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Montazeri's Limited Tolerance of Non-Muslims

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Much has been written recently about the fundamentalist revolutionary low points and gradual democratic highlights of Iran's late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (1922-2009). Little needs to be added for now about his religiopolitical career.

But attention should be drawn to his viewpoint on the religious minorities in Iran - Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Bahais - which was not very different from those of other Shiite mullahs. Members of these faiths have been frequently persecuted in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Following long-standing Shiite attitudes toward non-Muslims, Iran's revolutionary leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once declared that "the following eleven are unclean: first urine, second feces, third semen, fourth corpses, fifth blood, sixth dogs, seventh pigs, eighth non-Muslims, ninth wine, tenth beer, and eleventh the sweat of a camel which has consumed impure food." Khomeini had gone on to add, "every aspect of a non-Muslim is unclean."

Yes Montazeri, once cast aside by the revolutionary elites, did become a fierce critic of the theocratic regime. As the years went by, he also was more open to extending additional rights beyond those of medieval-like dhimmi or protected status to non-Muslims in Iran. However, he did not sway from the orthodox Shiite perception that non-Muslims are impure. He merely suggested that any non-Muslim could make himself or herself "pure through chaste, Muslim-like, behavior."

Montazeri's comments on members of other faiths may seem more tolerant than ones by Khomeini or other ayatollahs like Ahmad Jannati who compared non-Muslims to "animals roaming the Earth and engaging in corruption." Yet the religious minorities in Iran see little theological difference and only a marginal pragmatism among the various Shiite views. Montazeri's opinion was characterized by one Iranian Christian clergyman as "rubbing salt into our wounds."

Ultimately, Montazeri's tolerance of differences, especially religious ones, was far from acceptance.