By BRIAN MURPHY (AP) – March 10, 2010.DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A traditional Islamic concept about protecting the faith and its followers has become a judicial weapon for Iran's rulers: charging opponents as so-called enemies of God with the threat of possible death sentences.
Iran's accusations of "moharebeh" — literally "waging war" in Arabic — have opened deep rifts between ruling clerics and Islamic scholars questioning how an idea about safeguarding Muslims can be transformed into a tool to punish political protesters.
The outcry increased last week after an appeals court reportedly upheld the death sentence for Mohammad Amin Valian, a 20-year-old student convicted of moharebeh crimes, which Iran's legal code defines as "defiance of God" — or the state — and punishable by hanging.
Valian's case has become a new rallying point for the opposition as authorities try to further rattle protesters after crushing demonstrations last month.
Valian has only admitted to throwing stones at security forces during anti-government protests in December, according to opposition Web sites. On Sunday, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said the student still can appeal.
The case also highlights the huge perception gap in Iran. Opposition groups have declared Iran's leadership politically bankrupt after alleged vote-rigging and violence. But hard-line supporters of the Islamic system consider it answerable only to God.
"Using moharebeh to defend the regime is an extremely cynical ploy," said Abdullahi An-Na'im, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at the Emory Law School in Atlanta. "It's a total manipulation of the concept."
Valian is among a dozen people convicted of moharebeh offenses, said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Hundreds more are in detention and have yet to face the courts, which are directly controlled by the ruling theocracy.
On Sunday, Iran's semi-official ILNA news agency reported that a former Tehran University dean, Mohammad Maleki, was charged with moharebeh for alleged contact with unspecified foreign groups and working to undermine the Islamic system.
In January, Iran hanged two men on moharebeh offenses — convicted of plotting to overthrow "the Islamic establishment" and planning assassinations and bombings. They were arrested months before the June election, but were brought before judges last summer in a trial of more than 100 pro-reform activists and politicians. Some were sentenced to death, while more than 80 received prison terms ranging from six months to 15 years.
A hard-line cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, described the executions in ominous terms in a nationally broadcast sermon in January.
"If you show weakness now, the future will be worse," Jannati said. "There is no room for Islamic mercy."
However, few mainstream Muslim scholars find justification in using traditional Quranic codes such as moharebeh against political opponents.
"You simply cannot use it in a purely political context," said Emory professor An-Na'im.
The concept has its roots in a Quranic verse that calls for death, maiming or banishment for those who "wage war" against God, the Prophet Muhammad or bring corruption into society. Many Islamic scholars interpret the references to acts that defy universal codes such as intentionally killing civilians during warfare or causing random destruction.
Iranian authorities, however, have pushed the meaning to cover any challenges to the stability and survival of the Islamic state — built largely around the idea that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is divinely empowered.
"Iran's leaders use the Quran as the cornerstone of their rule. They also are using the Quran to justify the punishment of those challenging the existing order," said Azzam Tamimi, director of Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London. "In this sense, Iran's leaders see no contradiction."
Blurring religious and political muscle is not new in the region, with the Taliban using Islamic law to rule Afghanistan until being ousted after the 9/11 attacks. But Iran's case has evolved in a distinct way: starting as a political clash over disputed elections and gradually turning into a defense of the Islamic Revolution.
Iran has used moharebeh charges several times in past decades, mostly against suspected Kurdish separatists as well as alleged members of armed opposition groups. Executions for such offenses, however, have been rare recently.
Moharebeh was also applied against scores of former officials who were arrested and executed in early days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
It's part of the confusing signals from Tehran. A stream of detained opposition figures have been released recently. But at the same time, hard-liners keep rounding up suspected foes such as the 76-year-old former Tehran University dean.
"Some officials .... relate the street protests to moharebeh," said a statement Monday on pro-reform Web sites by Mahdi Karroubi, a top opposition leader. "This is shameful."
Some on the sidelines of the political battles have seized on Valian's death sentence to challenge the ruling clerics. Reformist Web sites report that Ayatollah Mostafa Mohaghegh Damad, a leading instructor in Iran's seminary city of Qom, has sought to rally other clerics to oppose the use of moharebeh charges against political protesters.
A letter purportedly written by Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a powerful conservative cleric, urged authorities to "act by the rules of Islam" and show leniency to demonstrators.
Some Web sites carried claims that death sentence for the student was influenced by a fatwa, or religious edict, by Shirazi to support moharebeh justice against protesters. He denied issuing such a fatwa.
The opposition says more than 80 protesters were killed in unrest since the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June. The government puts the number of confirmed dead at fewer than 40.
Iranian judicial officials have made no public comments on specific death sentences or prison terms. But the country's highest powers have consistently accused the opposition of being a threat to the Islamic system.
"It shows just how polarized Iran has become," said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern affairs at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "The state has reverted to using terms and actions from Islam that refer to only real moments of duress for Muslims."