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By Sadegh Kabeer

"Religious despotism is most intransigent because a religious despot views his rule as not only his right but his duty." - Abdolkarim Soroush

As some may well be aware, the French philosopher Michel Foucault, at the request of one of Italy's biggest dailies, Corriere della Sera, was sent to Iran to cover the growing unrest and protests against the increasingly despotic regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. What Foucault found upon his arrival not only surprised him, but shook him to his very core. In an interview he later recalled:

"Among the things which characterize this revolutionary event, there is the fact that it has brought out - and few peoples in history have had this - an absolutely collective will. The collective will is a political myth with which jurists and political philosophers try to analyze or to justify institutions...nobody has ever seen the "collective will" and, personally, I thought that the collective will was like God, like the soul, something one would never encounter." [i]

Interestingly, and in some respect owing to Foucault's very own implicit Orientalism he attributed this phenomenon of the "collective will" to the "power keg called Islam". This however is only part of the story.

February last marked thirty years since Ayatollah Khomeini's triumphant return to Iran. The aged cleric at the time and ever since has evoked an entire panoply of charged reactions and emotions; from love and undying adulation to fear and hatred.  He bestowed to the world its first theocratic republic and a legacy which to this very day continues to be contested and replete with paradox and irony.

There is of course the perennially asked question of whether Iran did in fact experience a "religious" revolution? By all accounts the revolution took place off the back of a broad coalition, which incorporated the educated middle classes, Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, Marxist-Islamists, Liberals, Nationalists, politicized clergymen, shanty town dwellers, bazaar merchants and the pious masses. It was to quote the Oxford-based Iranshenas, Homa Katouzian, a "revolt of society against the state". [ii] The shah's sultanistic practices and abuse of arbitrary power (estebdad) left him without a single class to prop up and defend his regime. Even a vast swathe of the technocratic classes and western-educated intelligentsia, who were, at least in part, dependent on the regime for their way of life, turned against their erstwhile patron.

Iran's revolution was the last popular revolution of the twentieth century. While being a revolt against the dictatorship of the Shah, it was also a revolt against colonialism and western interference in Iranian domestic affairs. It is this aspect which gave the revolution its unmistakably modern flavor. While on the one hand the battle against estebdad and neo-colonialism were at the forefront of the revolutionary movement's concerns and preoccupations, on a less observed front, another battle was taking place upon the contested and fractious site of the Iranian Self.

The most famous and oft-cited work preceding the revolution that sought to grapple with this dilemma was the Iranian writer, Jalal Ale-Ahmad's short book, Gharbzadegi (1962/1341) or Westoxification. In his youth Ale-Ahmad had links to the communist Tudeh Party and later became a supporter of the nationalist Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, even defending the latter's house against hired hooligans and street-toughs. In an unprecedented move, Mossadeq nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and as a direct consequence brought down up himself and his country, the wrath of a declining British Empire. Britain had their economic interests to think about, and the Eisenhower administration's Cold War politics had little time for the democratic and nationalist aspirations of the developing world; it was decided Mossadeq would be overthrown.

After the American-backed coup which ousted Mossadeq, Ale-Ahmad witnessed not only the unabated rise of the Shah's autocracy, but also the penetration of western consumer culture and mores, sapping the strength of the traditions and customs of his forefathers, eroding Iranians' national integrity and sense of self. In order to combat this perceived cultural "malaise", Ale-Ahmad, much like the revolutionary Islamist thinker, Ali Shariati would later, urged a "return to self" (bazgasht beh khish). We shall return to this theme shortly.

Today inside Iran an altogether more perplexing variant of the tradition of estebdad continues. Iranian dissidents such as the journalist, Akbar Ganji, and cleric, Hojjat al-Islam Mohsen Kadivar (to name a few) have gone so far as to declare that a form of sultanism, albeit in theocratic garb, continues to stymie Iranians' hopes for a democratic future.[iii] Unlike the Shah's dictatorship in which absolute power was amassed in a single individual and then later consolidated with the formation of a one-party state in 1975, the situation inside Iran today is slightly more intricate and elusive. While undeniably the lion's share of power resides with the Rahbar or Supreme Leader and the various governmental, military and parastatal organs under his command, multiple sources of power prejudice against the kind of sultanism typical of the Shah's regime.

The Rahbar's rule is ideologically sanctified by Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of velayat-e faqih or Rule of the Jurisconsult, dissolving hundreds of years of tradition whereby it was said that "the order of the clerical community (ruhaniyyat) was in its disorder". This credo testified to the Shi'ite ulema's hitherto loose-knit organization, dispersed authority and independence from the central government. With the institutionalization of concept of velayat-e faqih, a state-sanctioned push toward a form of "cesaro-papism" was initiated,[iv] whereby a small group of politically active mullahs tried their utmost (with mixed results) to co-opt and corral their colleagues unresponsive to the call to think, work and teach in accordance with the precepts of the Islamic state and state-ideology. Iran is for all intents and purposes run by means of a precarious modus vivendi between a plethora of disparate power centers, leaving us with a power-structure approximating a brand of oligarchy. Though the entrenched factionalism of the Islamic Republic is by no means a mere reflection of this oligarchical structure, it can be interpreted as symptomatic of this deeper and more systemic problem. Power is never "total" even if the ruling establishment and its backers often find themselves inclined to pursue such a direction.

The notion of velayat-e faqih, first explicated in Khomeini's text, Hokumat-e Islami (Islamic Government) while exiled in Najaf, Iraq, contended that the senior clergy's right to rule was derived in virtue of their unparalleled knowledge and ability to interpret the Islamic canon: the Qur'an, Sunnah, and the Hadith of the infallible Imams. In short, the ulema's exclusive right to exercise ijtihad was translated by Ayatollah Khomeini into an exclusive right to political rule. Many have remarked on the homology of this politico-philosophical vision to the political vision explicated in Plato's Republic, whereby the Philosopher-Kings derive their right to rule in virtue of their wisdom and ability to espy the light of the transcendent, while the rest of us languish in an abject state of ignorance and insurmountable darkness.

Though the reality is in fact far more complicated than this brief sketch will allow us to convey, it is of little surprise that Iran's post-revolutionary disaffected intellectuals have since turned to the likes of Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt and Friedrich Nietzsche to craft a counter-hegemonic discourse capable of putting paid to the "total" claims made by powerful elements within Iran's ruling establishment. Moreover, it's important to note just how idiosyncratic and controversial Khomeini's justification of clerical rule was both at the time and continues to be to this very day. Not a single Grand Ayatollah at the time of the revolutionary upheavals put their weight behind the concept of velayat-e faqih, with some such as Grand Ayatollahs Kazem Shariatmadari and Abolqasem Kho'i openly dissenting.[v]

While it's crucial to note the elitist kernel of the Khomeinist creed of velayat-e faqih, it is also important that we pay heed to the fact that the man himself, somewhat paradoxically was also a populist, who spoke the common tongue and assimilated much of the rhetoric of the Left, famously aping Marx's Communist Manifesto, calling for "the oppressed of the world [to] unite".[vi] Rather than a mere fašade or instrumental manipulation en route to the total assumption of power - this populist dimension illustrates the contradictions which bedeviled the multiple imaginaries of Ayatollah Khomeini himself.[vii]

The recent history of the Islamic Republic has seen a whole raft of Reformist politicians and their sympathizers endeavor to augment and empower the regime's avowedly "popular" other half, enshrined in the Constitution and confirmed by means of regular elections at both the local and national levels. The problem which Reformists have come up against time and again is of course the unaccountable and highly conservative clerics who dominate half of the Guardian Council and the Judiciary. Their ability to vet prospective candidates, ban putatively "un-Islamic" legislation, and finally, their indifference/unwillingness to rein in vigilante groups threw a proverbial spanner in the works for much of the Reformist president, Mohammad Khatami's time in office.

Ironically, the logic of state power and the clerisy's involvement in the mundane affairs of running the country has sparked a rapid secularization of religion and religious knowledge. The exigency of finding "sacred" solutions to "mundane" problems, had the unintended consequence of transforming fiqh and the practice of Islamic jurisprudence into "contested knowledge", which ceased to be the exclusive domain of the seminaries (howze) of Qom, but rather civil society at large. This in toe, with what the French scholar, Olivier Roy, famously called "the failure of political Islam" has brought the Iranian intelligentsia, including those who were instrumental to the revolution's Islamicization, to the realization that "Islam is not the solution". In fact the original politicization of religion by Islamic intellectuals such as Ali Shariati, which at the time was thought absolutely indispensable to the mobilization the masses has since faded into the intellectual mis-en-scene - a relic of times past for which the Iranian public care little or have much time. In the Iran of the nineties and noughties we have a situation whereby Iran's leading roshanfekran such as Abdolkarim Soroush, Said Hajjarian and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabistari urge the necessity of a separation of Shi'ism's own figurative church and state, not only in order to save politics and galvanize Iranian democracy, but also to save religion itself. Paraphrasing Immanuel Kant we might say that Iran's new intellectuals found it necessary to "deny the politicization of religion in order to make room for faith".

The lexicon of Iran's new religious intellectuals fed off the discontent and anger felt by Iranian society at large and women in particular and was in turn itself readily translated into Iranian youth culture - the widespread decline in piety and move toward "private" as opposed to "public" understandings of spirituality. Much like their Catholic brethren before them they had come to the realization that religiosity imposed from above merely breeds more hypocrites! Individuals become obsessed by public displays of piety, hollow affirmations and ritual for ritual's sake, as opposed the inner content of prayer, meditation and communion with the Divine.

Shariati famously made the distinction between two incarnations of Shi'ism: the Safavid and the Alavi. While the former fastidiously obsesses about zaher (outer self) and the hollow pledges of piety to the political theology of the state, the latter emphasizes, batin (inner self) and thus the inner and profound dimensions of faith, stressed by the first of the Shi'ite Imams, Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. The Khomeinists have been on more than one occasion compared to their Safavid predecessors and the empty tautology whereby velayat-e faqih has emerged as the criterion of its own self-validation is proof of the latter-day decrepitude of a once revolutionary movement.

The desire for a form of freedom approximating Isaiah Berlin's "negative freedom" amongst young Iranians' whereby the personal sphere is vouchsafed and protected from state interference and meddling. This sentiment is more than understandable given that since the revolution not only the public, but the private realm has been politicized virtually in its entirety. 

Young Iranians, who make up the overwhelming majority of the population, desire a respite from being interpreted politically in spite of themselves. They want to shield themselves from a distinctly Iranian variation on the Sartrean "gaze" that reifies and fixes them in their designated social roles (as kinds of "ideal" and "revolutionary" archetypes) along with the concomitant expectations appropriate to such a role.

While Ale-Ahmad's critique of the west came out of a legitimate desire to counter the political, economic and cultural imperialism, which came to dominate so much of what he saw all around him, this same critique has since emerged as an ossified and ideological dogma, operating like a kind of litmus test of one's "fidelity to revolution principles".

Ale-Ahmad's life can be read as a parable of a trend, which also casts a dreary shadow over much of the history of the Arab world - the disillusionment with the promises once harbored by the secular ideologies which defined much of the 20th century, in the face of colonialism and western modernity. While Ale-Ahmad perceived "the West" as a rival and foe to be understood and thereby challenged, Ayatollah Khomeini, in a gesture that Nietzsche might well have expected, transformed the Islam/West divide into a matter of moral valuation. When the West and America in particular was transfigured into the "Great Satan" (Sheitan-e Bozorg), at least in the mind of the participants, the battle between East and West became one of Manichean and well-nigh cosmic proportions. Such a "reactive" rendering of Ahriman vs. Ahura Mazda obviously preceded Khomeini and will continue to spread its poison, and to propound the ignorance rampant on both sides of the ideological divide for the foreseeable future.

Much of the intellectual toil emanating from Iran since 1979 has sought to reconsider the metaphysical duality revived by the Imam. The realization that the West was never a closed totality party to a metaphysical essence in tandem with the cognizance of the irreparably fractured and incomplete nature of the Iranian Self has called into question the Manichean metaphysics of times past. There is no longer any "original" self to recuperate, rather "authenticity" has become a more humble matter of coming to terms with this fracture. Neither East, nor West, has ever been eternal.

About the author: Sadegh Kabeer is a doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Politics. Contact him at his blog

[i] Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press 2005). 253 

[ii] Homa Katouzian, Iranian History and Politics : The Dialectic of State and Society, Routledgecurzon/Bips Persian Studies Series (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).

[iii] Akbar Ganji, "The Latter-Day Sultan: Power and Politics in Iran," Foreign Affairs November/December (2008).

[iv] Abbas Amanat, Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shi'ism (London: I.B Tauris, 2009).

[v] Olivier Roy, "The Crisis of Religious Legitimacy in Iran," Middle East Journal 53, no. 2 (Spring 1999). Though unfortunately I don't have the space to go into this issue here, the question revolves around the constitutional amendments of 1989 prior to Khomeini's death when the link between velayat and marja'yyat was formally severed.

[vi] Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism : Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley ; London: University of California Press, 1993). 31

[vii] Daniel Brumberg, Reinventing Khomeini: The Struggle for Reform in Iran (Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2001). Chapter 1

... Payvand News - 03/16/09 ... --

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