The Case of Mehdi Hashemi

Overlooked in the glare of publicity surrounding the Iran-contragate affair and the ensuing lurch towards Iraq and its allies is the trial of the leader of the militant Islamic movement who in a sense set it all in motion. Sayyed Mehdi Hashemi, son-in-law of Ayatollah Khomeini's heir-apparent, Ayatollah Sayyed Hosein-`Ali Montazeri, was executed on seven charges, including murder, cooperation with SAVAK, and hoarding weapons and munitions.

The Eternal Martyr

His story begins in the seventies, when the clergy was faced with the challenge of a growing fascination with Marxism and Third World revolution on the part of a dynamic student movement. The Vietnamese and Chinese revolutionaries and guerilla fighters like Che Guevera had fired the imagination of Iranian students, just as it had students around the world. Young Muslims were stretching their faith beyond the bounds of clerical Islam, increasingly adopting Marxizing jargon and ideas; prominent among them were the founders of the Organization of People's Mojahedin (formed in the mid-sixties) and Dr. `Ali Shari`ati (who had begun his political lectures in the late sixties). Under the pressure of these new ideas, even children of clerical families re-examined some fundamental ideas of their faith.

One of the central events which would define Shi`ism was the martyrdom of the family of `Ali, the nephew of Mohammad, the prophet of Islam, in 680 AD. Just as the death and apparent failure of Jesus’s was explained as a soteriological victory by his disciples, the earthly failure of the revolt of `Ali's son Hosein against the leadership of the Islamic community had to be given a positive occult meaning by his followers, the Shi`a. They understood Imam Hosein, his father, and their other ten Imams to have had `isma , "protection" from error, including error about the future. And just as Jesus was mocked on the cross for not being able to save himself, so the Shi`a were faced with the problem of why, if Imam Hosein was endowed with `isma, he led himself, his family and his followers to a death whose horror is commemorated to this day with bitter lamentations.

In March 1971, Sheikh Ne`matollah Salehi Najafabadi, said to have been a supporter of Khomeini Ettela`at, Ordabehesht 25, . See also the paper. and to have been an friend of Mehdi Hashemi's The son of one of Hashemi's victims claims that Hashemi "repeatedly invited [Salehi] to Qahdarijan so that in his conspiratorial speeches,

... he could denounce pilgrimages to the blessed Shi`ite shrines and the recital of the Prophet's family's suffering". Resalat August 31, 1986 wrote a book, Shahid-e Javid [The Eternal Martyr], which both addressed these religious problems and underlined the relevance of Hosein's revolt for his younger compatriots. As one admirer said of it, "it is a delight for those dissatisfied with worthless mourning rituals, an instrument for those for whom Islam is see the brilliance of true Islam and return to Islam," and as another, an ayatollah, said of it, it is especially for the young generation of intellectuals. Documents reproduced in Shahid-e Javid. Rather than having gone to his death on a conscious mission of redemption "to revive Islam" with his own spilled blood and disgrace the ruling Ommayid caliphate (the commonly accepted tradition), Imam Hosein was to have revolted as a "seasoned politician." p. ix "He didn't welcome oppression and didn't make suffering the greatest means to achieve his ends, but went forth to fight against a dictatorship to eliminate oppression and suffering." pp. 320-21 He explained the quiescence of his father, Imam `Ali, as being a matter of political common sense. For his part, when it was politically opportune, Imam Hosein rebelled. pp 24-40 He heaps ridicule upon the idea that Imam Hosein made all his elaborate political preparations simply to get himself martyred pp. 101, 319-20 or to disgrace the ruling caliphate, pp. 110-11, 327-29 particularly since he asked to be pardoned after his revolt appeared doomed. pp. 142-43, 270 Thus, like much of the political clergy, next to the Imam Hosein as the model sufferer for people to suffer with, he set up the Imam Hosein as the model rebel for justice for a people to rebel with.

Although this has some similarities with the way the mainstream Shi`ite revolutionaries saw Imam Hosein's defeat, they still saw his defeat as merely "apparent." The regime's popular slogan proclaims, "the blood triumphs over the sword which shed it," and, if the issue of forsight is not dwelled upon, we haven't seen it contradicted. For Salehi, Imam Hosein's death was a defeat. He simply went down fighting like a good revolutionary. He didn't he go into battle knowing he would die, to revive Islam with his blood. Moreover, the Khomeinist clergy, though politicizing the mourning ceremonies for the Karbala martyrs, don't explicitly deny the benefits of weeping for them, as Salehi's followers did. For a further discussion of this issue, see Mary Hegland, "Two Images of Husain" in Religion and Politics in Iran (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983). For an interesting view by a Lebanese author, see Mahmoud Ayoub, Redemptive Suffering in Islam, esp. pp.159- 60 and 233. (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1978). Unlike the People's Mojahedin's labored Marxizing or Shari`ati's jumble of existentialism, Marxism, and Islam, Salehi's book drew on a broad knowledge of Shi`ite scholarship, particularly on the views of the earliest Shi`ite scholars, before, as he tells it, Shi`ism became encrusted with three centuries of legend and mystification, pp. 368-464 much as modern Catholic theologians have developed an interest in older theologies such as that of the third century theologian Arius, who pointed to scriptural references underlining early Christiandom's recognition of Jesus of Nazareth's human weakness to expose orthodoxy's theological embellishments.

And just as Arius was accused of "blastheming against the Son" and these Catholics scholars are being hounded by the Vatican for "humanizing" Jesus, the Najafabadi sheikh was accused of "denying the Imams’ `isma" and making Imam Hosein a common rebel. And just as theological radicals who emphasize Jesus' human side are accused of ignoring its spiritual side, Salehi's leading apostle, the subject of this article, later "confessed" to "an overemphasis on politics" which "emptied the spirit" of his disciples "of spirituality and sanctity"."Indictment", p. , col Ten volumes of polemics were published against him, many from the two most sacred centers of Shi`ite learning, Qom and Najaf, According to Ayatollah Hajj Sayyed Hosein Khademi, the leading cleric in Esfahan. Ettela'at, Khordad 5, 1976. including one by Khomeini's son-in-law, Shahab od-Din Eshraqi. Ettela`at 25 Ord. 1976. A SAVAK memo of October 1971, released after the revolution, reported, "Most clerics are upset over this book's publication." It also appears that SAVAK was quick to manipulate this shock. As Ayatollah Khomeini said, "Before Ramadan, they would mention Shahid-e Javid, and almost all Ramadan, ... each side would curse the other and [the Shah's agents] would look on and snicker over what toys they'd made of us." Keyhan, Khordad 1/May 22, 1979, cited in Shahid-e Javid, p. 526. After the revolution, Salehi held an "illegal" Friday prayer in Esfahan with Mehdi Hashemi's support, his prayer meeting becoming "a base for the counter-revolution", and "finally, one day, he fled out of fear of the people". Resalat, August 31, 1986.

SAVAK's interest in The Shahid-e Javid was not simply in spreading dissent among a restive clergy or concern over its religious justification of rebellion in general. The book was shot through with scarcely concealed attacks on the monarchy and carried on a polemic about Islam's championing of the civil liberties and social justice the Iranian people craved. E.g., pp. 171, 291-310.

Moreover, it found a reception among politicized lay Muslims and a few ranking clerics, particularly Ayatollah Hosein-`Ali Montazeri, perhaps second only to Khomeini in his outspoken opposition to the Shah for a clergyman of his status. In fact, it was Ayatollah Montazeri who lauded the book in an introduction written after it was published. A more complete list of other figures and organizations supporting the book can be provided.

Master and Minions

Mehdi Hashemi was born into a clerical family of considerable wealth and standing, judging from the claims to charity by his father in apppealing the dealth sentence brought on his son under the Shah, Distributing land granted by a titled nobleman, providing potable water and repairing mosques and baths, organizing night classes for thousands of people, founding a girl's school, and using his standing to settle local disputes. Khabarnameye Jebheye Melliye Iran,

Khordad /May 1977. Thanks to Prof. Ervand Abrahamian for bringing this to our attention. in 1946 near Najafabad (a town near Esfahan, long a center of Shi`ite learning, to become “a stronghold of anti-shah opposition.” AFP, cited in FBIS/MENA Dec. 15, 1978.), the city where Hosein-`Ali Montazeri and his son and Mehdi Hashemi's future comrade, Mohammad, were born. According to the biography of him presented in his indictment, Resalat August 16, 1987, hereafter refered to as "Indictment". he began his studies in Qom in 1960, and entered political life around 1966, Hashemi's televised confession of December 16, 1986, published in Resalat, December 17, 1986. in the years just after Khomeini's uprising against the Shah's White Revolution. He set up a "strike group" which, "in the name of defense of the struggle, beat and abused clerics", Ahmad Tavakkoli, Resalat, cited in Iran Times International, January 2, 1987. From here on, refered to as Tavakkoli (1). An articulate enemy of Islamic populism, Resalat is edited by Ahmad Azari-Qomi, a conservative, fundamentalist senior ayatollah and head of Qom's chief seminary. The conservative 99 in the second Islamic Majlis is identified as the Resalat fraction, and is a focus of the populist majority's rage. The polemic's author, as Minister of Labor, drafted a labor code based on a narrow reading of Islamic dogma which was so unspeakably reactionary that it sparked a massive wave of resistance, eventually forcing the government to revoke it and him to resign. but was arrested in 1968 "for reproducing and distributing statements", to be released "after making an agreement" and was rearrested early the next year and was drafted into the army in early 1969. (This draft imposed on unruly seminarians after the 1963 revolt led by Khomeini against the Shah's White Revolution). After his release from the army in 1971, "I came under the influence of models like that of the Egyptian or Chinese or Vietnamese revolutions...; to such an extent that I took a dim view of prayer and weeping and mourning rituals for Imam Hosein, and drifted away from Islam, traditional fiqh, and the traditional clergy and tended towards reason and pure intellectuation and deriving modernizing views of Islam from the Koran, the hadiths, and sought out proofs for armed struggle and party-building", Hashemi's file, vol. l, p. 508 - 509 cited in "Indictment". a development he blamed on "two years of service in the army's taghuti atmosphere, along with other reasons." loc. cit., p. 732. These "other reasons" had to do with the "atmosphere of struggles of the times, a time of super-activism;" Hashemi's televized confession, Resalat December 17, 1986. An Iranian audience hardly needed reminding that the early 1970's saw the rise of the Organization of Iranian People's Fedai Guerillas and the Organization of People's Mojahedin. Theologically, he blames one Aqa Gharavi of Esfahan, whom he characterized as "sectarian" [shazi], Hashemi's file, vol. (?), p. 732, cited in "Indictment", p. 5, col. 2. a possible reference to Ayatollah Musavi Mohammad Javad Gharavi, a loyal friend of Bani-Sadr's to the end and at daggers drawn with Hashemi on almost every possible issue but, in any case, the only prominent cleric named Gharavi in Esfahan at the time. Ettela`at Esfand 13, 1982. A Mojhtahed Gharavi, a comrade of Ayatollah Kashani's, an enthusiastic Khomeini supporter in 1963, and friend of Ayatollah Taleqani who died in 1978 is mentioned in Ettela`at 4 Azar '59 and Jomhuriye Eslami Azar 3, 1979. He was, however, based in Tehran at the time in question.

Hashemi remained unfrocked although, according to the Iranian daily Ettela`at, Ord. 30, 2535. All information in the balance of this section , unless otherwise indicated, is from Ettela`at, Farvardin 27 to Khordad 17, 1977, unless otherwise stated. As a conservative pillar of the monarchy, it has to be read with a degree of caution. However, the reporting on this case seemed to me relatively restrained, if negative. Thus, it went out of its way to discredit rumors about Hashemi's group's role in certain murders being attributed to him. Again, although at first Khomeini was mentioned in connection with the case, he was quickly forgotten as the drama unfolded. And even here, his name came up only in describing Salehi and Hashemi's comrades as Khomeini supporters, which certainly was true for the latter in any case. Finally, there are occasional contradictions in the testimony of presumed witnesses, but the facts of the case unfold fairly regularly. It should also be noted that the confessions of those convicted were given after the court had been closed by the judge to the public, and by unclear means. In any event, these articles read well in comparison with the hysterical tone adopted in Ettla'at's coverage of the government's war against Marxist urban guerillas going on at the same time. he maintained his interest in theology. He returned to his native rustic borough of Esfahan, Qahdarijan, A borough with a reputation for violence, as Hashemi himself points out (Hashemi's files, vol. 5, p. 732) (See Nurizadeh for the historical details) and a susceptibility to religious propaganda, according to a member of a prominent local religious family. Resalat August 31, 1986. around 1971 and began gathering a following, who would “raise the red flag instead of the flag of mourning” during the days commemorating Hosein's martyrdom, according to one neighbor, and opposed the mourning rites for the Kerbala martyrs, in accordance with the principles to be set forth in Shahid-e Javid. Ettela`at, Ord. 29/May 19, 1976. According to the son of one of his victims, he ridiculed mourning processions for the Karbala martyrs, shut the doors to meeting halls for the mourners, told the ritual flagellants that "whips are for donkeys," and preached his disbelief in Fatema Zahra's purity, Mohammad's bodily ascent to heaven, and paying tithes to sayyeds. Resalat, August 31, 1987. He named his group, Hadaf, the Goal.

Hashemi recalls that after having tangled with the clerical establishment over the Shahid-e Javid, he became obsessed with battling the clergy to the extent of turning away from battling the regime. Hashemi's file, vol. 5, p. 732, cited in "Indictment". In his confession before the Islamic magistrate, he recalls that two anti-Shah Islamic militants, Shafi`zadeh and Ja`farzadeh, started talking with him, but he convinced them that the present danger came from "the akhunds who were either quietist or supporting the regime", including Shamsabadi. "At first, they opposed this, then, after I forcefully presented them with my information and arguments, I convinced them to murder them." loc. cit. In a contemporary account given in Ettela`at, Ord. 26, Shafi`zadeh is called Ja`farzadeh's recruit, and they decided to murder some clerics later. `Abbas `Ali Rahimi and Hosein Moradi confessed that during the last Hadaf meeting, a death list was presented including 21 names, including 12 well-known clerics. Ettela`at, Khordad 8.

Hashemi recalls, "I imagined that, just as in China, where two thirds of its population being farmers, armed struggle began from the villages, we, too, in Iran, would be able to act as in China." Hashemi's file, vol. 5 (?) , p. 509, "Indictment", p. 5, col. 3. He saw his enemies as "agents of the landlords who were afraid of the spread of liberty and justice." Khabarnameye Jebheye Melliye Iran, Khordad /May 1977. According to his indictment in the Islamic revolutionary court, he organized "various groups... and gave them specific tasks to perform, and used them to terrorize and threaten the residents and beat his opponents and impugn their morality and spread rumors and, ultimately, use assassination." vol. 5, p. 509, "Indictment" He is accused by the son of one of his victims of "destroying the crops of farmers who opposed him...and wrecking or stealing their irrigation pumps and burning their houses and stores with his wrath." "Dah Sal-e Entezar", Resalat, Aug. 31, 1987. As he himself said, appealing to Esfahan's most powerful cleric while awaiting execution in the Shah's prisons, in Qahdarijan, "countless disasters have occured so far of which the pen is ashamed to write." Khabarnameye Jebheye Melliye Iran, Khordad /May 1977. "In those days, my ambition for power grew," and he saw his borough as "an impregnable fortress in which no one might move contrary to my ideas...." In this explanation, the religious aspect was at first a function of this political side, something which, after his battles with the local orthodoxy, took over and "turned me from thinking about struggle with the regime." vol 5, p. 732 of Hashemi's file, loc. cit.

Hashemi played an important but still unclear role in the Khomeini network. Khomeini's son, Ahmad, remembered Mohammad Montazeri as his contact with Hashemi, and when Hashemi was arrested, he kept in touch with one of Hashemi's clerical comrades. Ettea`at, Ord. 9/April 29, 1982.

Nurizadeh, the judge who convicted Hashemi, said that his devotees were so brainwashed they would die for him rather than say anything against him. Nurizadeh explains that they would join in the ritual mournings for Imam Hosein and his family, and then start a political discussion which would end with Mehdi Hashemi wishing "my ancestor Imam Hosein" had not listened to his advisors and had waged people's war. This was said to have greatly excited the mourners and won him a truly massive following in his borough of Esfahan. These new recruits dwindled from "over 1000" to "about 20" as they had a chance to find out what was going on, the orthodox clergy's resistance to their heresy speeding the process. Ettela`at, Khordad 3/May 24, 1976. They were down to "only 50," Ettela`at, Ord. 29/May 19, 1976. almost all relatives of Hashemi, when Hashemi's killing spree began. Ettela`at, Khordad 3/May 24, 1976. Qambar `Ali Safarzadeh's son writes, "My father re-invited that great scholar, the martyr Shamsabadi, several times and each time, that lofty cleric came to our village and informed the people, and for all my having been a child, I still have fresh images of the people of Qahdarijan's tumultuous reception and of the effect of those revealing talks on the people." Resalat, August 31, 1986. As one of Hashemi's disciples from that time recalled, "Bit by bit, Hashemi was finding himself deserted: his own brave family withdrew and told me to withdraw, too, and not get involved in this sort of thing, but I vehemently supported the Imam and Mehdi Hashemi, and they beat me violently for this support." "Indictment of the Two", col. 5..

"In my deviations towards violence in how I understood Islam and the Koran and the traditions, especially in regards to violent subjects like jihad or "commanding the proper and upbraiding the improper", became manifest in my private lectures and meetings." Hashemi's file, vol. 5, page 732, cited in "Indictment". The Master began answering the clergy's denunciations with threats of violence. When Hashemi's men first raised their heads in 1971, one Sheikh Ebrahim Tavassoli was approached by one of them while on his way to the pulpit (he had been invited to speak by Sayyed Esma`il Hoseini, see below) and told, "Don't talk about Shahid-e Javid ... or we will kill you or bring such a calamity upon your head that you will regret what you've done." His car was twice torched and then stolen and wrecked and he was forced by death threats to confine himself to his home. Ettela`at, Ord. 28, Khordad 8/May 29, 1976. Another outspoken enemy, Abolqasem Hojjati, who would denounce Shahid-e Javid from the pulpit, was severely beaten by them. Ettela`at, Ord. 28. According to the confessions of those arrested and convicted, the decision to kill was taken in September 1975. Ettela`at, Ord. 26/May 16, 1976. Their victims were, in order of their murders:

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