The following interview was conducted with Sheikh Izzedin Husseini during a visit he made to Paris in October 1982. This was the sheikh’s first trip outside Iran, and he had taken advantage of his stay in the French capital to go out and have a look at the city—“unlike Khomeini, when he was here,” the sheikh remarked. Later in 1982, Sheikh Izzedin returned to Iranian Kurdistan, as heavy fighting between the Kurdish peshmergas and government forces continued. —Fred Halliday
What is your view of relations between the Kurds and the central government since the revolution?
The demand for autonomy goes back well before the revolution. The Kurds played an important role in the revolution, and they participated because they thought that under the new regime their rights would be respected. They believed that negotiation would solve the problems that arose.
The first government delegation came to the Kurdish town of Mahabad a few days after the revolution. There we proposed an eight-point plan, but fighting soon broke out in Sanandaj. So, on the invitation of the government, I went to Tehran and Qom, where I saw Ayatollah Khomeini and other leaders. We did our best to solve this problem by political means. But this regime was too reactionary to resolve the difficulties. They are against our nationality and against our religion, since the majority of the Iranian Kurds are Sunni Muslims.
What is the nature of the current offensive being waged by the government in Kurdistan?
This offensive is worse than any of the previous ones. The two divisions normally in Kurdistan, the 64th at Urumiyeh and the 128th at Sanandaj, have been reinforced by two more, one from Qazvin and the other from Tabriz. Pasdaran and members of the Basij, the Mobilization of the Oppressed, have also been sent to the area. They are advancing along the Piranshahr-Sardasht road in an attempt to encircle the liberated areas, cut our links with the outside world and open the road to the Iraqi frontier for their own use.
Are they trying to convert the Kurds to Shi‘i Islam?
The constitution is a Shi‘i one, in which there is no place for Sunnis. They are not forcing individuals to convert but they are trying to prepare a situation in which all Iranians will convert to Shi‘ism. In the areas of Kurdistan under their control they are changing the teachers in the schools, bringing in members of the Revolutionary Guard as what we call pasdar muallem—guard teachers. At the same time, they have given responsibility for religious affairs in Kurdistan to Shi‘i clergy, and have opened a school for Shi‘i clergy in Urumiyeh.
When you met Khomeini, did he listen to what you had to say?
I met Khomeini in a large room. He came in, shook hands and welcomed me. There were some other religious men with him. I asked him for two things. First, that we should have an Islamic constitution, not a specifically Shi‘i or Sunni one. Secondly, I asked him for autonomy for Kurdistan. His answers were very general. Everyone was oppressed in Iran, he told me, and now everything would get better. When I was leaving he took me by the hem of my cloak and said to me: “What I am asking from you is the security of Kurdistan.” And so I took his hem and said: “What I ask from you is autonomy for Kurdistan.” From that meeting, in April 1979, I understood that he did not want to give us anything.
As a religious leader yourself, what is your view of Khomeini’s theory of Islamic government, and his advocacy of the concept of the velayat-e faqih?
Many governments in the past have claimed to act in the name of Islam, but in reality they were not Islamic. The Safavid and Ottoman governments were cases in point; more recently we have the case of Khomeini in Iran. They are qeshri—backward and vulgar—and have ruined Islam and its spirit. What we have is not religious government, but a dictatorship under the name of Islam. They are using the name of religion to oppress the people, and the people know this. In Sunni Islam there is no imam as political leader or na’ib (deputy) imam. The role of the clergy is to be a morshed, or guide, in knowing God. You will also find some Shi’i clergy who reject Khomeini’s concept of the faqih. lt is not an Islamic regime.
What kind of government do you want to see in Iran?
First of all, any kind of government we have should be elected by the people. I am for a democratic republic in which all Iranians, of all nationalities, are equal in the constitution and in which all religious beliefs and opinions are free, together with freedom of expression and of the press. Any religious government will end in dictatorship, and religion will become a means of beating, executing and killing in the name of God. Such a democratic government will grant national rights and autonomy to the Kurds.
In Kurdistan there are two main political forces, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and the Komeleh. In the post-revolutionary situation, there have been disagreements between these two. You yourself have been more associated with the Komeleh. What is your position now in relation to them?
As a religious personality, I am independent of the political organizations which exist in Kurdistan. But I have good relations with both of them. The degree of closeness depends on the level of their struggle against the Khomeini regime. The more active they are in this struggle, the closer I am to them. The KDPI and the Komeleh, the two main forces in Kurdistan, have two positions in common that I also share: the campaign to overthrow Khomeini’s regime, and autonomy for Kurdistan. I have always favored cooperation between these two groups, and there is now more coordination than in the past. For the first time, in the Sardasht-Piranshahr area, they have a joint military headquarters. I have a direct relationship with the mass of the Kurdish people, and I support those organizations that are struggling for the people.
You have not as yet affiliated with the National Resistance Council, although the KDPI has done so. What is your attitude to the NRC?
The Mojahedin is a religious organization, and so we have some common ideological ground with them. True, they are Shi‘i, but we support their struggle against Khomeini’s regime. I am in friendly relations with the Mojahedin and many others in the NRC. I do, however, have some criticisms of their program and structure.
One central issue posed in the Iranian revolution is that of the relationship between socialism and Islam. Some—both Muslims and socialists—say there is an irreconcilable contradiction.
Socialism is not relevant to Iran in the present circumstances. We are, at the moment, in a democratic phase. We need democracy to prepare the conditions for arriving at socialism. My own personal view is that the economic system of socialism is not in contradiction with Islam, but I do not believe in the philosophic base of socialism. So, while there is no contradiction between the spirits of Islam and socialism, I do not think that socialism is on the agenda in Iran at the moment.
What is your view of the major powers’ policies toward Iran?
The major powers have no alternative with which to replace Khomeini, and they still think that Khomeini has work to do. What in particular is your view of the Soviet attitude? We are an oppressed nation, and we are grateful to anyone who wants to help us. But we do not see anything hopeful for us in Soviet policy. Many times they said they wanted to defend us, but afterwards it was clear that they were not serious. We are happy when people say they support us, but we are also very cautious.
How did you, as a religious personality, become involved in political activity?
I was born into a religious family in 1921 in the town of Baneh. Like other religious students, I studied in the mosques of Kurdistan with well-educated religious men. My family was well-educated, too. I finished studying what we call the “old sciences” of religion. I have had to study social and political subjects on my own. For around 30 years I taught religious studies, mainly in Mahabad, and tried to see what the social and political realities of Iran were. I made enemies in this way among the fanatical mullahs, but it also brought me popularity among the people. My political activity began as a member of Komeleh Jaikaf, the Organization for the Renaissance of the Kurds, established by Kurdish intellectuals in 1942 after the fall of Reza Khan’s regime. Later, I was active in the struggle against the Shah’s regime, and I had very close relations with the armed movement among the Kurds in 1967and 1968. Throughout the Shah’s period, I had meetings in my house in Mahabad of intellectuals and other revolutionary elements opposed to the Shah.
What lessons did you draw from the Mahabad republic set up in Kurdistan in 1946, with Soviet support, and from its collapse?
In general, it was good. The culture of the Kurds had been diffused, and it had a good influence on them. The main defect was that its government was drawn from the upper ranks of society—bourgeois, feudal and higher clerical elements. The Komeleh Jaikaf was, from the start, popular with the different sections of the population, but people were not very hopeful about the republic because of its social character. Moreover, the territory covered by this republic was only a small percentage of Kurdistan. There is a big difference between the Mahabad movement and the movement now. The movement today is far deeper and more widespread—it covers the whole territory. And today women have an important role, whereas in 1946 they did not.
This touches on a central issue in the relation of Islam to society. What is your view of the position of women?
I believe about women what Islamic law ordains. Women are the equals of men, but the human being has two sides. If women are kept retarded then society as a whole is retarded and such a society will make no progress. Women bring up children, and if they are retarded they cannot train children. The more advanced women are, the better it is for society.
What is your view of the hejab, the Islamic covering now compulsory in Iran?
I am for a middle way. I support the liberty and freedom of women, and I am against Khomeini’s injunctions on covering women. I think that women’s bodies can be seen by men. But I am against anarchism for women. Women should be a symbol of dignity and at the same time they should be free.