Iran's fragile fault lines.
THE WAR IN Iraq has been both a blessing and a curse for neighboring Iran. On the one hand, the conservative clerics, grappling to retain their hold on power, should applaud the American "Great Satan" for removing Iran's two most menacing enemies--the Taliban to the east and Saddam Hussein to the west. Moreover, in the face of growing domestic dissent, the war has enabled and justified a conservative crackdown to preserve the facade of clerical unity. In essence, the Iranian government has used the war to its advantage--to bolster its international image by cooperating with the U.S. presence in Iraq while also protecting itself on the home front. On the other hand, the liberation of Iraq, especially the Shia sanctuaries of Najaf and Karbala, poses a challenge to the Iranian clerics who have reigned from Iran's holy city of Qom since the 1979 Islamic revolution and since Saddam Hussein's subsequent suppression of the Iraqi Shia. Prior to the revolution, Najaf--which houses the shrine of Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam and first imam of Shia Islam--was the center of Shiite learning in the Muslim world. Besides being a Shia shrine of significance, the city is also the site from which the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini criticized the shah throughout the 1960s and 1970s. With Najaf liberated, Iraqi Shia could challenge and reclaim the clerical potency lost to the Qom school. More menacing for the Iranian government, though, is the fear that Najaf could become another place of exile or escape for Iranian clerics who have remained silently opposed to the Islamic theocracy.
These recent developments coincide with the timely book, Answering to God: Faith and Freedom in Twenty-First-Century Iran, by Geneive Abdo and Jonathan Lyons. This husband-and-wife journalist team moved to Iran in 1998 at the apex of the budding reform movement. It comes as no surprise that, as the only American journalists to live in Iran since the revolution and after conducting "hundreds" of interviews over the course of their three-year stint, Abdo and Lyons claim they were forced to "flee" to avoid prosecution in 2001. Despite the controversy surrounding their departure from Iran, Answering to God has an interesting message that runs counter to that of the overly exuberant Western media: The reform movement in Iran is neither monolithic nor united in its push for political change, nor is it on the brink of facilitating another revolution. In fact, whereas the 1979 revolution was a product of 30 to 40 years of what the scholar Hamid Dabashi calls a "theology of discontent," the restlessness brewing in Iran today is the result of failed revolutionary goals and social frustrations--"the failure of the preceding generation," as Abdo and Lyons put it, "to realize the revolution's full potential."
This disillusionment uncovered by Abdo and Lyons took 20 years to be heard, let alone to be translated into a "reform" movement. Khomeini and his co-conspirators were successful in consolidating their power while simultaneously distracting the population with the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and the revolutionary terminology of "neither East nor West." Amidst the martyr's crusade and international isolation, Khomeini "create[d] a theocracy by stealth." Even today, the country continues to operate within a revolutionary paradigm, with ideological rhetoric and revolutionary symbolism still ominously penetrating the personal sphere through television, newspapers, billboards, and fiery Friday sermons. Through the haze of these diversions, what remains clear is that the clerics are still trying to blame the failures of their revolution on outside forces. The glaring reality is that, having shunned the Great Satan (the United States), the little Satan (Israel), and the former Soviet Union, the mullahs have no one to blame for their failures but themselves. It is against this backdrop that President Mohammad Khatami, the white horse progressive candidate, was elected in 1997. In this environment of reform fever Abdo and Lyons sought to immerse themselves.
They did just that, but what they unearthed in their investigative reporting challenged the news of a "Tehran spring." Indeed, they found a revolution "devouring its young" while struggling to perpetuate a veneer of unity. What was originally perceived to be a universal reform movement was actually a divided assembly of factions coming together under a reformist umbrella. These factions consisted of students, intellectuals, and clerics seeking diverse forms of political change through a host of different means. As Abdo and Lyons discovered, the reform movement was allowed to prosper only to foster hope and promise among the Iranian youth, who comprise 50 percent of the population. And hope did in fact spring as newspapers flourished and a critical dialogue blossomed throughout the universities and teahouses of Tehran. Ironically, the leaders of such discussions were once revolutionaries themselves, having adamantly supported Khomeini, having participated in the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis, and even having fought in the Iran-Iraq war. They did not partake in criticism during these war-torn consolidation years because they maintained a profound faith in and respect for Khomeini's judgment. However, even the infallible Imam Khomeini proved incapable of delivering victory. For these reformists a turning point emerged where "the bitter realities of the war exposed the ambiguities and contradictions in the Islamic system they had left behind." For a whole generation of activists and thinkers, the last years of the war made them rethink things, helping them to accept reformist ideas: "Iran's forces showed the utmost courage in the war to ensure victory, but there was no victory. We had had absolute belief in our own will and determination. We thought we could change the world and shape it, like putty in our hands. The war showed there was much that was outside the reach of our will." From the disappointment of defeat began the dialogue towards a democratic imperative.
IT IS HERE that Abdo and Lyons provide a significant contribution. Throughout the book they recount their discussions with important contemporary challengers to the clerical regime. Setting aside their anecdotal commentary, these conversations shed light on the current Iranian predicament: the struggle of a people to translate their desire for political reform into a reality. Indeed, that many of the regime's detractors are members of the clerical establishment themselves reveals that opposition is no longer limited to the silent majority. In fact, as revealed by Abdo and Lyons, in this reform milieu, students, mullahs, and intellectuals alike have expressed their distaste for the absolute, undemocratic nature of the velayat-e-faqih, the "Guardianship of the Supreme Jurisprudent" (or "rule by Islamic jurists") created by Khomeini in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution.
Among the many figures featured in the book is Abdollah Nouri. A young reformist cleric, former interior minister under President Khatami, and considered to be Iran's contemporary "Socrates," Nouri has been among the most vocal challengers of the Islamic regime. He has questioned, "How is it possible to give priority to the opinion of one person [the supreme leader] or a few personas or a small social group [the clerical class] over the opinion and vote of all of the majority of the people? This is the highest form of despotism and its ugliest face." His punishment for this defection was a 20-month prison term.
More interesting is the critique of Grand Ayatollah Ali Hossein Montazeri, placed under house arrest from 1997 to 2002 for disparaging Khomeini's successor, Ali Khamenei. He argues that "the notion of Islamic government ha[s] been perverted at the expense of popular sovereignty. Supreme clerical rule ha[s] become a cover for religious and political despotism." Montazeri is renowned for his commentary on the 1989 constitutional amendment withdrawing the marja-i-taqlid requirement for the supreme leader. (A marja-i-taqlid is the highest "source of emulation" within the Shia religious community.) In removing this requisite, Khamenei, who is not a marja-i-taqlid, was able to assume the position of the faqih after Khomeini's death. According to Montazeri, adjusting the constitution in this way went counter to the notion of Islamic democracy, in which a marja-i-taqlid would ascend to the esteemed position only after years of theological study as well as with the support of the community. For Montazeri, the direct election of the faqih by the clerical community would reinstate its lost legitimacy.
Mohsen Kadivar, a modernist theologian also imprisoned for his vocal opposition, is another profiled in the text. Echoing the prose of Montazeri and also arguing that the revolution was designed to bring about freedom, Kadivar has disparaged the role of the faqih for being antithetical to Shia Islam as well as for being antidemocratic. "These two types of governments [democracy and supreme clerical rule], if their principles are to apply in reality and not only in theory, are incompatible. They are contradictory." With the institution of the faqih, the freedom desired by the people was supplanted by authoritarian rule, ultimately negating the goals of the revolution. Kadivar's indictment of the faqih goes back to the Koran and Hadith, according to which, he suggests, there is no support for an institution of supreme clerical rule. He equates the notion of the faqih to the atavistic Iranian monarchical tradition that, despite an Islamic revolution, has yet to be disbanded. In essence, this culture of kingship has been continued even though the crown was replaced with a clerical turban. This, in turn, explains the success and popularity of Ayatollah Khomeini and even President Khatami, despite the lack of freedom, as Iranians have responded to their leaders with the same naive deference and admiration seen in the days of the shahs. Some have argued that a tangible evolution in Iranian politics would require a profound change in Iran's political culture, one that would incorporate the notion of political pluralism over that of political despotism.
That hope, for now, has been quashed. President Khatami, elected on the promise of reform, has had no choice but to yield to the clerical establishment. Having witnessed the continued arrests and jailings of his colleagues, an assassination attempt on Saeed Hajjarian (a member of Khatami's inner circle), the murders of prominent intellectuals, the repeated closures of reformist press dailies, and the frequent crackdowns on student protests, Khatami has been backed into a corner. Moreover, his authority as delineated in article 121 of the constitution to "safeguard the constitution, uphold the truth, distribute justice, protect the freedoms of individuals and the rights of the nation" has been neutralized. The conservative clerics, while granting the will of the people in the reformist elections of the president and parliament, continue to dominate the judiciary, the Council of Guardians, and the state-run agencies--leaving Khatami politically paralyzed. As correctly suggested by Abdo and Lyons, "the president's efforts to foster an independent press, promote religious tolerance and political pluralism, and introduce the rule of law and civil society have all failed because the underlying theological dispute over the nature of religious and political authority has yet to be resolved."
It is in this uncertain political environment that Abdo and Lyons were expelled for interviewing the jailed reform journalist Akbar Ganji. Amidst the internal pressures, the latter's blaring criticism proved to be too much for the Khatami camp to bear, leaving Abdo and Lyons as victims of the reformers' vulnerability within the Islamic system. In essence, Abdo and Lyons were guilty. They had exposed the fractured fault lines of the revolution not only on the conservative side, but also among the reformists. They had been invited in as guests of the reformers and then in gratitude had bitten the hand that fed them.
FROM THIS expose, what becomes evident is that there will likely be no more revolutionary earthquakes in Iran. The impassioned demonstrations and student frustrations are aftershocks that, with time and perseverance, will eventually lead to a new political consensus and pluralist polity. What shape the future government will hold is uncertain. And Abdo and Lyons discuss only the Islamic democratic option, neglecting the entire debate around a secular democratic alternative. Evidently, though, this current "reform" movement is neither cohesive nor widespread enough to effect radical or immediate change. The reformist factions remain at odds over their disparate political visions. This is why Abdo and Lyons deem the opposition movement "embryonic."
Ultimately, however, there is no doubt that change will come for the Iranian people. As Abdo and Lyons have shown, even clerical opposition runs in tandem with the rigid nature of the regime. They have revealed that it is not only the average Iranian worker, bazaari, or student who struggles to survive in the midst of these theocratic contradictions, but also a clerical class that feels stifled by the hypocritical quality of the political system. It is this clerical opposition, the challenge from within, that poses the greatest threat. Hence the need for silence, the need to control the press, the need to contain the idealistic student groups, the need to maintain domestic unity as the American shadow ominously looms on the horizon. The conservatives in power can muffle this opposition only for so long. With time and increased momentum, the fault lines will continue to grow and, with them, so will the hope of achieving the dream of freedom.
Sanam Vakil is a doctoral candidate in Middle East Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
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|Title Annotation:||Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in Twenty-First-Century Iran|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2003|
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