THE EVOLVING ROLE OF RELIGION IN CONTEMPORARY IRANIAN POLITICS

A Special Iranfile Report


LONDON FIRST OF FEBRUARY (IPS) More than five years have now elapsed since the start of the “Second Khordad Reform Movement” which has transformed Iranian politics and brought many of the serious inadequacies of the current theocratic regime to the fore. Perhaps the most significant by product of that movement, an often-overlooked critical development, has been the re-emergence of the Iranian youth on the political scene, a feature that was conspicuously absent for much of the 1980's, the early 1990’s and in particular during the eight-year war with Iraq.

Today, there is little doubt that the new impetus for change in the country’s political environment is to a large extent a consequence of this re-emergence, a factor that has already manifested itself through the success of young Iranians in spearheading a reformist movement that has already succeeded in terminating the ascendancy of the religious hardliners in both the executive and legislative branches of the -albeit “still”- theocratic government of Iran.

Although, Iran’s fledgling student movement was brutally challenged and suppressed in July 1999, one can confidently claim that neither imprisonment nor any other form of punishment have succeeded to silence or detract these young Iranians from wishing to redefine many issues that bear enormous consequences for their future, the role of religion in society being one of them.
iring to nothing less than what has been historically demanded by their counterparts in free societies the world over, the youth of Iran no longer wish to remain constrained within the sterile intellectual atmosphere ordained for them by their discredited rulers who are perceived to have abused religion for the pursuit of their own unholy agendas.

As the recent student demonstrations have shown most vividly, there is no question that the majority of Iranians are supportive of an agenda that would allow social and political institutions to be liberated from the straight jacket and the strictures of an unpopular theocracy.

To this end, the promotion of secular government and the removal of the existing theocratic order that bears sole responsibility for the incredible amount of suffering which has been inflicted upon the Iranian people over the past 23 years, is perhaps the most significant requirement of Iran’s student movement, itself part and parcel of a general sentiment shared by an overwhelming majority of all Iranians.

On the subject of the evolving role of religion in Iran, it is perhaps appropriate to begin by acknowledging from the very outset the importance of the historical role which religion has enjoyed within Iranian national life, particularly since the time when Shi’ism was made the official religion of the country under Shah Esma’il I, when he founded the Safavid dynasty in 1501.

Thus for almost five centuries prior to the Islamic revolution of 1979, despite the diversity of cultures and religion within the Iranian society, the Shi’ite religious institution had come to enjoy a unique status which had allowed it the privilege of exercising a level of influence only matched by the Monarchy.

It thus follows what began with the victory of the Islamic Revolution and the establishment of a formal regime in which Shi’ite religious clerics took charge of the national agenda under the guise of a newly created Islamic Republic, a fact not without some precedence in Iran.

This point is further illustrated by simply looking back at the dominant role that was played by religious forces in the closing years of the Qajar Dynasty in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, history acknowledges the prominence of the role played by Islamic leaders in such key historical events as the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and later in Reza Shah’s decision not to opt for a modern republic following parliament’s removal of Ahmad Shah Qajar from the Iranian throne in 1925.

In both of these incidents, as with numerous others in all the preceding years, religious pressures exercised through powerful and influential religious leaders and institutions had played a significant part in influencing the course of events, while at the same time providing some form of a checks and balance on the actions of the various monarchs and their governments.

In historical terms, perhaps the only significant departure since 1979 has been the abolishment of the institution of Kingship that, along with religion, had a tradition of serving as one the two most important pillars of the Iranian State and society. As a result, what has consequently transpired since the establishment of an “Islamic Republic” in Iran is the emergence of a new setting in which political power has been wholly monopolised within the ranks of a new theocratic order.

Although it is essential to stress on separating religion from religious rule in Iran, there is no exaggeration in the suggestion that there is universal dissatisfaction with the unpopular theocracy that has undeniably lost the trust and support of the Iranian people.

Thirteen years after the death of Grand Ayatollah Roohollah Khomeini, the failure of Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’i to fill his shoes has never been more pronounced. Khameneh'i’s elevation to the lofty status of “Supreme Leaderis devoid of any religious validation and cannot be interpreted as anything other than a political move carefully orchestrated to preserve power and ensure continuity within a small band of religious leaders who clearly lack the support and benediction of their more senior and established colleagues.

Consequently, it is no surprise to notice that in the course of the past 13 years, while Khameneh’i has been engaged in a constant struggle to overcome his credibility gap, religion in Iranian politics has served as a mere veneer for providing a measure of legitimacy to such leaders as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami while at the same time denying wider political participation to quarters not directly associated with the ruling establishment.

This is clearly illustrated by the actions of the Council of the Guardians that “vets” and essentially eliminates candidates of different persuasions from seeking public office throughout the land.

Hence, while the regime boasts to the outside world about the number of presidential and parliamentary elections it has staged in the course of the last 23 years, it carefully and cleverly omits to mention the fact that elections held under this so-called system of “Islamic Democracy” or “Mardom Salari-e Dini”, as insisted upon by President Khatami, is nothing more than a sham that more closely resembles the types of unacceptable elections previously held in Apartheid South Africa where the overwhelming majority of the population were prevented from participating in the political process.

In fairness, one should make a necessary qualification by adding that in the current “Islamic Apartheid” system, which we have in Iran, only independent minded Iranians wishing to seek public office are barred from taking part in any election. Indeed, the regime employs various means to induce as many people as it can to participate in its well-orchestrated elections for purposes of rationalising and legitimising itself to the outside world.

This prevailing debate concerning religion and politics in contemporary Iran has been further influenced by new internal developments brought about by the advent of globalisation and the information revolution. These have greatly broadened the intellectual horizons of Iranian society by making the general population much less amenable to the whims and dictates of their political masters who have never allowed the tightly controlled mass media – specifically the national radio and television programs - to utter a slightest word of dissent from their officially prescribed positions.

In this context the impact of a number of Islamic scholars who had previously been active in the revolution and the development of the new Islamic republic has been significant. Their critical references to the insular dogmatism of the clergy and their questioning of broader philosophical justifications of an Islamic state governed by a so-called ‘Supreme Leader’ have been pivotal in setting the stage for the discussion of concepts such as secularism and democracy.

However, since the “Second Khordad Reform Movement” of 1997, while debates concerning the role of religion in Iran have advanced to a point that openly questions the legitimacy of the doctrine of “Velayat-e Faghih, it is also essential to point out that many prominent Islamic scholars such as Abdolkarim Soroush have taken the initiative of attempting to legitimise the concept of secularism within the context of Islamic discourse. Moreover, greatly perturbed by the efforts of the ruling establishment to alter centuries of tradition by their attempts to “nationalize religion” for purposes of advancing their own interests, clerics such as Hojjaatoleslam Mohsen Kadivar have been outspoken in calling for the need to preserve the independence of the clergy in face of an Islamic state.

While in earlier times, people such as Soroush and Kadivar may have been tolerated by the ruling establishment on the basis of their aim to promote the illusion of democracy, five years after the advent of Khatami and the roller coaster experiences of the state-sponsored reform movement, there is no longer any doubt of the widening gap between public expectations and what is actually on offer from the ruling theocracy.

As a result, there are no further illusions concerning Khatami and the prospects of his attempts to reconcile the regime’s version of “political Islam” with democracy. The most worrying aspect of this failure is the likelihood of an emerging scenario for bloodshed and violence in an atmosphere where opportunities for peaceful change are being constantly frustrated.

Khatami’s record over the past five years clearly illustrates a failure to enlist his initial popularity to broaden the political franchise by promoting a general milieu in which new alliances encompassing all political forces committed to non-violence would have been encouraged to engage with technocratic elements whose help he might have been able to enlist for purposes of reviving Iran’s ailing economy and rebuilding the country’s damaged relations with the outside world.

Consequently, the struggle for power in Iran has today been narrowed down to a competition between forces seeking to promote change or reform within or beyond the current religious structures of the state.

There is no longer an “internal or external” divide since many of the forces within the country or in exile have made a choice to align themselves with one of these options irrespective of where they happen to be located. Any failure on the part of President Khatami to get the full powers he has recently sought for the enhancement of his position- and in particular the attempt to curb the vetting powers of the Council of the Guardians - will further enhance the position of those seeking solutions that go beyond the confines of a system based on the discredited concept of “Velayate-Fagih”’ which has been “enshrined” in the current constitution.

In such a scenario, it will ultimately prove difficult to differentiate between Khatami, the hard-line clerics or those reformers wishing to implement change while maintaining the overall structures of the current theocracy, since neither of them are in line with the general ethos of a population that is seeking to secularise and ‘truly’ democratise the state.

For an Iranian public that is impatient for change, it is clear that the IRI leadership is both unwilling and unable to deliver the types of reforms that can begin to address their needs. Unlike the late Shah who in the autumn of 1978 publicly acknowledged that he had - albeit much too late - “heard the call of the revolution”, the current clerical leadership refuses to budge from its position of intransigence, fearing that any real concessions will ultimately lead to the dismantlement of a self serving political system that has consistently promoted its own vested interests in preference to that of the Iranian nation.

But this failure to listen to what people have said repeatedly in elections since 1997, along with the Islamic regime’s determination to silence any dissent, cannot prevent the Iranian people’s determined march towards a better future in a more progressive society. ENDS IRAN AND RELIGION 2203

Editor’s note
: Iranfile is a bi-monthly publication, edited in London by Dr. Mehrdad Khonsari, a former Iranian diplomat, analysing the political, social and economic situation in Iran. The above article was published in Iranfile’s latest issue. Highlights are by IPS.