Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Islamic Republic: A Structural Time Bomb (part II)

Once Sayid Ali Khamene'i became the Supreme Leader, the office was irreversibly diluted. As Montazeri noted, he was not a marja' taqlid (source of emulation) and had not even reached the level of mojtahed (someone who makes a legal decision by independent interpretation of the Quran and Sunna). Instead, he was simply a compromise candidate entrusted with the power to steer the nation; a candidate that would be preoccupied with maintaining his own power instead of tending to the welfare of Iranians.

Yet, there were others not involved in the compromise who wield an incomparably higher degree of moral authority amongst pious Iranians, and they would be heard. They would initiate a "sacral defense of secularism," as Dr. Sadri has termed it, and rattle the very pillars of Khomeini's Islamic government.

First up: Mohsen Kadivar, born in Fars in 1959, he reached the level of ijtihad (the highest level of Shi'a theology) after studying in the holy city of Qom, and he would go on to publish nine books. He was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison for denouncing the murders of Iranian intellectuals and comparing the Islamic regime to the former monarch - but he would not relent in his criticism.

After determining that the concept of velayate-faghih is less than two centuries old, Kadivar intimates:

"The principle of Velyat-e Faghih is neither intuitively obvious, nor rationally necessary. It is neither a requirement of religion nor a necessity for denomination (mazhab). It is neither a part of shiite genral priniples (osoul), nor a component of detailed observances (forou). It is by mere consensus of Shiite ulama, nothing more than a jurisprudential minor hypothesis."

Ayatollah Kadivar is not the only religious figure challenging the totalitarian theology of the governing clerical elites.

Next up: Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, born in Tabriz in 1936, is currently a professor of theology at the University of Tehran. Shabestari's main contribution to Shi'a theology is his insistence on the limited nature of religious knowledge. He states,

"The meaning of perfection of religion (ekmal-e din) is not that it contains everything under the sun, so that if we are unable to find a specific item in it, we could go off calling it imperfect. It is not perfection for religion to function as a substitute for science, technology, and human deliberation."

He intensifies his assault on the Islamic theocracy by distinguishing between secular exigencies and religious abstractions,

"God has accepted for the world to remain itself (in the secular sense of the term). He has decreed to let the world be the world. I am of the opinion that it is high time that we let people know to what extent they can expect religion to solve their secular problems and to establish an advanced society . . . The necessity of a democratic government can not be derived from the meaning of faith or the religious texts. However, since social realities demand such a form of government, people of faith must forge a relationship with this reality, reconcile themselves with its requirements, and follow a faithful life along its riverbed.”

Mojtahid Shabestari and Kadivar are not the only high-ranking Shi'a theologians confronting the philosophy and absurdities of the politically empowered clerics, but they are amongst the most eminent. Their words are nothing less than intellectual bullets piercing the hollow facade of clerical leadership inside Iran.

As they and others of their ilk spearhead the theological opposition to the Islamic theocracy from within the clerical ranks, they have provided the hope that the regime will undercut itself and eliminate one of the ugliest manifestations of political Islam in Iran since the Safavids.

After all, it was none other than the communist Secretary General himself, Mikhail Gorbachev, that precipitated the fall of the Soviet Union - not the opposition.


Sohrab said...

Okay barmakid, this time I'm paying a lot more detailed attention to your actual thesis: it can be summed up as elite dissension within the IRI and the broader Shi'a community represents a way forward for Iran. But there is a countertheory (I think advanced by Abbas Milani though I'm not sure) that says that elite dissent is itself a structural feature of the regime that ultimately helps it solidify its rule.

saggezard said...

I am just hoping that the time bomb you are discussing looks very much like the Mohammad Cartoon with the fuse on its side. Hopefully all the turbans will start popping soon. Today to most Iranians a Kadivar, Shabestari or a Khamenei are the same. It may be a gross generalization but most Iranians (Ishould really say almost all Iranians) are disgusted by this hypocrisy called Islamic theology. They are all involved in a corrupted, backward and sick witchcraft praying to an Arab god.

Barmakid said...


That may be true in certain cases, for instance reformist politicians like Khatami. He was a dissenter/reformer within the governing system. And his tenure as president ultimately gave more legitimacy to the system, as opposed to fulfilling the hopes the public had when they elected him. So you make a good point.

But in this case, the dissenters are not advocating reform - they are advocating a complete withdrawal of religion from government. And what makes their demands so powerful is that they are highly credentialed clerics that are no longer or never were a part of the system. (And as clerics with such high credentials it is extremely difficult for the ruling patriarchs to justify imprisoning or punishing them, harder than it was for the Shah to do so against Khomeini - which is why he just ended up exiling him.)

As religious leaders they understand that their religion is sapped and diluted when it is politicized. They also know, as I quoted them saying, that Islam does not have all the necessary prescriptions for government.

AS Dr.Sadri said, they have initiated a "sacral defense of secularism." And in a highly religious society like Iran, to have accomplished clerics advocating secularism is an invaluable asset for all secularist opposition to the theocracy.


Anonymous said...