader said. “It is India’s due, the right of one-sixth of human kind. Our strengthened capability adds to our sense of responsibility. We do not intend to use these weapons for aggression or for mounting threats against any country; these are weapons of self-defense, to insure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion. We do not intend to engage in an arms race.”

Immediately after the tests, with polls showing popular support for the blasts running at more than 90 percent, opposition politicians offered only mild dissent. But in today’s speeches, carried throughout India on live television, they accused the government of abandoning Gandhi’s legacy of nonviolence, of isolating India in the international community, and of courting economic disaster because of the trade, banking and aid sanctions imposed by the United States and other nations.

The opposition leaders also accused the Hindu nationalists of “inventing” the threats posed to India by Pakistan and China to justify the tests, and to artificially increase their popularity with a view to holding a new election. In so doing, several opposition spokesmen said, the Vajpayee government had forged an anti-India axis of three nations, the United States, China and Pakistan, that had all shown signs of wanting stable, friendly relations with India.

“Before the mushroom cloud had died down, you and your ministers were talking about nuclear weaponization, about mounting warheads on missiles, about unfinished agendas, and about a fourth war with Pakistan,” said Palianappan Chidambaram, a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as finance minister in the previous government. “And if anybody asks why, where is the threat, they are branded as a traitor. That is the depth of your political cynicism.”

In the March vote, the nationalists registered their best result in 50 years of campaigning. But they won only 26 percent of the popular vote and a little more than a third of the seats in Parliament, forcing them to round up a dozen smaller parties in a ruling coalition. Their minority status made them vulnerable to parliamentary maneuvering by the Congress Party and other long-established groups that oppose the nationalist creed of Hindu supremacy, considering it a threat to India’s minority groups, especially the country’s 120 million Muslims.

In today’s debate, leading opposition figures even accused the government of risking war through a spate of aggressive warnings about India’s enhanced military power that leading Hindu nationalists, including Lal Krishna Advani, the interior minister, have issued to Pakistan.

Advani said last week that the tests had “brought about a qualitatively new stage” in relations between India and Pakistan, and that India would adopt a more “pro-active” policy in its dealings with Pakistan, especially over the long-running war that Indian troops have been fighting with Pakistan-backed insurgents in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Chidambaram, the former finance minister, spoke of “people in this government who would travel down the road to war.” And Natwar Singh, a senior Congress Party leader who is a former foreign minister, noted that one of Vajpayee’s ministers had suggested that India was prepared to send troops on “hot pursuit” operations into the part of Kashmir that has been held by Pakistan since the partition of British India in 1947.

“Do you know what the consequences will be?” Singh said. “The United Nations Security Council will be summoned within minutes, and mandatory sanctions will be imposed on India.”

But the central theme of many attacks was that the Hindu nationalists have betrayed the interests of the 350 million Indians who live in dire poverty, as well many others in this nation of 980 million people who struggle with the daily consequences of India’s economic backwardness. While some speakers dwelled on the possible cost of sanctions to India, which some Western economists have put as high as $20 billion, others cited the huge costs involved in developing, deploying and maintaining an arsenal of nuclear missiles.

Singh quoted from an Indian newspaper commentary describing India after the tests as “a poor country with a few troublesome toys,” and said that the Hindu nationalists were inviting the same fate for India that befell the Soviet Union. “The Soviet Union had 10,000 nuclear warheads; you have, what, 5, maybe 6?” Singh said. “And yet the Soviet Union disintegrated. Why? Because the economic cost of nuclear weaponization was too great.”

Copyright 2004 New York Times Company

Journal: Islamic Police Create a Minefield for Women


New York Times, August 29, 1997

KABUL, Afghanistan — Not much in the manner of Alhaj Maulavi Qalamuddin suggests that he is one of the most feared men in Afghanistan.

The tall, muscular Muslim cleric with the bushy beard and long-tailed turban is a study in gentility, at least toward visitors. He begins by offering cups of green tea. Even when the topic is deadly serious, he has a way of breaking into a barrel-chested laugh.

But Qalamuddin is the head of the General Department for the Preservation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police of the Taliban, the Islamic movement that controls most of the country. Under his command, thousands of young men known as “mohtaseb” — an Arabic word that translates roughly as “inquisitors” — roam the land, watching for infringements of the Taliban’s taboos, arresting some offenders and meting out summary beatings and floggings to others.

Some of these enforcers roar through dusty streets on Japanese-made pickup trucks equipped with chrome roll bars and flashing blue lights, peering out of the windows through a forest of Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades powerful enough to punch a hole in a tank. Others patrol on foot, often with rifles, sometimes with switches fashioned from tree branches or lengths of electric cable.

Their role is to insure conformity with Sharia, the ancient Islamic social and penal code. The Taliban have ordered the stoning to death of couples caught in adultery, the amputation of the hands and feet of thieves, and public executions where male relatives of rape and murder victims act as one-man firing squads.

Such punishments are not unknown in Saudi Arabia and other conservative Islamic societies. But Taliban rule has also come to mean floggings for women who allow faces or ankles to show beneath the head-to-toe shrouds called burqas that the Taliban have made mandatory. Other Taliban taboos include bans on women talking to men who are not blood relatives, making themselves visible to passers-by through the windows of their homes, or traveling in cars, buses, or trucks alongside men who are not from their family.

Recently, there have been cases in Kabul in which Qalamuddin’s men have beaten women for wearing white socks or plastic sandals with no socks, attire Taliban zealots have said was likely to provoke “impure thoughts” in men. Asked about these cases, Qalamuddin said there had been no formal decrees on socks or sandals, only one that admonished women to “walk calmly and avoid creating noise by their footsteps.”

But the cleric, a veteran of years of fighting against Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as much as confirmed that women are at risk of a flogging if anything about their feet or legs arouses suspicion among his men.

“Some women want to show their feet and ankles,” he said. “They are immoral women. They want to give a hint to the opposite sex.”

True to his strict interpretation of Islamic teaching and its proscription of images of the human figure, Qalamuddin refused to be photographed. But many Afghans complain that the Taliban militants make up taboos as they go along. In the villages where most of the young, illiterate Taliban recruits come from, contact between men and women outside of family and marriage has always been forbidden, a frustrating circumstance that better-educated Afghans see as a possible spur to Taliban violence against women.

Although women are the main victims of the “virtue and vice” teams, men are not immune. In an incident this summer, Qalamuddin’s men hid on the roof of a house in the center of Kabul, waiting until men in an adjoining house began watching a video of an Indian dance movie, a popular genre in this part of Asia. According to a neighbor, one of the men seized by the Taliban, a 25-year-old welder who had been deaf since birth, died in custody within 48 hours.

Stories like this abound in Kabul, but Qalamuddin denied that the Taliban have unleashed a terror. On the contrary, he said, the Taliban have brought a measure of “peace and security” to the country that had been absent throughout the years of communist rule, guerrilla conflict and civil war that preceded the Taliban. Indeed, he said, the promise of a return to order was what enabled the Taliban to rise from village obscurity to control of most of the country in barely three years.

Referring to a stoning of two adulterers beside a mosque in the southern city of Kandahar last August, he chuckled, saying it had been one of the Taliban’s most successful demonstrations.

“Just two people, that’s all, and we ended adultery in Kandahar forever,” he said. “Even 100,000 police could not have the effect that we achieved with one punishment of this kind.”

Taliban leaders often say that Western reporters and human rights organizations exaggerate the importance of Taliban rules banning women from working, denying education to girls, and restricting women and girls past puberty to domestic seclusion. But Qalamuddin’s elaboration on what he depicted as the ever-present dangers of sex lent weight to a common impression among ordinary Afghans that it is the Taliban, not their critics, who are obsessed.

Qalamuddin laid out a view of relations between men and women that seemed rooted in an Adam-and-Eve view of men as deeply vulnerable to corruption through unregulated contacts with women. In Islamic society, he said, these risks had been curbed by rules that strictly limited male-female encounters. “If we consider sex to be as dangerous as a loaded Kalashnikov rifle, it is because it is the source of all immorality,” he said.

Qalamuddin contrasted this approach with Western sexual attitudes, an issue many Taliban clerics seem keen to discuss. “Young women in your society come into public parks and walk around half naked for all to see,” he said, smiling. “In this case, what is the difference between a public park and a jungle? Does not behavior like this reduce men and women to wild animals? In Islam, we say that it is our duty to tame these corrupt instincts.”

“The outside world, in conjunction with our enemies at home, have unleashed a false propaganda against us, that we are violating women’s rights,” he said. “But the reverse is true: the world should take lessons from us. By strictly observing the Sharia law, we have given great honor and dignity to our women.”

Copyright 1997 New York Times Company

Hindu Nationalist Still Proud of Role in Killing Father of India

March 2, 1998


PUNE, India — If India’s general election brings a Hindu nationalist government to power, the event will have a special resonance for a courteous but hard-eyed old man who has made his two-room walk-up apartment in this old garrison city a shrine to Hindu nationalism and to its role in one of history’s most notorious assassinations.

On Jan. 30, 1948, Gopal Godse was a 28-year-old storekeeper at an Indian Army barracks in Pune. At 6 p.m., All-India Radio announced that a lone gunman in New Delhi had shot and killed Mohandas K. Gandhi, the 79-year-old apostle of nonviolence who led India to independence from Britain at midnight on Aug. 14, 1947.

The assassination stunned India but came as no surprise to Godse. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was his older brother. The two men had been active in the Hindu nationalist movement since the 1930s and had planned the assassination along with several others.

Their purpose was to punish Gandhi, a Hindu, for his evenhanded attitude toward Muslims — in particular for acquiescing in Britain’s partition of India into the separate nations of India and Pakistan.

Gandhi was killed with three pistol shots to the chest as he walked to an evening prayer meeting at an industrialist’s house where he stayed during his sojourns in New Delhi.

Nathuram Godse was sentenced to death for the killing and hanged on Nov. 15, 1949. Another conspirator, Narayan Apte, found by the court to have been the mastermind of the plot, was hanged beside him. Four men, including Gopal Godse, were sentenced to life in prison. He was released on parole after 18 years in 1967.

Now, as Godse awaits the election results, expected as early as Tuesday, he is quietly triumphant. For more than a decade after Gandhi’s assassination, Hindu nationalist organizations were banned, and for at least 20 years after that the creed remained so tainted that Hindu nationalist parties were virtual pariahs. As late as 1989, the group that is the main Hindu nationalist standard-bearer now, the Bharatiya Janata Party, won only 89 of 543 seats in Parliament.

But every major opinion poll in the current election has pointed to the Hindu nationalists’ best showing ever — one that could finally bring them to power in New Delhi and assuage the bitterness that men like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for prime minister, feel over their years in the political wilderness.

Vajpayee has repeatedly condemned the Gandhi killing, but other, more hard-line party leaders have been more equivocal.

“The BJP will get the maximum number of seats, you will see,” Godse said during a discussion in his apartment that was punctuated by the rhythmic chanting of his wife, Sindhu, 76, as she performed her morning puja, a Hindu prayer ritual. “This will be a vindication for my brother and for myself, of course, but it will be much more than that. It will be a vindication for all Hindus.”

Godse, the last surviving member of the group that plotted the Gandhi killing, described the ascent of the Hindu party as a critical step toward achievement of the “Hindu Rashtra,” or Hindu nation — a nationalist concept that hearkens back to ancient Hindu kingdoms that ruled before the first Muslim invaders arrived.

“It’s been 1,400 years, but we’ve kept the faith, and now it is going to happen,” he said. “Finally, we will have our Hindu Rashtra.”

The Hindu nationalists’ prospects received a further boost from exit polls published after the third and conclusive round of balloting on Saturday among India’s 605 million voters. One poll of 26,000 voters conducted for the state broadcasting network, Doordarshan, predicted that an alliance of Hindu nationalist parties led by Bharatiya Janata would win 244 seats, against 140 for an alliance led by the Congress Party and 118 seats for the United Front, a center-left coalition.

A separate poll conducted for a privately owned television channel, TVI, also predicted a strong showing by the Hindu nationalists, but with a narrower lead. The TVI poll, based on a similar sample of voters, forecast 208 seats for Bharatiya Janata and its allies, 171 for the Congress-led alliance and 140 for the United Front. The polls indicate that there will most likely be intense political maneuvering after the results are announced, with Bharatiya Janata and Congress maneuvering to line up a parliamentary majority.

The decor of Godse’s apartment demonstrates his unrepentant attitude toward the Gandhi assassination. A glass-fronted cabinet serves as a shrine, with photographs of Nathuram Godse, Apte and Vishnu Karkare, another conspirator, arrayed around the pewter urn used for Nathuram Godse’s ashes. The arrangement is completed by a flower that is replaced each day by Godse and by the swastika symbol that has served as a talisman among Hindus since ancient times.

Another case contains a library of books and pamphlets justifing the Gandhi killing, many written by Godse after his release. Godse is particularly proud of one — available to visitors for 40 rupees, about $1 — a hagiographic account of the assassination and its aftermath. The book describes Nathuram Godse walking to the gallows alongside Apte, with the two exulting about the clear winter light filtering into the Punjab prison yard — “Bestowed on us by our Motherland at this heavenly juncture,” according to the words the younger Godse attributes to his condemned brother.

Gopal Godse offered a razor-sharp recollection of his own role in the killing, from the moment when Nathuram Godse asked him if he would participate – “I gave my consent immediately” — to a first, botched attempt on Jan 20, 1948, 10 days before the assassination. On that occasion, the conspirators detonated explosives in a wall at the New Delhi house with a view to drawing people away from Gandhi, but stopped short of tossing a grenade at their intended victim for fear of killing bystanders.

Godse said he fled the scene and returned by train to Pune, meeting up again in Bombay a few days later with his brother, who told him that he was returning to New Delhi to carry out the assassination alone. Gopal Godse returned to his duties as an army storekeeper and said he had heard nothing more until the radio announcement of the assassination.

“You know, I had mixed feelings,” he said. “I knew I was going to lose a brother; and I had no doubt that I was going to be arrested and share his fate. On the other hand, our target had been fulfilled. We had done away with somebody who was not only satisfied with the creation of Pakistan; he wanted to see Pakistan progress; he was in fact the father of Pakistan.

“So if you ask me, did I feel any repentance, my reply is no — not in the least. We had taken the decision fully knowing what we were doing. We knew if we allowed this person to live any longer, he would do more and more harm to Hindus, and that we could not allow it.”

Pausing for for a sip of sugary tea, Godse added: “So you see, it is not as if we had gone to New Delhi to steal Gandhi’s watch — that would have been a sinful, dirty thing. But that was not the case. We killed with a motive, to serve the highest interests of our people.”

Copyright 1998 New York Times Company