June 19, 2009
Innovation and Iran's Evolution
As the tensions and contradictions of Iranian society have been laid bare over the past week, some Western observers have adopted a predictably self-centered view of events, eschewing sober analysis of the protests for ungrounded assertions that do little more than telegraph their own wishes and biases.
Topping the list as always are the neoconservatives, who, apparently not yet hoarse from bellowing for the destruction and invasion of Iran, are now squealing and squawking with feigned concern for the Iranian people as they scold President Obama for not intervening on the protesters’ behalf.
Even much of the mainstream coverage imparts to viewers the impression that Iran’s internal conflict is a Manichean matter of the secular versus the religious; those eagerly aspiring to Western liberal democracy squaring up against dour-faced and ancient Islamists.
A more dispassionate view reveals a much different picture. The protest movement, swelling in the streets of Tehran and other major cities with hundreds of thousands of adherents, has adopted as its banner the signature color of Islam: green. Its defiant nighttime chant is not culled from Die Hard or de Tocqueville, but the iconic cry of the Islamic Revolution: God is Great. The leader of the opposition, Mir Hussein Moussavi, is himself a veteran of the 1979 revolution.
This reality is entirely alien to “experts” who have divided Iran (and the Muslim world at large) into two imaginary camps: radical Islamists who denounce the Great Satan and aspiring secularists who swill wine while swooning over Sex and the City.
Iran has been an Islamic society for 1,300 years, but it has not always been an Islamic Republic. The critical point missed in much of mainstream analysis is that Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution of 1979 was not a wholesale restoration of some glorious Islamic past, but partly an innovation with no precedent in Muslim history—and it is this particular innovation that is the focal point of the current crisis.
Khomeini introduced the principle of Valet-e Faqih into Iranian political discourse—the idea that the wisest and most authoritative Muslim jurist should serve as the representative of the Twelfth Imam, who, in Shi’ite belief, did not die in the 10th century but was hidden by the hand of God and will return alongside Jesus to restore peace and justice on earth.
Khomeini’s theological innovation marked the first time in Muslim history that a cleric claimed not only spiritual but supreme political power—and, quite conveniently, placed him as the head of Iran . Khomeini’s shrewd combination of charisma and ruthlessness ensured that the station of Supreme Leader remained untouchable and irreproachable—but only so long as he was alive.
His successor, the current leading Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is but a shadow of the revolution’s founder; he lacked the religious legitimacy to occupy Khomenei’s post and was therefore forced to consolidate his power by pandering heavily to Iran’s military.
Some commentators on both the left and the right believe that it is precisely Khamenei’s over-reliance on the military that has forced him to throw his weight behind Mahmoud Ahmedenijad (a Revolutionary Guard veteran) and preemptively declare him the winner of the likely-rigged elections.
This theory goes a long way toward explaining the composition and attitudes of the opposition.
In a comprehensive poll conducted by an outside non-profit group three weeks before the election, four-fifths of Iranians said they wanted to make Khamenei’s post elected rather than appointed, vitiating the entire theological basis behind the Valet-e Faqih. This same poll also showed Ahmedinijad holding a commanding 2 to 1 lead, but as it was conducted before the opposition’s impressive push on the eve of elections, it’s not outlandish to assume that an even greater majority support making Khamenei accountable to the people.
Furthermore, what separates this round of protests in scale, scope and substance from the largely student-led eruptions of the past is the support of sections of the clergy, which includes not only relative moderates like Moussavi but firmly established figures like former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. This unlikely alliance between progressives and pragmatic clerics may have come about because the latter feel that their power is being eclipsed by the military.
A fitting illustration of the situation's complexity is today's Washington Times article that says the protests “are led largely by young nonreligious Iranians” but then goes on to note that clerics and ayatollahs are among the opposition's main leaders.
Whatever the particulars, the situation in Iran is complex, fluid, and contradictory, and cannot be oversimplified into a “secular versus religious” schema superimposed by Western onlookers.