Jonathan Lyons: Spectre of Khomeini as religious radical

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[Jonathan Lyons, Reuters Tehran bureau chief from 1998-2001, is the co-author of Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in 21st-Century Iran. His latest book, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, was published earlier this year by Bloomsbury Press.]

The Western world knows the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a political radical, the militant revolutionary who overthrew the U.S.-backed shah in 1979 and established an Islamic state shortly thereafter.

But it is as a religious radical that Khomeini should go down in history, for he turned one thousand years of Shi’ite thought and practice on its head with the creation of his Islamic republic. In doing so, he undercut the standing and stature of Iran’s learned clerical class, and undermined – perhaps fatally – the historic role of the most senior clerics as counterweights to a traditionally heavy-handed Iranian state.

Today, the damage Khomeini inflicted on the Shi’ite religious institution is on full display, as the system he left behind on his death in 1989 lurches from internal crisis to internal crisis, seemingly unable to right itself but not suffering enough from self-inflicted wounds to collapse and expire.

Throughout much of its history, the Shi’ite clergy have abstained from direct intervention in political life, which by definition is both a corrupt and a corrupting force. Shi’ites await the promised return of the missing Twelfth Imam to rule a world of perfect peace and justice, but until that time no political authority is seen as fully legitimate.

Traditionally, the clergy stepped in only when they felt the vital interests of the Muslim community of believers was at stake, addressed the shortcomings of the political leadership, and then returned to their seminaries, their lectures, and their sacred texts. This gave the clerics a decided moral authority, as well as an independence from the state, that had served them well for centuries.

Yet, Khomeini undercut all that, first in defense of his revolutionary vision, and then in preparation for the succession after his death. He did so, he told his supporters, in the name of maslahat, or expediency, which provided a religious justification for political policies he believed were necessary.

Among the most influential of opponents to Khomeini’s revolutionary project of placing his new republic under the direct leadership of a senior cleric – in this case, himself – were his fellow grand ayatollahs, men who had attained the highest levels of religious learning and popular support and acclaim. And the most important among them was Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Kazem Shariat-Madari, based in Tabriz, in Iran’s Azeri region.

Shariat-Madari, then the leading ayatollah resident in Iran, was adament: the clergy should not exercise political power as this could only lead to religious tyranny. The grand ayatollah had sided with the revolution against the shah, but he was not prepared to see the clerics in government. This was, of course, in perfect keeping with Shi’ite political theory: the clerics had united to defeat the pro-Western shah as a threat to the Muslim faithful; but their work was now done and it was time to withdraw and leave the dirty work of governance to others.

Khomeini was furious and he unleashed his militant supporters on his rival in December 1979, provoking pitched battles in the streets of Tabriz. Once the “political mullahs” backing Khomeini were in control, the leader of the revolution undertook a punitive measure that no imperial shah had ever dared: he engineered the stripping of Shariat-Madari’s clerical rank and privileges.

In traditional practice, the rank of Grand Ayatollah – formally, the marja-e taqlid, or a source of emulation for others to follow – requires both the respect of one’s fellow clerics and the acclaim of believers, each of whom paid their religious taxes to support the ayatollah and his religious mission.

In fact, Iranian clerics often point to this system as an indigenous democratic institution, and it certainly gives the grand ayatollahs a huge measure of independence from the autocratic state and from one another while recognizing the importance of popular support and public opinion. What’s more, believers are free to choose their own marja, and even to switch their allegience as they see fit. Khomeini, himself a marja, trampled this system in the name of revolutionary expediency.

Similarly, Khomeini invoked maslahat in a radical reworking of the Islamic constitution and other reforms designed to smooth the succession for his hand-picked choice, the current supreme leader Ali Khamenei.

Once again, Shi’ite religious tradition paid the price, most crucially when Khomeini decreed that the supreme leader did not have to be drawn from the ranks of the marjas, the grand ayatollahs. To add insult to injury, he also arranged a battlefield promotion to the rank of ayatollah for his protégé Khamenei, a loyal political operative with little in the way of religious learning.

In theory, the link between the post of leader and the institution of the marja’iyyat had meant that only those who had attained a sigificant degree of popular, religious, and moral legitimacy were fit for supreme office.

For Khomeini, now in his last years of life, the calculus was clear: the interests of the existing Islamic political system– revolutionary maslahat – were the “most important of God’s ordinances” and supplanted all others. In doing so, he effectively cost the Islamic republic any claim on special religious or moral legitimacy and turned it into just another authoritarian state.

Today’s political crisis in Iran reflects those fateful decisions, two decades ago, in the name of expediency. The large clerical class – as opposed to the thin veneer of political mullahs running the state – has been badly weakened, making it very difficult for it to intervene in the broader interests of Shi’ite believers. At the same time, the office of supreme clerical leader has been discredited by severing it from its theological, social, and political roots. And a revolution carried out in the name of both Islam and democracy has been badly tarnished, perhaps forever.

The result is the slow-motion agony of a damaged system that once seemed to hold the promise of a new synergy of ethical belief and popular political representation. For a glimmer of hope to retrun to that revolutionary notion, Iran’s traditional clerics will have to regain both their traditional independence and the trust of the people, both tall orders with increasingly bleak prospects. Otherwise, the Islamic republic seems headed – not today but eventually – for the dustbin of history.
Read entire article at Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole)

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