Iran's chess war

The intellectual pastime is the latest symbol in the struggle between the country's democratic reformers and Islamic clerics.

Published February 18, 2000 6:00PM (EST)

It takes guts to play chess in Iran.

After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the game was banned in public on the count of encouraging gambling, and players went underground with their boards and pieces. In 1988, when Iran's spiritual leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, rehabilitated the game, chess made a triumphant comeback, spawning chess parks, chess palaces and budding chess champions.

Now, an aging clergyman has declared the ancient game forbidden again, and players are wondering nervously what the authorities next move will be.

"Iran's problem is lawlessness," said Ebrahim Yazdi, head of the Freedom Movement of Iran, an opposition party barred from participating in Friday's general elections.

In theory, the recent fatwa, or religious decree, against chess has no legal value. But in practice, Iran's clerics often have the power to interfere with the freedom of the people. Secular institutions are superseded by religious ones and law is always at the mercy of a new hard-line interpretation of the Koran. In addition, extra-constitutional vigilante groups tend to take justice into their own hands, striking against people they consider enemies of Islam.

But the days of confusion and legal insecurity may be coming to an end, analysts says. A political movement to separate mosque and state has taken shape in the past few years and is likely to gain new momentum after Friday's elections if reformers take control of Iran's parliament. These elections could be crucial in determining whether Iran can be both Islamic and democratic and shed its authoritarian past.

"There's a public perception that the reformist camp values human rights, democracy and the rule of law, while conservatives stress religious responsibility and the purity of the revolution," said Hadi Semati, a political scientist at Tehran University.

In the first decade of the revolution, the 8-year-long Iran-Iraq war closed the ranks of the nation behind its religious leader Khomeini. Since then, the arena of public debate in Iran has opened up to a wide range of topics.

People now debate the merits of a modern state ruled by ancient Islamic law. The man who was most responsible for launching that discussion a few years ago was a philosopher called Abdulkarim Soroush. By claiming that the Koran is a text open to interpretation and that interpretations change in time, Soroush paved the way for criticism of Iran's conservative theocracy.

Mohammed Khatami, a reformist cleric elected president of Iran in a landslide in 1997, campaigned with a copy of the constitution in hand and promised to create a society based on the rule of law. "Although Khatami has never said that he wants a secular state, people read between the lines and understand that one of the consequences of reform may be a semi-secular state," said Hadi Semati, a political scientist at Tehran University.

In the present system, political power is shared between a myriad of elected and appointed bodies. The president and parliament are elected by the people. But it is spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini (Khomeini's successor) and a large cast of clerics who, most of the time, run the show. Khameini controls the courts, army and police, radio and television, as well as hundreds of the so-called revolutionary foundations that manage the wealth of assets confiscated during the revolution. "I wouldn't call it a theocracy -- there is no sovereignty of God here. I call it a "hierarchracy" in which the clerical hierarchy is in power," said Yazdi.

When Ali Hachemi Tehrani, the head of the chess association of Kashan, a provincial town south of Tehran, heard that a local clergyman had spoken out against chess last January, he did not immediately put down the game. After all, the national chess federation belongs to the sports organization directed by Iran's vice president. But Tehrani felt compelled to send dozens of letters to the country's top clerics, newspapers and scholars to convince them of the merits of chess.

"I respect the learned clergyman but he's referring to a chess that isn't played in our district," he said. "Chess has a very old history. Fourteen-hundred years ago, when Islam took root in Iran, there was a kind of chess played with dice. The only thing ruling the progress of pieces on the chessboard was luck. It had nothing to do with strategy and creativity; therefore, the Holy Prophet saw no benefit in the game -- he considered it gambling. But when dices were removed, chess became a science and an art."

That Tehrani chose to speak out and defend chess players' rights is a sign that times are changing. Although chess is a popular game that some historians claim was invented in Iran about 2,000 years ago, no one dared protest when chess was first banned in 1981. "The first time round we waited, " said Reza Rezaei, secretary-general of Iran's chess federation, who was a promising 23-year-old professional player at the time. "Because we were involved with the war with Iraq, no discussion was possible."

At a student rally last week in favor of the Participation Front, the main pro-Khatami reformist party, Saed Hajarim, the publisher of a radical newspaper, called for ridding Iran of a variety of religious councils that impede the work of the parliament. "All the bodies above the parliament should be put away and the only body with the power to enact law should be the parliament," he said. That idea sounded as revolutionary in the Islamic Republic than it did in the pre-revolutionary days, when the Shah ruled Iran.

But the game between Iran's clerics and democrats is not over. Are Islam and democracy compatible, asked Semati, the political scientist. "Maybe Khatami himself doesn't have a clear answer."

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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Iran Islam Middle East Religion