QOM, IRAN—On a snowy day early this year, a cheery crowd gathered in a busy square here, undeterred by the sting of icy wind gusts. A mobile crane moved into place to serve as a makeshift gallows, followed by black-masked hangmen. Three convicted drug traffickers were brought out, each made to stand on a stool as a noose was placed around his neck. Moments later, the hangmen swiftly pulled away the stools. For hours, the three bodies were left dangling.
Standing nearby was a lean, gray-bearded cleric from Mofid University, which is regarded as a relatively liberal seminary in this Shiite holy city south of Tehran. As he watched the grim spectacle, not the first he has witnessed, he was troubled by the number of public hangings in Iran and the message this sends not only to the outside world but at home as well. In 2007, Iran executed at least 317 people, most by hanging, up from 177 in 2006, according to Amnesty International. There have been at least 108 executions so far this year. "Through public executions, they create an atmosphere of intimidation and silence," he remarked a few days later, asking not to be named for his safety. "They want to frighten people, to make them afraid of voicing criticism. This is not the Islam I know.''
Such dissent fomenting in Qom, a center of Shiite scholarship, shows that the current Iranian government leadership faces rumblings of opposition not just from secular-minded intellectuals in affluent areas of northern Tehran but from elements in Iran's clerical class, too. This cleric—once a staunch supporter of the 1979 Islamic Revolution—is disillusioned with the "frightening direction" the revolution has veered toward, making way for what some have labeled a "turbaned dictatorship."
The revolution, which toppled U.S.-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, brought to power Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and transformed Iran into a theocracy. Clerics wear both the hats of government and the turbans of religion. The principle of velayat e faqih [rule of Islamic jurisprudence], which places the clergy above all other institutions, holds that society should be governed by a supreme leader, a cleric best qualified to enforce Islamic law, until the appearance of the Shiite messiah. It is this doctrine that makes Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and all others subordinate to him.
While Iranian liberals have yearned for a constitutional separation of religion and state, Qom, too, was never completely at ease with Khomeini's idea of velayat e faqih. With its many decrepit buildings bearing scribbled slogans and stenciled portraits of an unsmiling Khomeini, Qom is home to hundreds of seminaries. It might appear to be the nerve center of global Islamic fundamentalism. Yet views here are not homogeneous. Some revered clerics, in private conversations, repudiate the idea of involving religion so deeply in politics and governance. And they blame the politicization of Islam for Iran's pressing woes—human-rights abuses, international isolation, and an economy that is crippled despite being blessed with the world's fourth-largest oil reserves.
Hard-liners. Those views, though, may be in the minority, overshadowed by more hard-line clerics like Mohsen Rezvani from the political department of the radical Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute, who declares that fealty to Islam is the only way to govern. "Islam prescribes a way to deal with every situation in the world," he says in his large office. "It has rid the world of the responsibility to create modern laws." He sips tea, sucks on a sugar cube, and, with a placid expression, justifies the public executions. "In Islam, punishment is very harsh," he says, "because the philosophy of punishment in the Koran is to prevent people from committing a crime."
There is no doubt that the clerical class has benefited, both financially and politically, in this theocracy. In March elections for the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament, conservative clerics strengthened their grip on power. An unprecedented number of reformists were barred from running in elections by the powerful Guardian Council, a cleric-led group that vets candidates for loyalty to the country's Islamic system.
Some dissident clerics have challenged the legitimacy of a parliament chosen under such restrictions and argue that politics may undercut religious principles. One of those is Grand Ayatollah Ali Hossein Montazeri, a revered elderly cleric who was Khomeini's heir apparent until they had a falling out over political freedoms and other issues. "The clergy must keep themselves as far as possible from executive roles and from the centers of power so as not to compromise its role as the spiritual guide of the population," he told the Italian news agency Adnkronos International in March.