Ideological Conflicts in 1950s in Pahlavi Iran

  July 04, 2021   Read time 5 min
Ideological Conflicts in 1950s in Pahlavi Iran
During the 1950s, the clergy were worried about the growing social and political influence of the Baha’i, whom they considered apostates. They were particularly concerned that the Shah allowed numerous Baha’i to enter the administration and to rise to important positions.

For Borujerdi the fight against this creed was a top priority, and during the holidays of Ramadan and Moharram he regularly sent his students to the towns and villages to preach against it. As Montazeri had studied the works and writings of the Baha’i, he played an important role in this campaign. When he was sent to Najafabad to agitate against them in 1955, he asked Borujerdi how Muslims should behave towards them. In his response, Borujerdi declared that Muslims should respect the law and maintain peace but that otherwise they should refrain from any contact with Baha’i. Montazeri disseminated this fatwa widely in Najafabad and convinced the representatives of several guilds to sign a declaration that they would no longer serve Baha’i. Thus, drivers refused to take them on their buses and bakers declined to sell them bread. The climate in Najafabad eventually became so hostile that the Baha’i were forced to go into hiding. However, when Montazeri disseminated Borujerdi’s fatwa in Isfahan, the clergy and the people refused to act against the Baha’i. While initially the Shah tolerated the campaign against the Baha’i in return for Borujerdi’s acceptance of his plan to join the Central Treaty Organisation (Cento), which was criticised by the nationalists, he eventually intervened to put a stop to the campaign. Following complaints from Najafabad, Montazeri was summoned by the Isfahani governor, who vowed to put him on trial should he continue his campaign. Although Montazeri threatened to stir up the masses against the Baha’i, he was forced to end his agitation.

Another question that worried the clergy at this time was the increasing influence of the communists. The Tudeh Party, which had been founded in September 1941 after the exile of Reza Shah, was considered by pious Muslims a threat to the traditional order of society due to its openly anti-religious and anti-clerical line. Borujerdi and the traditional clergy condemned the party as an enemy of God, but Montazeri and other politicised clerics took a more moderate position, as they saw it as a potential ally in their fight against the Shah.

The clergy’s position towards the Jebh-e Melli (National Front) led by the landowner and aristocrat Mohammad Mosaddegh (1882– 1967) was marked by the same ambivalence. While most of the clergy kept their distance from his nationalist government when he was elected prime minister in 1951, a small group around the influential politician Ayatollah Abdolqassem Kashani (1882– 1962) actively supported his policies. Kashani notably welcomed the highly popular nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and when Mosaddegh was forced to resign in the ensuing conflict he called for a demonstration which significantly contributed to Mosaddegh’s return to power. Montazeri had been introduced to Kashani during a visit to Tehran, and during the following years regularly returned to his house to discuss matters of religion and politics. However, he was careful to keep this contact from being known to Borujerdi who did not approve of clerics engaging in politics. For this reason, Montazeri also declined when the people of Najafabad asked him and Motahhari if they could place them on Kashani’s list for the parliamentary elections.

By 1953, the international sanctions imposed after the nationalisation of the oil industry had provoked an economic crisis in Iran which led to rising unemployment and growing discontent. Because of differences on the influence of communism and the place of Islam in politics, Kashani broke with Mossadeq. When in August 1953 the British and American secret services organised a military coup to overthrow Mossadeq’s government, Kashani organised large demonstrations in support of the measure. The coup was also supported by the Fedaiyan-e Eslam, a militant Islamist group inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brothers. The group had been founded in 1946 by the young radical cleric Navab Safavi (1924–55), who had risen to fame when, possibly under the influence of Khomeini, he had murdered the Iranian historian and religious reformer Ahmad Kasravi in March 1946 in Tehran. In Qom the group had considerable support among the seminary students, of whom 1,000 to 1,500 regularly attended its meetings. Safavi’s influence among the younger students eventually rose to such a point that they no longer listened to Borujerdi.
Even Khomeini, who sympathised with the Fedaiyan-e Eslam, felt that things had spiralled out of control. Motahhari tried to persuade Safavi to temper his rhetoric in order not to further alienate the leadership of the seminary, but his words were to no avail.27 In November 1955, Safavi and other leaders of the Fedaiyan-e Eslam were arrested by the police during a meeting in the Madresse Feiziyeh of Qom and, after a brief trial, executed in January 1956. Although Borujerdi had on another occasion loudly protested against the arrest of a student and claimed the right of the clergy to try their own members in a special court, his protest against the arrest in the Feiziyeh was rather muted. As Montazeri remarked, revolutions are never supported by the upper classes.28 Because Khomeini, Motahhari and Montazeri had been in contact with Safavi, Borujerdi suspected them of supporting the Fedaiyan-e Eslam. When Motahhari, on his departure to Tehran in 1952, wrote a letter to Borujerdi, the marja’ refused to accept it, to Motahhari’s dismay. On another occasion, Khomeini accompanied a friend to Borujerdi’s house to deliver donations he had received on his behalf. When after several hours Borujerdi had still not admitted them to his chambers, Khomeini left in a fury, swearing never to return. Until Borujerdi’s death in 1961 Khomeini never again set foot in his house.