October 21, 2005

KHOMEINI'S DEAD (via Paul Cella):

Soldiers of the Hidden Imam (Timothy Garton Ash, 11/03/05, NY Review of Books)

The political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran is at once fiendishly complex and extremely simple. Most of the Iranians I met preferred to stress the complexity. The country has at least two governments at any one time: a semi-democratic formal state structure, now headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a religious-ideological command structure headed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There are numerous shifting formal and informal power centers, including political parties in parliament, ministries, rich religious foun- dations, the Revolutionary Guards, and the multimillion-man Basij militia, whose mobilization helped Ahmadinejad to get elected. There are also backroom ethnic or regional mafias, and numerous competing intelligence, security, and police agencies—eighteen of them according to one recent count. No wonder Iranian political scientists reach for terms like "polyarchy," "elective oligarchy," "semi-democracy," or "neopatrimonialism."

Yet the longer I was there, the more strongly I felt that the essence of this regime remains quite simple. At its core, the Islamic Republic is still an ideological dictatorship. Its central organizing principle can be summarized in four sentences: (1) There is only one God and Muhammad is his Prophet. (2) God knows best what is good for men and women. (3) The Islamic clergy, and especially the most learned among them, the jurists qualified to interpret Islamic law, know best what God wants. (4) In case of dispute among learned jurists, the Supreme Leader decides.

This is the system which its inventor, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, justified by radically reinterpreting the Islamic concept of velayat-e faqih, usually translated as the Guardianship of the Jurist. This system is not Islam; it is Khomeinism. It would not exist without that one old man, whose grim portrait still stares out at you everywhere in Iran, though now usually flanked by the bespectacled figure of his successor and epigone, the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. [...]

How can such a regime be transformed, or, as many still prefer to say, reformed? I heard the word "reform" innumerable times as I traveled around Iran. I soon realized that it meant several different things. First, there's an ideological debate among Islamic intellectuals, turning on what in the communist world used to be called "revisionism"—that is, attempts to revise the ideology on which the state is built. As the views of revisionists in, say, 1950s Poland were also part of a wider debate about international communism, so the views of these Iranian revisionists have significant implications for international Islam.

I was impressed by the liveliness of this debate. While many Iranians are clearly fed up with Islam being stuffed down their throats as a state religion, I found no sense that Islamic ideology is a dead issue, as, for example, communist ideology had become a dead issue in Central Europe by the 1980s. Far from it. In Khomeini's theological capital of Qom, now home to some two hundred Islamic think tanks and institutions of higher education, I met with a research group on Islamic political philosophy. Why should Islam not be compatible with a secular, liberal democratic state, I asked, as is increasingly the case in Turkey? "Turkey is not Qom," said Mohsen Rezvani, a young philosopher wearing the robes and turban of a mullah, to laughter around the table. Islam, Rezvani said, is "anthropologically, theologically, and epistemologically" incompatible with liberal democracy. Anthropologically, because liberal democracy is based on liberal individualism; theologically, because it excludes God from the public sphere; and epistemologically, because it is based on reason not faith. Then they handed me an issue of the Political Science Quarterly—not the American journal but their own Qom-made version. Here I read an English-language abstract of an admiring article by Rezvani about Leo Strauss.

"So you're a neoconservative!" I teased him.

Oh no, he replied, the American neoconservatives don't properly understand Leo Strauss. [...]

Back in Tehran, I met a most impressive Islamic revisionist, Professor Mohsen Kadivar, a smiling, learned, and courageous mullah. One reason the Iranian Islamic debate is so lively is that the Shiite tradition not only permits but encourages spirited disagreement between the followers of rival grand ayatollahs of the highest category, those who have earned the title marja-i taqlid, or "source of imitation." Professor Kadivar is a disciple of the Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who was to have been Khomeini's successor as Supreme Leader until the father of the revolution disinherited him and put him under house arrest in Qom.

A few years ago, Kadivar took the bold step of arguing that the Guardianship of the Jurist has no sound basis in the Koran or mainstream Islamic thought, and is incompatible with the essence of a true republic. He also questioned the Islamic rectitude of condemning people (e.g., Salman Rushdie) to death in their absence, and suggested in a newspaper interview that today's Iran reproduces characteristics of the Shah's monarchic rule: "People made the revolution so that they could make decisions, not so that decisions would be made for them." He paid for his intellectual honesty with eighteen months in prison. [...]

For someone who has studied the ways post-totalitarian or authoritarian dictatorships, whether in Europe, Latin America, or South Africa, have gradually become less oppressive states, and eventually democracies, the main question about Iran is therefore this: What forces inside its society might help to increase peaceful social pressure for gradual regime change?

Industrial workers in Iran have so far shown no signs of organizing themselves, as Poland's did in the Solidar-ity movement twenty-five years ago. Among farmers there is much rural unemployment and some discontent. In a sun-baked mountain village, I talked to shepherds who told me that half their fellow villagers were unemployed. Many came out to the fields at night to take drugs. Yet the main response to rural misery is to migrate to the towns. There they swell the numbers of the urban poor who, rather than contributing to a political opposition, are more likely to be recruited as thugs or mobilized in the streets by the regime's Basij militia.

What of the rich, Westernized business leaders? The ones I talked to are witheringly critical of the regime in private, but dependent on it for their businesses. Some have formed commercial partnerships with leading mullahs. They would probably be willing to support an opposition movement at the moment of decisive change, like the oligarchs in Serbia and Ukraine, but not before. Anyway, they themselves point out that most of the Iranian economy is still in the hands of the traditional merchants of the country's teeming bazaars, the bazaaris, who range from tiny stallholders to big-time export-import operators. In Iran, the bazaaris have traditionally been allies of the Islamic clergy, the ulama, and so far there are few signs of their changing sides.

Meanwhile, the regime has major assets for preserving its power. With oil at more than $60 a barrel as I write, its oil revenues have within six months covered the entire state budget for the current accounting year. The government can generously subsidize basic foodstuffs—bread, tea, sugar, rice— and keep the price of fuel extremely low for the country's manic drivers. When I was there, gasoline cost an astonishing thirty-five cents a gallon. A quarter of the workforce are state employees, dependent on the authorities for their jobs. The numerous security services are well provided for. Less than thirty years after an initially peaceful revolution that turned violent and oppressive, most people old enough to remember have little appetite for another revolution. And if the United States and Britain, the Great Satan and Perfidious Albion, try to increase the pressure from outside, Iran can make life more difficult for the foreign occupiers in the Shiite parts of Iraq, where the influence of the Islamic Republic continues to grow.

What, then, has this regime to fear? Only one thing, I conclude, but that a very big one: its own young people, the grandchildren of the revolution. [...]

The regime has spent twenty-five years trying to make these young Iranians deeply pro-Islamic, anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli. As a result, most of them are resentful of Islam (at least in its current, state-imposed form), rather pro-American, and have a friendly curiosity about Israel. One scholar, himself an Islamic reformist, suggested that Iran is now—under the hijab, so to speak—the most secular society in the Islamic world. Many also dream of life in America, sporting baseball caps that say, for example, "Harward [sic] Engineering School." Quite a few young Iranians even welcomed the invasion of Iraq, hoping it would bring freedom and democracy closer to them. Seeing how the US invasion has benefited the Shiites in southern Iraq, they joke that President George W. Bush is "the thirteenth imam."

These 45 million young people are the best hope there is of peaceful regime change in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their "soft power" could be more effective than forty-five divisions of the US Marines. One positive legacy of the eight years of Khatami's reformist presidency is that this generation has grown up with less fear than its predecessors. The students at Tehran University launched a large-scale protest in summer 1999. They will never forgive Khatami for allowing it to be suppressed. Each year since, a small number of them have tried to mark the anniversary with demonstrations, which have been broken up by the police. Repression is fierce: as I write, a well-known student leader has just been condemned to six years in prison. Yet the impression I got from those I talked to is that they intend to struggle on, perhaps with subtler and more inventive forms of protest.

The potential of what I came to think of as Young Persia is huge. These young Iranians are educated, angry, disillusioned, impatient, and when they leave college most of them will not find jobs appropriate to their training. Given time and the right external circumstances, they could take the lead in exerting the kind of organized social pressure that would allow —and require—the advocates of reform, even of transformation, to gain the upper hand inside the dual state.

Mr. Garton Ash seems to miss his own point along the way there. Since Khomeinism is inconsistent with Shi'ism and the ayatollahs are Shi'ites, one likely source of reform will be the ayatollahs themselves.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 21, 2005 4:14 PM

"Islam, Rezvani said, is "anthropologically, theologically, and epistemologically" incompatible with liberal democracy. Anthropologically, because liberal democracy is based on liberal individualism; theologically, because it excludes God from the public sphere; and epistemologically, because it is based on reason not faith." Target!

Posted by: Luciferous at October 21, 2005 4:49 PM


Going to school on the West like that gives them a huge advantage as they go forward, eh?

Posted by: oj at October 21, 2005 5:01 PM

There is no god but Marx and Lenin is his prophet. Maybe that's why the hard left and the Islamists get along so well - their organizational structure.

Posted by: Gideon at October 21, 2005 5:02 PM

This reflects something happening all over the globe which has been inadequately recognized. As life expectancy entends seemingly endlessly, and societies develop a demographic and political weighting more than ever before towards the old and against the young, we are seeing mass exploitation of the (getting fewer) young by the (getting more numerous) old on an unprecedented scale.

This underlies almost every major issue in (for example) developed countries, from social security reform to the sustainability and impact of the house price boom (huge net cash transfer from the young to the old) to the way young people in many countries (EU, Russia and many others) are declining to start families they don't feel they can afford to support. Many other social issues boil down to yet additional facet of the same phenomenon.

Explosions may indeed happen, but it's hard to say where and when, and in what order.

In the meantime it's a ludicrous joke to see affluent, educated old farts (my peers) going on endlessly about Marxist accounts of 'class' as the basis for understanding anything about politics. They have to deny that age has anything to do with exploitation only because of their need to insist that they are neither getting old nor the new exploiters. It's an act that becomes more unseemly every year.

Posted by: ZF at October 21, 2005 8:16 PM

ZF - I guess that proves that age doesn't lead to wisdom. What's your answer?

Posted by: tefta at October 22, 2005 8:47 AM

"So you're a neoconservative!" I teased him.

Oh no, he replied, the American neoconservatives don't properly understand Leo Strauss. [...]"

I was just getting a good start on my first cup of coffee when I saw this and damn near strangled. You need to put hazard warnings on some of these posts, OJ.

Posted by: Dan at October 22, 2005 11:17 AM