Monday, June 27, 2005

Hardliner Wins Iranian Presidency; The Islamic Revolution Redux?

This entry originally appeared in an e-mail to a mentor of mine. I have edited it and made additions as necessary.

During the last Iranian Presidential election, which wrapped up yesterday, several things struck me. First, the fact that Iranian security forces, apparenty sent by the conservative, revolutionary judiciary, seized hundreds of thousands of pamphlets and other political advertising for Ayatullah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the original participants in the 1979 Revolution, because they objected to words used on them.

Second, that Rafsanjani's opponent in the run-off, the ultra conservative Mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad (right), has said that he might shut down the Tehran stock market because he thinks it is "un-Islamic" and a form of gambling. Now, I am by far not an expert on Islamic finance or economics, but my understanding of the vast majority of contemporary opinions by Sunni and Shi'i 'ulama is that the stock market is not gambling because one is actually investing in something tangible, as opposed to playing, well, a game of chance as the Qur'an forbids. Now, perhaps Ahmedinejad was simply cozying up to his conservation base; he is particulaly popular among religious conservatives, the rural poor, and the para-military militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Shortly before the election, two of Iran's senior Shi'ite clerics, Grand Ayatullahs Husayn 'Ali Montazeri and Yusuf Saanei, expressed doubts as to how free and how fair the presidential elections would be. "My point of view, and I cannot say more than this, is that things are not going in the right direction," said Montazeri, who was once tapped to succeed Revolutionary Iran's founder, Grand Ayatullah Ruhollah Khumayni (right). "At the beginning of the revolution the late Imam [Khumayni] and I gave promises of liberty, and these promises have not been lived up to." It is interesting to note that he uses Khumayni's revolutionary title of "Imam," which, for Shi'ites carries a lot of religious meaning, since the title is also used for the successors of the Prophet Muhammad, the "People of the [Prophet's] House" or Ahlul Bayt.

To see the article about Saanei and Montazeri's comments, see:

In the end, Ahmedinejad won the run-off vote, with over 61%, crushing Rafsanjani, who won a mere 35%. About 49% of Iran's eligible voters participated in the run-off election. The president-elect has stated that he wants to create a modern Islamic republic, which remains true to the spirit of the 1979 Revolution. "Today is a day when we have to forget all our rivalries and turn them into friendships," Ahmedinejad said on state radio. "We are one nation and one big family. We should help each other to make a great society," he said. With Iran facing severe economic problems and outside threats from both the belligerant U.S. Administration of President George W. Bush and Israel, Ahmedinejad will face challenges to his leadership almost immediately.

The revolutionary spirit in Iran has gone sour. The current government has driven many young Iranians away from Islam, since they seem to (foolishly) connect "Islam" with the government; the 'ulama has become corrupted by politics instead of serving as the guardians of social morality and order, as they have historically done. Thank God for clerics like Grand Ayatullahs Sayyid al-Sistani (right) and Muhammad Taqi al-Modarressi in Iraq who don't subscribe to the concept of wilayat-i-faqih, the "government of the supreme jurist" put into practice by Ayatullah Ruhollah Khumayni.

Now, I must admit that as a Shi'i, I do feel some sort of weird pride in the fact that one of the 'ulama (Khumayni) was able to successfully spearhead a revolutionary movement in the modern age that toppled the awful "Pahlavi" (so-called) regime. The first major Sunni-led revolution didn't occur until almost a decade later, in 1989 with the emergence of the National Islamic Front, then influenced by Dr. Hassan al-Turabi, and presently, the Iranian Islamic "experiment" survives, as the Sudanese model is facing revolts in Darfur and the eastern coastal regions.

But, in hindsight, two and a half decades down the road, the problems that are inherent to wilayat-i-faqih are becoming clear. The fact that 'Ali Khamenei (left) was "promoted" to the rank of Ayatullah al-Uzma (Grand Ayatullah), without the requisite seminary training, by the revolutionary Iranian regime is one of the clearest examples of the corruption that has come from wilayat-i-faqih; no wonder traditionally-trained ayatullahs like Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah don't respect Khamenei. At least Khumayni was indeed a legitimate ayatullah, with all the training required of his clerical rank and status.

However, after speaking with a valued mentor today via e-mail, it was pointed out to me that every revolution will inevitably "fail" in the sense of not living up to all of the promises that it made in the beginning. So, perhaps I am being overly critical of the Iranian model.

I must say, of all the Shi'i 'ulama alive today, I believe al-Sistani understands his role vis-a-vis politics and society the best: the cleric as the guardian and guide of the believers and morality, but not the political leader. His colleagues on the Marja'iyya (ruling Shi'i clerical council in Iraq), including Grand Ayatullah al-Modarressi, and Grand Ayatullah Fadlallah in Lebanon also undertand their societal role as that of a guardian and learned advisor rather than an active political leader.

I predict that the Shi'i revival over the next two decades will come from Iraq and Lebanon. After viewing the success in practice there, the Iranian 'ulama (those who are traditionalists, not the revolutionary Khumaynists) will lead a revival in the lands of Persia. I suppose in a decade, we'll see how right, or wrong, I am.

For more on Ahmedinejad's election and platform on major issues, see: