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What Iran's ruling theocracy has lost
   
 
 
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What Iran's ruling theocracy has lost

 
Friday, 03 July 2009 23:48
 
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by Babak Rahimi
EPOS Insights

The Islamic Republic of Iran, one of the world's only theocratic governments ruled by clerics, is undergoing a major crisis of legitimacy. As thousands of Iranians braved state police in the streets of Tehran and other major cities to oppose the results of the presidential election, the Islamist state now faces considerable resistance from many oppositional factions, who see the elections as fraudulent and the ruling clerics as morally corrupt. Amid such crisis, one unlikely faction that has emerged to confront the regime is the Shia Islamic leadership based in the shrine-city of Qom.

With spiritual authority that transcends the political power of those ruling clerics based in Tehran, a number of high-ranking Shia scholars have bravely come out in public to display their discontent with the elections and, indirectly, challenge the authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, believed by his supporters to have the God-given mandate to rule. In a sense, such tension marks a major rift within Shia Iran that may entail far-reaching implications for the survival of the Iranian regime.

The ideological foundation of the Islamic Republic is based on the doctrine of velyat-e faqih or “guardianship of the jurist.” Conceptualized by Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini (1900-1989) and institutionalized in Iran by 1979, such ideology advocates that the most learned cleric should rule as the head of the state and serve as the representative of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, whose eventual return is believed to culminate in the establishment of divine justice on Earth. The guardian jurist would have the spiritual power to guide the community into salvation, and, as the leader of a worldly state, he would maintain absolute authority over the Muslim community.

Not all Shia Iranians, however, accepted Khomeini's vision of theocracy in the years following the 1979 revolution. For instance, Ayatollah Muhammad Kazem Shariatmadari (1904-1985), a senior Shia cleric at the time, publicly opposed Khomeini, whose radical movement he regarded to be a deviation from true Shi'ism. In response, the regime immediately stripped him of his religious authority and placed him on house arrest, a major affront to the clerical establishment that had never before seen a high-ranking jurist deposed by another cleric.

However, with the 1997 election of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, a number of Shia clerics unleashed a series of theoretical debates against the ideology of guardianship of the jurist that challenged the doctrinal foundation of the Islamic Republic. Younger clerics like Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari, Mohsen Kadivar and Hasan Yousefi-Eshkevari represented a new kind of Shia scholars who argued for a more inclusive and less authoritarian kind of Islamic government in exclusion of the absolute authority of clerical ruler. They argued how prior to the arrival of Mahdi, the Shia Islamic community ought to be ruled by a transparent system of governance based on consultation and popular elections.

In spite of repressive measures used by the state to clampdown on the anti-government clerics since the late 1990s, the 2009 elections saw a revival of dissent within the Shia clerical circles, perhaps unprecedented in the post-revolutionary period. Months prior the elections, when I interviewed a number of religious seminarians based in Qom, I discovered a deep sense of discontent among younger clerics against the theocratic establishment. The central objection I constantly heard was that worldly power leads to spiritual decay, and with it a major threat to the purity of Shia Islam, expected to be defended by clerics who should refrain from participating in state affairs. What these young seminarians preferred to see in Iran was what Ayatollah Ali Sistani has achieved in Iraq, that is: clerical detachment from state activities while playing a central role in the public life of Muslim communities.

Although such level of dissent is not unusual to Qom, what makes the latest developments so significant is how confrontational some of the dissident theologians have become since the elections. With the June 13th announcement of the election results, only a single major Shia clerical authority has recognized the presidency of Ahmadinejad. Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, a high-ranking cleric, has even issued a religious ruling against the elections results, describing any kind of cooperation with the administration as unIslamic. The tension has been so intense that a number of mid-ranking clerics have even joined the demonstrators in the streets of Tehran, opposing what they regard as the clash between truth and falsehood.

In many ways, the reformist opposition, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated candidate, is taking advantage of such rift between Qom and Tehran. In a statement made days after the elections, Mousavi publicly appealed to the Qom clerics to challenge the electoral results. Meanwhile, another leading politician, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, has been marshalling the support of the clerical establishment for an eventual political showdown with the ruling clerics and the president in Tehran.

With the accusation of the rigged elections and an eventual conflict within the Shia community, what Iran's theocracy has lost is not just the support of some high-ranking clerics, but the basic claim of spiritual authority over worldly governance. This is and will remain the most serious predicament for the Islamic Republic to resolve for years to come — if it survives the current wave of unrest.Rahimi is assistant professor of the Iranian and Islamic Studies Program for the Study of Religion in the Department of Literature at the University of California San Diego.

Article published on San Diego Tribune 25 of June 2009. Licensed for EposWorldView by the author

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 July 2012 14:41
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