The Idea Of An Islamic Republic

Andrew Sullivan posted an email from a reader that I think is interesting but wrong. Its author disagrees with the idea that Mousavi and his followers are essentially trying to restore the Islamic Republic. He writes: “Mousavi, insofar as he is a vessel of Iranian contempt for and rage at Khamenei, is the undoing of the 1979 revolution, not its restoration.” Partly this is because the author thinks that the Islamic Republic is identical with “the institutions created after 1979”. I wouldn’t describe any change to those institutions as the abandonment of the Islamic Republic, but I suppose that if one did, one might argue that that might be Mousavi’s goal, though he would not describe it that way.

However, the author also says this:

“In this contest, there is a claim on both sides for the spirit of the 1979 revolution. But there is also a recognition, I think for Mousavi, that the Islamicness of the Islamic Republic has led Iran to this depraved state of affairs.”

I am not privy to Mousavi’s innermost thoughts, but it would surprise me if this were true of him or of most of his followers. If you believe in Islam, the problem cannot be that the Islamic Republic is too Islamic. It has to be something else — for instance, that the Islamic Republic is insufficiently Islamic, not in the sense of not having enough mullahs in positions of power, but in the sense of not being set up in the way that a proper understanding of Islam would suggest.

What is true, I think, is that the current events in Islam will force a reexamination of the theological underpinnings of the Islamic Republic.

I am not a scholar of Islam, so take what I say with caution (and please feel free to correct my errors), but my understanding is that those underpinnings turn on Ayatollah Khomeini’s novel reading of the concept of the Guardianship of Jurists (velayat-e faqih). As I understand it, Islamic jurists (in Shi’a Islam) are normally thought to have guardianship over various rather non-contentious things: things that are plainly within their purview (e.g., religious trusts), people who are plainly in need of guardians (orphans, the insane), and so forth.

But within orthodox Shi’a theology, they are not supposed to have guardianship over whole countries. The idea that they should was an innovation of Ayatollah Khomeini’s, and in theology, innovation is generally not seen as a good thing. Jonathan Lyons:

“Despite its formal name — the Islamic Republic of Iran — the political system now overseen by Ali Khamenei has few supporters among the recognized grand ayatollahs and their large circle of clerical fellow-travellers. In traditional Shi’ite thought, legitimate political authority may be exercised only by the line of the Holy Imams, the last of whom went into hiding to escape the agents of the rival Sunni caliphs and has not been heard from since 941. The return of the Hidden Imam, which will usher in an era of perfect peace and justice on earth, is eagerly awaited by all believers. Until then, all political power is seen as corrupt and corrupting by its very nature, and as such it must be avoided whenever possible.

Historically, this has served the Shi’ite clergy well, forging a close bond with the people, as intercessors with the state authorities at times of acute crisis, a privileged and influential position only rarely achieved by their Sunni counterparts. Yet, it stands in direct opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical religious notion of direct clerical rule and has been the source of underlying tensions within the clerical class for three decades. The dirty little secret of the Islamic Republic is the fact that it is seen as illegitimate by huge swathes of the traditional Shi’ite clergy.”

Thus, Shi’a theology contains plenty of materials with which to construct an argument that the Islamic Republic should be restructured. I expect that whether or not Mousavi and his supporters succeed, these arguments will be made. However, I do not expect them to take the form of arguments to the effect that politics would be better off without religion — to which the obvious answer, for the faithful, is: so much the worse for politics. Instead, I expect two kinds of arguments: first, that the Islamic Republic is damaging to Islam, and second, that the idea that even the most learned and saintly jurist can escape the temptations of power is mistaken.

As to the first: certain forms of damage are obvious. At times, it would be awfully convenient if Islam said something it does not say, or gave some power it does not give to those jurists who exercise guardianship. When that happens, the temptation to simply distort Islam is hard to resist. For instance, originally, Iran’s odd power structure made it hard to make coherent policy. As a result (pdf):

“In January 1987 Khomeini declared the principle of the “Absolute Rule of the Jurist” (velayet-e motlaqeh faqih). According to this concept, the decisions taken in the interest of the Islamic state by the Supreme Leader have precedence over religious rules, even over such fundamental commandments as those of prayer, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. In the end, practical constraints forced Khomeini to allow reasons of state to take precedence over religion — this was a policy that he had criticized in the time of the Shah, and he had hoped to eliminate it by introducing a theocracy in which the highest political and religious authority would be combined in just one person.”

On a much smaller scale, consider the fact that Khamenei was made an Ayatollah for political reasons, even though, by all accounts, he lacked the relevant scholarly credentials. This is the corruption of a serious religious office, and it was done because politics, not religion, demanded it.

Besides that, to anyone who believes that the election results are fraudulent, the actions of the Iranian government are bringing discredit to Islam. The government is lying. It is ordering its militias to murder people. And it is doing so in the name of Islam. Imagine how this would seem to a devout Muslim who thinks the election was stolen: it would be as though the hierarchy of the Catholic Church had come down on the side of its pedophile priests and pronounced them holy. Catholics and non-Catholics can see the harm those priests did to the children they molested. But if you were a Catholic who loved God and the Church, you would find the idea that the Church sided with the priests horrifying in an additional way, and you would fear for the people whose faith might be destroyed.

As to the second argument (that even the most learned and saintly jurist cannot escape the temptations of power): Iran claims to have an Islamic government, ruled according to the principles set out in the Qur’an. But that claim relies on the assumption that you can identify “a government ruled according to Islam” with “a government ruled according to Islam, as understood by the Supreme Leader.” And that, in turn, has to rely on the idea that the Supreme Leader will be, not infallible, but at least capable of discerning the right and holy thing to do more often than anyone else. Possibly he is an instrument of God, and will be guided by him; possibly his learning will enable him to see what faith requires at a given time; but one way or the other, he must be worthy of the position he has been given, and worthy of it in religious terms.

As long as that assumption stands, the government of Iran can command the allegiance that people think they owe to Islam itself. But if it falls, the government turns into one more repressive dictatorship, one that happens to be run by clerics rather than generals. There have, of course, been all sorts of reasons to question that assumption in the past. But the events of the last ten days have, I think, made it untenable for anyone who thinks the election was stolen, and probably for some who think it wasn’t, but who nonetheless find the government’s actions since the election appalling.

If Iranians no longer regard the Supreme Leader as capable of authoritatively discerning what Islam requires in matters of state, that obviously calls into question the foundations of the Islamic Republic. But it might do so in several ways, some of which are more interesting than others.

The least radical would be to suggest the possibility that Iran now has the wrong Supreme Leader. This would, of course, raise the question: how did this happen? Presumably there would have to be something wrong with the process by which the Supreme Leader was selected; how might that process be modified to prevent any similar error in the future?

The more interesting one would be to suggest the possibility either that no one could play the role of the Supreme Leader, or that while some saint somewhere might be able to play that role, there is no reason to think that the person actually appointed as Supreme Leader will be that person. (Compare: someone might be able to be a genuinely just and wise monarch, but there is no reason to think that the person who actually ascends the throne will be that person.)

In that case, I think, both concern for your country and concern for Islam would lead you to jettison the idea of having a Supreme Leader at all, and to try to work out what other arrangement might best enable Muslims to have a state that genuinely lived up to Islamic principles. In either case, people who are committed to the idea of having an Islamic state will have to confront the fact that their leaders and those who select them are fallible human beings whose views about what Islam requires cannot just be presumed to be correct.

As I noted above, this is in line with orthodox Shi’a theology, which (as I understand it) holds that political power is inherently corrupting, and that a perfectly Islamic government must await the return of the Mahdi. Khomeini abandoned this view, and held that Islamic jurists could, essentially, speak for the Mahdi and act as his agents until his return. Ahmedinejad reportedly believes that the Mahdi guides his policies. If you’re a Muslim and you conclude that this is wrong, it is not just an error, but blasphemy.

If, as seems likely, a significant number of Iranian Muslims conclude that the Supreme Leader does not speak for God, then they will have to rethink the basis of their government, whoever prevails in the struggle that’s going on at present. And they will not do so because they have concluded that their government is “too Islamic”, but because they conclude that at least until the return of the Mahdi, some human beings might be wiser than others, but none should arrogate to himself the right to speak for God.

I have no idea what will come of this rethinking, but I suspect it will be both very important and fascinating.