BEIRUT — “For God’s sake, tell me, is Islam a religion of violence or not?” begged a reader recently in the question-and-answer column of Musharekat, mouthpiece of the reformist forces headed by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s brother Mohammad-Reza.

Most Iranian clergymen, the reader said, seemed to support the opinions of Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a leading ideologue of the rightwing conservative establishment, who says that, to the devout Muslim, divine commands authorizing violence in defense of the faith overrule the laws of the state.

Not so, responded Musharekat. But its defense of the clergy did not spare it the conservatives’ wrath. A few days later, it was shut down.

The question goes to the heart of a controversy that has raged ever since Islam began posing a challenge to the existing order in the Muslim world. Is Islam, in its fundamentalist, political form, compatible with democracy? If it takes power by democratic means, will it ever give it up by the same?

Moderate Islamists generally argue that they would respect democratic rules, but have never had a chance to prove this because whenever Islamists did achieve power — or almost did — as in Turkey or Algeria, it was the secular authority that stepped in, with a clear violation of democracy, to oust them.

Nowhere could this controversy be more fittingly, definitively settled than in Iran. The Islamic Republic may not have arisen democratically, but it was undoubtedly an expression of overwhelming popular will. But, like the shah, the republic (or rather the reactionary clique of mullahs who run it) has become deeply unpopular in its turn. That was the verdict of February’s general elections.

The very holding of those elections, and the reformists’ resounding victory in them, struck a great blow for the argument that Islam can subsume democracy. There was international applause, amid forecasts that just as the republic had played such a seminal role in the rise of political Islam, so now it would set an example of a new kind.

But the rejoicing was premature. What was already apparent before the elections has become blatant since: The conservatives never did intend to cede power, not even to the moderate Islamists of the Khatami school, let alone to full-fledged secularists.

To be sure, they say, the republic must respect the popular as well as the divine sovereignty on which it is constitutionally dependent, always provided that in a conflict between the two the divine takes precedence over the popular.

“We must not,” said Mohammad Reza Tarraqi, a conservative MP, “make a new religion of elections; if they help strengthen Islam, they are good. If they weaken it, they are evil.”

Ayatollah Janati, secretary general of the conservative-controlled Guardian Council, said that “without certification by the Council, (elections) are null and void — and in any case the final say on all matters rests with the leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). Western-style democracy cannot coexist with the sacred system of Velayet-e Faqih, or ‘Guardianship of the Religious Jurisprudent.’ ” Besides, said former parliamentary speaker Ayatollah Nateq Nouri, “the masses can be deceived.”

For the conservatives, to question the sacred institutions, especially the absolute authority of the leader, is to attack Islam itself. And that is what the reformists, with their “American-style” program, are held to be doing. “They insult Islamic sanctities,” said Guardian Council member Ayatollah Abulqasim Khazali. “Kill them where you find them. This is God’s immutable tradition.”

The only thing holding people back, he said, was that the leader had called for preservation of national unity. Evidently, however, that did not hold back those who, shortly after the elections, tried to assassinate Said Hajarian, an architect of the reformist victory. The would-be assassins are strongly suspected of emanating from the same quarter, an agency within the conservative-dominated Intelligence Ministry, as those responsible for the serial killings of dissident intellectuals.

Against this background, the muzzling of 16 reformist newspapers can only be seen as another form of violence, and given their immense popularity (Musharekat was selling 2 million copies before it was shut down) as a drastic assault on popular sovereignty. But undoubtedly they had to be silenced, not just because of the reformist message they propagated, but because, through the investigations of journalists such as Akbar Ganji (now in jail), they were relentlessly bringing to light the dark secrets of state-sponsored terror.

It is indisputable, then, that in the conservatives’ hands, Islam has indeed been turned into a “religion of violence.” The burning question now is how far they are willing to take it. Are censorship, repression and selective assassination part of an unfolding design that will culminate in a full-fledged coup to depose Khatami and ensure that the reformists never do take their places in an elected legislature?

That is what the reformists fear — and the conservatives have certainly been preparing the ideological ground for such a step. As Revolutionary Guards commander General Rahim Safavi asked, what was the overwhelming reformist victory but a “coup,” albeit in “nonviolent, parliamentary” guise? “Everyone knows,” contended the rightwing newspaper Jebhe, “that the word coup does not just mean a violent military action, that cunning political activities seeking metamorphosis are a coup too, a move made by one section of the establishment against another and the people as a whole.”

In other words, if the Revolutionary Guards carry out their recent public threat to plant “the Revolution’s sledgehammer in the skulls of enemies great and small,” they will only be reversing a counterrevolutionary coup that has already been accomplished. For all the ferocious rhetoric, however, the conservatives are clearly on their way out. They are simply too unpopular, isolated and archaic to survive, and their control over the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij “volunteers,” let alone the regular army (most of whose rank and file support Khatami) is too fragile to risk in an all-out showdown with the people.

So they face a choice, and with the power struggle intensifying and the new Parliament due to convene at the end of May, the choice could be close. They either accept, at one extreme, that Islam can accommodate democracy, and forfeit their ascendancy gradually, peaceably and constitutionally. Or they persist in their purblind insistence that it cannot, thereby triggering a popular counterviolence that could lead to the downfall of the whole republic, moderates and extremists alike. This would deal the deadliest blow yet to the basic premise of Islam everywhere: that, even today, religion remains competent to regulate the political as well as the spiritual affairs of mankind.

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