The Happy Arab News Service

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Eyes of Deep Dish

Analysts are often marveling at the sheer number of Shia clerics imprisoned or under house arrest by what is supposed to be a theocratic state. Outside Iran the concept of political Islam in the Shia world is now so thoroughly discredited by Khomeinism that these days even Hezbollah is no longer talking about Islamic state. As to Iraq, there appears to have been left nobody with any significant standing as a scholar ready to endorse Islamic state or deep involvement in politics in any other way. Ali al-Sistani, probably the most authoritative of all Shia scholars these days, is a staunch quietist.

Shia Islam's perception of political and historical matters was always heavily shaped by themes of tyranny and injustice, so much so that in its most anti political forms it strangely resembles the most extreme of anti Zionist Jewish ultra orthodox groups who reject any version of a Jewish state before the coming of the Messiah. Similarly, the quietist stream in Shia Islam traditionally views tyranny and injustice as inherent to any political system and impossible to overcome until the Mahdi takes the matters under his control. Politics is something that the religion should keep a big distance from lest the religion gets corrupted and contaminated itself. That's why it's a safe bet that many religious Shias, including clerics, have been watching the latest street battles in Tehran with a nagging feeling of "They told us so".

Regardless of how Khomeini has succeeded to sway a significant part of the clergy to adopt his school of political activism, tensions between the two streams were simmering already during Khomeini and broke into open when the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, nominated Khomeini's successor by nobody else than Khomeini himself, publicly condemned the system and its methods. Some claim that the amendment to Iran's constitution that allowed Khamenei, no great scholar himself, to take over the post of the Supreme Leader came for the lack of cooperation on the part of other Grand Ayatollahs.

Deep Dish - Floating

However, the thing is that as large chunks of the Shia priesthood, unimpressed by the outcome of Khomeini's experiments with political Islam in Iran, were retreating back into political quietism, this did not produce many open revolts the style of Montazeri since the very nature of political quietism is to keep distance from politics. That no comment appears to have come from Iraq's leading Shia clerics on the post election mess in Tehran should not be understood as a sign of approval. It's a sign that by now the quietist stream is back and in a big way.

When it comes to the elections in Iran, regardless of who won them, their aftermath was so massively mismanaged by the system that it can easily mean Iraq surging as a source of religious and moral authority in the Shia world following the destruction of the last remnants of one in Iran. The situation of the quietists, however, is complicated by the fact that, with its moral authority in shambles after the post election fallout and in the face of a massive opposition, in particular, in big cities, the regime in Tehran is now forced to increasingly rely on the remaining two pillars of its power - the security apparatus and religion. It's very telling in what terms Montazeri has shaped his protest over Khomeini's fatwa calling for execution of Salman Rushdie at the peak of the struggle between the two. "People in the world are getting the idea that our business in Iran is just murdering people," Montazeri said.

This time however, this is no longer about some Indian Muslim expat in the West, but about hundreds of thousands of Shia believers beaten and shot at on the streets of Tehran. And this time it's not about what people in the world may think about Iran, but what the Shia masses themselves may conclude about their religious leaders and the oppression they have to endure in the name of their religion. A velvet divorce between the quietist stream, that by now has become again the mainstream in many parts of the Shia world, and the state in Iran is fast becoming impossible since, even if the religion may be trying to leave the state in peace quietly retreating into the background, the state shows no intention to let go of the religion.

Basically, al-Sistani has made it known that in his view the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader should be confirmed by a majority of believers, it cannot be imposed. However, the ruling clique in Iran seems to be impervious to such subtle suggestions that it should start planning for gradual disengagement of the religion from politics. Instead, one pro-government cleric called for the demonstrators to be executed with another one, or the same one, claiming that the demonstrators are rebelling against God. In some quarters of the high Shia priesthood the anger may be now reaching the boiling point. The regime's intransigence may soon prompt one of the top scholars of the quietist stream to move in and declare the unfortunate experiment over for its failure to deliver. This may start a showdown of religious and scholarly authority between the two streams with various scholars throwing their weight behind one of the two sides.

In some respect the religious underpinnings of the Islamic republic have been lacking for quite a while now. Khamenei's nomination to the Supreme Leader was reportedly greeted with scorn in Qom and elsewhere for the man's lack of appropriate scholarship. About Ahmadinejad it's said that his attempts to incite the most debased and primitive forms of Shia piety are roiling even conservative clerics from the hardcore still supporting the regime - it's not only the quietists who find problem with Ahmadinejad's pretensions to be divinely inspired and his recurring evocations of the Mahdi. The regime in Tehran shouldn't want to get to the point of having to take part in any contest of religious and scholarly credentials since this may reveal how little of those it has left.


For those who don't know, Deep Dish are two Iranians in Washington, USA.

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