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Book: Answering only to God: Faith and Freedom in Twenty-First-Century Iran

By Ali Moayedian

Authors: Geneive Abdo and Jonathan Lyons
ISBN: 0-8050-7299-3
Publisher: Henry Holts and Company, New York

As the authors put it: "We had come to Iran to document the true essence of the country's struggle to be both an Islamic state and a genuine republic." And from their arrival in June 1998 until their abrupt and controversial departure in December 2000, Geneive Abdo and Jonathan Lyons, who are husband and wife, seem to have left no stones unturned in reaching their goal!

Answering Only to God:
Faith and Freedom in Twenty-First-Century Iran

Abdo's official mission was to report for the British newspaper Guardian. Lyons' was to reopen the Reuters Tehran bureau which had been closed 14 years earlier by Iranian officials. But Abdo and Lyons had a bigger unstated mission: "We had immersed ourselves over the course of a decade in the world of Islam, first in Transcaucasian and Central Asian regions of the Soviet Union - from Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan - then in Cairo, Ankara, and Istanbul, with occasional forays into Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Algeria, and Afghanistan." And now it was Iran's turn: "Unlike Egypt, where society has fueled the Islamic revival from the bottom up, Iran's revolution set in motion a profound religious transformation from the top down."

The authors main quest in Iran was finding answers to the question: "Can democracy exist within the Islamic Republic of Iran?" And as this is no simple question to answer, during a span of three years, Abdo and Lyons try to pull a mission impossible; and even if they may not have the absolute answers, they have certainly come very close. To reach their answers, the authors have conducted countless hours of interviews with Iranians belonging to different factions and generations: clerics, politicians, journalists, lawyers, and students, etc; and they have complimented it with extensive research on the Islam's Shiite sect, Iranian politics, student movement, press, religious sentiments and so on.

The book provides detailed accounts of Shiite world and how it has evolved specially in the last century, including its two competing tendencies Usuli and Akhbari: "Usulis supported the system of religious interpretations and advanced the role of the mojtaheds as interpreters of the faith, ensuring their direct influence upon the believers. The Akhbaris challenged the position of mojtaheds and the requirement that their followers emulate their readings of the faith." This is followed by accounts of the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Shiites role and the rise of the clerics, lead by Ayatollah Khomeini, to power, the adaptation of an Islamic constitution, the implementation of supreme rule, the rise of Ayatollah Khamenei to the position of supreme ruler, the birth of reformation movement after the end of Iran-Iraq war, election of Khatami to the post of president, the reform press, and so on. The revolution brought with itself a profound change in the role of the Shiite clerics in Iran antagonizing and disenchanting its traditionally devote followers who disapprove of the clerics policies as a governing force. This has also deepened the divisions within the clerics: "The result is a holy war among the three distinct clerical factions: modernists who believe the Islamic Republic has become too much of theocracy and too little of a republic and thus is no longer accountable to the people; traditionalists who advocate a quietist role for the clergy and believe any role for theologians in politics undermines the principles of Shiite Islam; and hard-liners, the "political mullahs" around Khamenei who today control state affairs and believe there is no real role for the people in governing the state."

A thorough analysis of the new Iran's constitution is presented in the chapter "The shadow of God." In order to track the roots of the new constitution, the authors have tracked down some of the people in the group of five liberals responsible with the draft constitution. The interviews with Ahmad Sadr Hajj Seyyed Javadi and Nasser Katouzian shed light on how the draft constitution was formulated and was almost approved: "The Imam and the few of Grand Ayatollahs had seen it, read it, and approved of it, despite their wishing to make a few insignificant improvements." But when Khomeini asked Bazargan to put the draft constitution to a "yes" or "no" vote, Bazargan refused: "He reminded Khomeini that the Freedom Movement had promised he people that any new constitution would go before an elected Constituent Assembly and then be put to a national referendum." And while Bazargan got his wishes, the approval of the draft constitution wasn't one of them. The final constitution which only had traces of the original draft constitution, was approved by an Assembly of Experts stuffed with hand-picked clerics, and this solidified the rule of Shiite clerics and instituted velayat-e faqih (supreme rule) leaving no room for the rule of the people: "When we arrived in Tehran in June 1998, we found President Khatami confined already in the straight-jacket of Iranian constitution."

Another chapter discusses in great length the establishment of the reform movement in Iran and the new press revolution, which culminated in the election of Khatami as president. Khatami's election campaign and his surprise landslide victory are followed step by step. This provides valuable insight about the whole reform process, the different players in the field and their visions for the reform movement and the sacrifices they are willing to make. One of the interesting things the authors have done in regards to the reformists and other key individuals mentioned in the book is tracing their family background and upbringings the aim of presenting a more complete picture of them, their thought process and evolution. For example, the authors have traveled to Yazd, the birthplace of Khatami, and spend time with his family, and they have visited the village where Ayatollah Sanei grew up. Also examined very closely are the lives of Ayatollah Montazeri, Mohsen Kadivar, etc.

A chapter is devoted to the young generation of Iran and specially the student movement from its inception to present. The July 1999 student protests (which the authors were personally witness to), the students' demands, their bloody suppression by the security and militant forces, and their eventual disillusionment with President Khatami are all analyzed and covered in depth. In particular the role of Ayatollah Khamenei in ordering the violent suppression of the students and that of president Khatami in failing to protect them are highlighted.

Another chapter titled "Every Day Is Ashura" examines the significance of martyrdom of Imam Hussein in Karbala: "There was no religious aspect to Shiism prior to 680.For Shiism, Karbala represents the central point in their beliefs, the climax of a divine plan of salvation." It is in this context, that the authors discuss the deeply religious beliefs of the Iranians and how they are exploited by the clerics: "Despite their theological misgivings, the ruling clerics have exploited the Ashura tradition for their own ends, using them to bolster a national consensus that the struggle between Iran and the rest of the world must continue." But also highlighted is the fact that some of the practices of the devote Shiites are actually at odds with the clerics' thinking: "The popular religious experience of Karbala.stands in sharp contrast to the postrevolutionary phenomenon - in clear contravention of the spirit and past practice of centuries of Shiite Islam - of the emerging official interpretation of the faith characterized by centralized authority, state control, and an enforced orthodoxy." Also discussed in this chapter are the significance of alam which is carried during Ashura processions, and the popular religious traditions of tazieh and sofreh looking at the history of these along with their transformations over time.

The final chapter further examines the reform: "For most of the leaders of the mainstream reform movement, the campaign for political and social change turned out to be little more than a rhetorical device to carry them to their true destination, a seat at the table of power." And the prospects of democracy in Iran: "In Iran, the notions of imminent onset of democratic liberalism were folly from the outset, given the nations own centuries-old history of authoritarianism, which is deeply embedded both within the state and the individual." One of the interesting things discussed here is how the reformists are also considered insiders, until they cross a red line that is, and that's when they become outsiders and disowned by the reformists loyal to the system. And this explains why many jailed dissidents like Akbar Ganji, Abdollah Nouri, and student protesters, are left on their own. And of course Abdo and Lyons see themselves as becoming outsiders once they conducted a secret and controversial interview with the jailed reformist Akbar Ganji. And since they were no longer welcome in Iran, they had to abruptly leave Iran.

Geneive Abdo and Jonathan Lyons
Photo Credit: Chris Usher/Apix

Perhaps the following paragraphs best summarizes the answers Abdo and Lyons were looking during their three-year-stay in Iran: "The Iran we left behind was not at all that different from the Iran that had welcomed us almost three years earlier. The Khatami experiment, just starting to build momentum in 1998, had reached a dead end.". "We soon recognized this deadlock would persist as long as the Islamic Republic of Iran failed to grapple with the underlying religious dispute set in motion at its birth more than two decades ago: Is it an Islamic state ruled by clerics or a republic ruled by the people?"

All in all, this is an excellent book for gaining a good insight into the realm of Iranian religious, politics, and society. In a world where we are bombarded with simple-minded, superficial, and careless analysis of events and people, it is refreshing to see a book published based on years of hard work and research!

Buy the book from Amazon:

Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in Twenty-First-Century Iran

Related book by Genieve Abdo:

No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam

... Payvand News - 3/11/03 ... --

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