July 27, 2007


The verdict of Qom (The Economist, 7/19/07)

Why suppose that Qom of all places might become an agent of change? Conventional wisdom from afar saw the success of Khomeini's revolution as Qom's victory too. Didn't the revolution stop modernisation in its tracks and jerk Iran back to the Middle Ages, delivering political power to turbaned clerics in thrall to an unfathomable theology? And does it not follow that the turbaned clerics of Qom have a strong belief, buttressed by a strong vested interest, in preserving the theocratic principles of that revolution?

As a matter of fact, no. Khomeini's central idea, the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, gives the Islamic Republic its theological underpinning. This holds that until the appearance of the Shias' “hidden imam” (of which more below) society should be governed by a supreme leader, the clerical judge best qualified to interpret God's will and the meaning of Islamic law. It is this doctrine that makes Ayatollah Khamenei supreme leader and all others subordinate to him. But Qom itself has never felt completely at ease either with Ayatollah Khomeini's idea or Ayatollah Khamenei's succession. Indeed, many of the most revered clerical minds in Qom see this doctrine, and especially the way it has been implemented since Khomeini's death, as negating their tradition.

To understand why requires a digression into theology. The quarrel between Sunnis and Shias is about succession. Shias believe that the last rightful imam to follow Muhammad was his son-in-law Ali, but that he and his ten successors were murdered by Sunni caliphs. The twelfth imam therefore went into hiding, promising not to return until the end of time. Most Shia clerics have long held that during this period of “occultation” there can be no lawful political authority. Until the emergence of the hidden imam, politics must be inherently invalid and men of religion should be careful not to implicate themselves in it.

Velayat-e faqih seems to turn this long-standing assumption upside down, especially when it is interpreted as implying that the faqih derives his authority from God and is not answerable to the people. Many of Qom's clerics flatly repudiate this idea. They say that there exists no blueprint for government during the time of occultation, and that nobody has special authority to guide society during this period.

It is not clear exactly how the theological arguments of Qom travel from the seminary into Iran's politics, but they do. President Khatami's reform movement drew heavily on the views of clerics, some of whom were astonishingly outspoken. One, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar, began to argue in the 1990s that Iran could not have clerical rule and claim to be a democracy at the same time. He was jailed for saying that the freedom Iranians had sought through their revolution was being replaced by a new clerical despotism. From house arrest, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hossein Montazeri, a revered cleric who was Khomeini's designated successor before complaining too much about the mass execution of political prisoners after the war with Iraq, supported Hojatoleslam Kadivar. “What the conservative leaders are practising today is not Islam, and I oppose it,” he said.

Such criticisms are especially damaging to the present supreme leader. Ayatollah Khomeini was not just the father of the revolution but also a charismatic scholar of immense learning. In the eyes of Qom, Ayatollah Khamenei is by contrast a clerical lightweight (but effective politician) whom Khomeini prematurely fast-tracked to ayatollahdom when he was looking for a successor. What was acceptable in the charismatic is not necessarily acceptable in the apparatchik.

Although the government has tried to stifle dissent, Qom remains an argumentative place, continuing to exert a potentially disruptive influence on politics. Even during the present crackdown, the visitor to its seminaries quickly encounters a spectrum of clerical opinions on everything from velayat-e faqih to the wearing of the hijab to relations with Israel and America. “Qom's seminary is like an ocean in which you can find anything you desire,” Hojatoleslam Kadivar told a recent interviewer from Asharq Al-Awsat, a pan-Arab daily.

It's lamentable that neither President Bush nor any of his advisers understood this fatal weak point of the Khomeinist model as President Reagan and Richard Pipes understood the similar flaw in the Soviet model. The key passage, seldom recognized, of Reagan's famed Westminster Speech was directed at the leaders and theoreticians of the Marxist world, not at his Western audience:
In an ironic sense Karl Marx was right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis, a crisis where the demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the political order. But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West, but in the home of Marxist-Leninism, the Soviet Union. It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens. It also is in deep economic difficulty. The rate of growth in the national product has been steadily declining since the fifties and is less than half of what it was then.

The dimensions of this failure are astounding: A country which employs one-fifth of its population in agriculture is unable to feed its own people. Were it not for the private sector, the tiny private sector tolerated in Soviet agriculture, the country might be on the brink of famine. These private plots occupy a bare 3 percent of the arable land but account for nearly one-quarter of Soviet farm output and nearly one-third of meat products and vegetables. Overcentralized, with little or no incentives, year after year the Soviet system pours its best resource into the making of instruments of destruction. The constant shrinkage of economic growth combined with the growth of military production is putting a heavy strain on the Soviet people. What we see here is a political structure that no longer corresponds to its economic base, a society where productive forces are hampered by political ones.

The decay of the Soviet experiment should come as no surprise to us. Wherever the comparisons have been made between free and closed societies -- West Germany and East Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, Malaysia and Vietnam -- it is the democratic countries what are prosperous and responsive to the needs of their people. And one of the simple but overwhelming facts of our time is this: Of all the millions of refugees we've seen in the modern world, their flight is always away from, not toward the Communist world. Today on the NATO line, our military forces face east to prevent a possible invasion. On the other side of the line, the Soviet forces also face east to prevent their people from leaving.

The hard evidence of totalitarian rule has caused in mankind an uprising of the intellect and will. Whether it is the growth of the new schools of economics in America or England or the appearance of the so-called new philosophers in France, there is one unifying thread running through the intellectual work of these groups -- rejection of the arbitrary power of the state, the refusal to subordinate the rights of the individual to the superstate, the realization that collectivism stifles all the best human impulses.

Note that the basis of this indictment is not that socialism is inconsistent with our values, but, far more devastating, that it is a failure on its own terms. It could hardly matter to a Marxist that Marxism is unChristian/unAmerican, but that when put into practice it is unMarxist is dispositive.

As the article above lays out, an identical opportunity exists for President Bush to indict Khomeinism as both a failure in its own terms and, devastatingly, inconsistent with Shi'ism. He could then, rather easily, draw out the similarities of Shi'ism, as regards temporal government, to Judaism and Christianity, though Reformers might prefer that he leave that to them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 27, 2007 9:22 AM

Silly rabbit, it's the mosques (husseniyas) or Najaf & Karbala that are in important to the Shia Umma. Khomeini stayed there for almost the entire
time ofhis exile. Ayatollahs Mugniyeh; the father
of the Hezbollah planner, as well as Imam Fadlallah, spiritual father of Hb started there.

Posted by: narciso at July 27, 2007 2:10 PM

The Shiite jailhouse is still the jailhouse, with a disagreement on who is to be the warden.

By all means, read, read closely, the 2003 material linked above. By no stretch does it support the proposition that the Shiite faction admits the Christian separation of church and state. At the most we see the wishful thinking that, because they have been out of power since the original Godfather I-style mob hit, Shiites are more likely than the other branch of the mob family to be reformable.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 27, 2007 3:18 PM

Except that it's not a jailhouse and separation isn't particularly important. [Britain with an established Church is hardly a jailhouse.] What Shi'ism does require is the recognition that temporal government is necessarily imperfect. It anticipates Federalist 51.

Posted by: oj at July 27, 2007 6:02 PM

If we are to feign ignorance of the distinction between establishmentarianism and the caliphate, there is little hope for understanding.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 28, 2007 9:08 AM

The genuine ignorance of Shi'ism, reflected in the belief it calls for the Caliphate, precludes understanding.

Posted by: oj at July 28, 2007 12:16 PM