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Friday, June 4, 1999 Published at 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK

World: Middle East

Analysis: Ayatollah Khomeini's legacy

Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral was attended by millions

Tens of thousands of people have gathered at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's Islamic revolution, for ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of his death.

Iran's Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini, told mourners he was committed to the late leader's vision of freedom and Islamic democracy without which the Islamic system could not survive.

The reformist President Mohammad Khatami called for greater democracy and tolerance of political differences.

Baqer Moin of the BBC Persian Service, who has just published a book on the late Ayatollah, assesses his legacy.

In the light of history Ayatollah Khomeini will be seen, paradoxically, as both a political revolutionary and a religious reformer.

As a theologian, he was able to set his own agenda and train hundreds of students who are now ruling Iran. As leader of the opposition he kept alive the spirit of struggle against the Pahlavi dynasty of the Shah - the autocratic ruler overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979.

As the charismatic leader of the revolution who ruled Iran for a turbulent decade, he presided over a period of blood-letting and prolonged a costly war with neighbouring Iraq.

[ image: The Ayatollah put the supremacy of the Islamic state above religion]
The Ayatollah put the supremacy of the Islamic state above religion
Khomeini was regarded as obscurantist by the enlightened, and enlightened by the obscurantists. He was also seen as a firm believer in the institutionalisation of the Islamic state.

Elections, flawed though they were, were regularly held and differences between factions openly debated.

For Khomeini, there was no difference between prayer and politics. But when it came to the crunch, he put the survival of the Islamic state above religious principles - as, for example, when he authorised the mass execution of opponents, even though this contravened the basic concept of Islamic justice.

What may come to be regarded as his historic achievement was his role in establishing the supremacy of the Islamic state over religious precepts. He also, with some difficulty, made this concept palatable to the traditionalist Shi'ite clergy.

By putting the state above religion, Khomeini made the clergy subservient to the state - in line, ironically, with most Sunni countries.

Power struggle

The shortcomings of the state in addressing socio-economic problems have undermined its legitimacy. But future challenges will most likely come from those who see themselves as citizens whose allegiance is expressed through the ballot-box, and not from those who see themselves as obedient followers of the traditionalist clergy.

The current struggle between conservatives and reformers over the nature of the Islamic state, and how to maintain and consolidate it, is part of Khomeini's legacy.

The conservatives see themselves as the true heirs of his political radicalism, while the reformers want to extend his religious reforms as the only way forward for an Islamic civil society.

If the reformers succeed, Khomeini's legacy will gain greater historic significance.

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