Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Complex Respect for a Power Figure in Iran

NThe Lede Blog of often has some really fascinating material on current events in Iran. Yesterday's post was about senior opposition cleric Grand Ayatollah Youssef Sanei and his recent troubles with the Iranian government. I'm very interested in Sanei and what he represents. According to this Witness Online documentary (link provided by The Lede), the Ayatollah considers himself a "modern" religious practioner who follows the news and works to adapt Islamic teachings to the contemporary world.

In addition to a daily sermon, Sanei runs a website and telephone hotline for people to call in and get religious advice on a variety of matters. He condones abortion under certain medical circumstances, denounces suicide bombings, and encourages all people to ensure their cars. Sanei quickly breaks the western stereotype of the Khomeni-esque Iranian cleric; the firebrand social conservative.

As an atheist I am generally uncomfortable with religious figures, even those with whom I agree, holding a place of great social authority. Religion has a tremendous ability to unite people and encourage moral behavior, but simultaneously it is capable of retaining practitioners in the moral world of millenia ago. "Thou shall not murder"remains just as valid as ever, but there's a passage or two in Leviticus that needs updating, and I want my representatives in government to know that.

Yet I find myself less worried about this Iranian cleric who, in the youtube video above, denounces suicide bombers and the nuclear bomb in more or less secular terms.

Sanei on nuclear weapons:

"Nuclear bombs destroy heaven and earth.... What is the sin of the plants? the unborn children? the environment which belongs to all humantiy? The nuclear bomb destroys everything, so we are not allowed to use it even in defense of ourselves. You have to attack the enemy, but the innocent people? So using the nuclear bomb, which is a blind weapon, is forbidden in Islam."
On sucicide attacks:

"Suicide bombing is a crime and a sin. That's two - resulting in the killing of innocent people. Suicide bombing is against Islam, against common sense, and human dignity. What al Qaeda and the Taliban are doing is a sin - it's against basic human principles."
I can get behind this. His denunciation of these forms of violence include quite a few mentions of "sin" and "Islam", but his exortations against attacking the innocent, against using blind weapons - are arguments that all people, including atheists, could discuss and find valid.

I find Ayatollah Sanei interesting for the same reason I find the Pope interesting, or the Dalai Lama. I find myself having great respect for this moral figure, who tells men that they shouldn't worry about shaving their beard and applies scrutiny to his own behavior such that he wont reveal which newspapers he reads in the morning for fear of endorsing one over the other. I may not be comfortable with the concept of religious authorities, but I appreciate good men and women where they are found.

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