Muslim glare turns on divided Iran

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The Independent Online
In front of an audience of 55 Muslim heads of state Iran's two leaders were at odds on the region's future yesterday. Robert Fisk watched in Tehran as President Mohamed Khatami praised the "accomplishments" of the West, while the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, condemned it as corrupt.

Beneath the iron and concrete colander-shaped conference hall and the cluster of Islamic inscriptions, an Iranian prayer leader chanted from the Koran.

"We were enemies and now we are friends and brothers," he sang. And true enough, there was President Assad of Syria, tall and unsmiling, sitting opposite the immaculately dressed Iraqi foreign minister, Mohamed Saaf, in his blue suit and red tie. There was Yasser Arafat, tired and gaunt - he who talked of his "peace of the brave" with Israel - relaxing in front of the bald pate of the Turkish Prime Minister Suliman Demirel, who is still trying to defend his country's military alliance with Israel. And all this in Iran, among the hojatolislams and mullahs who have cursed any recognition of the Jewish state and urged a million of their people to their deaths in the eight-year war against Saddam Hussein's 1980 Iraqi invasion.

But it wasn't the Muslim world's unity that was at issue in Tehran yesterday: it was Iran's. President Khatami's face betrayed not a flicker of emotion as he listened to Ayatollah Khamanei's ferocious speech, the president's spectacles reflecting the arc lights but his eyes resting unblinking on the short, white-bearded prelate whose small black walking stick belied the harshness of his words. One could only guess what Khatami was thinking.

What Khamanei was saying was clear enough. The West and its materialist civilisation was encouraging gluttony, carnal desires, deception, conspiracy, avarice, jealousy, indecency, falsity, bullying, contempt, laxness and arrogance. Against all this, Islam was "the only remedial, curative and saviour angel", the religion whose cultural renaissance flowered while Europe lay in the darkness of the Middle Ages but which now - thanks to the West - was in a "calamitous condition".

The "peace process" was a corrupting and illogical plan intended to return Israeli occupied lands to the Arabs in return for the permanent Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Americans, for their part, were "breathing their poisonous breath" down the Gulf - an "Islamic sea" - to turn Iran's Arab neighbours against the Islamic Republic. Even Algeria's massacres, it seems, were unconnected with "Islamist" violence.

And then there was the kicker that must have made the president's teeth grate. Ayatollah Khamanei - whose authority as unelected guide comes directly from the late Imam Khomeini's principle of "guardianship of the faithful" - proposed that the 55 nations of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference should become the sixth member of the UN Security Council - with a right of veto. If the Iranians could thank Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's intransigence for the unprecedented unity of Arab nations, surely the Americans could thank Ayatollah Khamanei yesterday for supporting their contention that Iran was a bit off its rocker.

President Khatami's speech was in decidedly non-violent contrast, a careful analysis of the Islamic world's failures and successes which generously acknowledged the benefits as well as the dangers of western civilisation. If Islam's current weakness was a result of the West's dominance, he said, Muslims must still utilise "the fruits of this civilisation". If Muslims wished to move forward, they must remember their golden past but must also "possess the requisite fairness and capacity to utilise the positive scientific, technological and social accomplishments of Western civilisation."

It was a powerful, deeply impressive speech that must have humbled many of the Arab leaders and ministers. Even Khamanei might have learnt - if Supreme Guides can learn - from the powerful emphasis the president placed on civil rights. The government of an Islamic civil society, he said, "is the servant of the people and not their master, and in any eventuality, is accountable to the people whom God has entitled to determine their own destiny."

Khamanei listened to this, along with the ranks of mullahs and ex-President Rafsanjani and General Yahyia Safavi, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. There was no doubting what the president meant by the need to end "restrictive and regressive habits". Democracy of a kind was what he was after and the language he used was easy to understand.