Iran’s Rouhani pulls a Pope Francis: ‘Let People choose own path to Heaven’

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Twenty-five years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death, the clerical establishment ushered in by the Islamic republic's founding father is at odds over how far its influence on Iranians' lives should extend.

The debate pits powerful, hard-line religious conservatives against Iran's relatively moderate president, Hassan Rohani. And at the center of the debate is heaven, and the path leading to it.

There are few limits to the Islamic regime's interference in the public and private lives of Iranians, who, among other things, are required to follow a strict dress code dictated by the state.

During a public speech late last month, however, President Rohani called for more freedom and rights for Iranians and less state intervention in their lives. "Let people relax. Let people be mentally healthy. Do not interfere so much in the people's lives even for sympathy," the cleric-president said on May 24. "Let people choose their own path to heaven. We cannot send people to heaven by force or the lash."

The reference to lashing was a not-so-subtle nod to the punishment commonly carried out for drinking, partying, and other violations of Islamic laws over the past three decades.

Critics: Rohani Creating 'Chaos'

The comments came under scrutiny, and shined the light on the issue of the state's role in leading its flock to heaven.

The ultra-hard-line daily "Kayhan" published Rohani's comments with a question mark on its May 25 front page, while describing them as "questionable."

Criticism also came from hard-line clerics, who used their May 30 Friday Prayers sermons as a platform to speak against Rohani.

During Tehran's Friday Prayers, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said it was the state's duty to guide people to heaven. "The mission is to smooth the path to heaven, therefore the government is duty bound to pave the way to lead people to heaven," the hard-line cleric said.
Ayatollah Alamolhoda, the Friday Prayer leader of the city of Mashhad, also criticized Rohani in his sermons. "We will stand against all of those preventing people from reaching heaven with all of our force, not only with a whip," he said.
Hojatoleslam Hamid Rohani, the founder of the Islamic Revolution Documentation Center, also blasted Rohani. "Why does the president say no one should be sent to heaven by the lash? The majority of people have voted for the establishment and said that religious rulings should be enforced," the cleric was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
He added that those who speak out against lashing citizens to lead them to heaven are bent on creating "chaos" in the country.
Rohani: Critics 'Deluded'
Hard-liners who control the judiciary and other centers of power believe that giving Iranians more freedom could undermine an establishment that claims to rule the country based on Islamic principles.
In recent weeks they have stepped up their pressure on Rohani, who is firmly rooted in the clerical establishment but is considered more a pragmatist who has pledged to bring about change, and his government.
On May 31, the Iranian president hit back at his opponents with a bit of sarcasm. In a speech at the department of environment, he criticized those who are adverse to change and added that those who constantly worry about religion and the afterlife are delusional.
He recalled that when showers were being introduced in the holy city of Qom and bathhouses were being eliminated some thought a "disaster" was in the making. "Some said that half of the religion was being destroyed," Rohani said, laughing.

WATCH: Hassan Rohani mocks his hard-line critics.

"Some people have really nothing to do," he added. "They don't have jobs, they suffer from delusions, they're constantly worrying about religion and people's afterlife, [yet] they have no idea about what religion nor the afterlife is."
"They keep worrying," Rohani said to an applauding audience.
While criticism of the handling of the disputed nuclear program appears to be on the wane, pressure is on the rise against Rohani's social and cultural policies, which include calls for greater access to the Internet and less censorship. There have also been calls for stricter enforcement of the obligatory hijab for women.
The popular website "Fararu" focused on the recent dispute with a report titled, "Criticism Of Rohani Changes Course From 'Geneva' To 'heaven.'" It noted that there had not yet been any reaction to Rohani's latest speech against his critics, but it predicted that the "toughest attacks" are still to come.

Mirrored from RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

6 Responses

  1. One hopes this does not mark Rohani as “dead meat.” Given the way “fundamentalists” manage their continuation in or ascent to power over us ordinary people. Bunch of effing old randy closet-perv men, taking their usual young-mostly-male violence assisted path to the heights of the hierarchy.

    For the Iranian case, it may just be Netfoam and wishful memory on my part, recalling a Playboy article from the late ’60s. But there’s some indications, maybe of course just idiot Islamophobia, link to, maybe Dr. Cole knows the most likely version, that Khomeini wrote up his set of religiously-approved rules for sex with animals, juveniles, and marrying off daughters, and maybe Sistani has similar texts to his credit: link to Obviously, take with a grain of salt, since there’s no good sourcing for the original supposed text that I can find. What can easily be found, re Rule By The Rotten Old Men, is all the rules in Leviticus and Numbers. What a great re-read! those Israelites must have had a fun time of it!

    And just for fun, this little reminder of how the Reaganauts “may have” castrated Carter: “” link to

    From personal prior experience of “religion,” in a Methodist church in the South, of all places, the older male head of the lay rulership controlled the agenda by assuring the rest of the faithful that “God has laid it on my heart that…” whatever personal benefit or tribal authoritarianism he wanted imposed was Divinely Mandated. We so want to believe…

  2. Iran is in the midst of a culture war whose outcome is more important domestically than the outcome of the nuclear talks. Ever since the victory of the Islamic revolution, the mullahs have imposed an austere, morbid and gloomy way of life on millions of Iranians, something akin to what was done by Christian Puritans or even worse. Twenty-five years after Khomeini’s death and 25 years of the equally austere rule by Ayatollah Khamenei, Iranians would like to break some of the chains that bind them, but the hardliners are determined to prevent this from happening.

    The battle is between two groups: On the one hand are millions of mainly young, fun-loving, educated Iranians and the reformist leaders who wish to take Iran out of the Middle Ages; and on the other side there are the hardline and narrow-minded clerics, led by Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, Ahmad Khatami and other rightwing clerics whose vision of Islam is not all that different from that of the Taliban. They are backed by the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij paramilitary forces that are in a mutually profitable alliance. What is at stake are two different interpretations of Islam, one that sees it very much as the harsh religion of Arabian deserts of 1400 years ago, and the other that wishes to see a new interpretation of Islam that is more in keeping with the realities of the modern world. The irony is that in Sufism Islam has produced one of the most tolerant, open and spiritual mystical literatures in any religion. Modern world will win, but if the militant clerics try to resist too violently modernization will come with a vengeance.

    • All of your thoughts mirror my own. This culture war is more interesting to me than the nuclear debate. Iranians overwhelmingly rejected the hardline candidates in last year’s presidential election, and I’m looking forward to see what happens in the parliamentary elections, Guardian Council interference notwithstanding. My guess is that the Iranian system of governance will have to transform eventually, although I don’t know what form that will take. Unfortunately that change will probably be violent, given the regime’s brutal extermination of its enemies.

  3. This is another ray of hope amidst the hysteria mongering that religion has become. We have enough hate in all of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to last another 1000 years but only enough Love for another 10 years. Religions that condemn and traditions that kill must come to an end. Now he needs to imitate Pope Francis one more time. Just as Francis went to a prison in Rome and washed the feet of a female Muslim prisoner, he should go to the prison of Meriam Ibrahim and was her feet. This is how the power of humility can conquer the power of hatred. Blessed be the peacemakers!

  4. The Straight Path, the core of Islam, is indeed the equivalent class of all paths to God. As you exclude some paths, then what is left is a (class of) crooked path(s).

  5. Wow. That takes a lot of courage and I’m really glad he openly said this, taking it head on, calling out the Iranian right wing, even calling them delusional, which is so true. Just twisted in their views on how they even take issue and believe that the ‘path to heaven’ relies on force or the lash.

    His vision really sounds like something out of Najaf, and that may not go down well with Qom and others in Tehran. I’m worried he may have stepped into it too deep and too fast with his reform comments and criticisms and may end up being clipped by the Supreme Leader Khamenei himself, who is the state’s head and upholder of these ideological practices, besides being disliked from the Revolutionary Guard types who are invested as enforcers.

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