Here’s an easy way to tell where someone stands on the Iran question: If they constantly refer to “the mullahs” (religious leaders) who rule Iran, then you’re most likely dealing with someone who is disdainful of U.S.-Iran engagement, who thinks that the only problem with the Bush administration’s 2003-06 hardline approach was that it wasn’t hard enough, and who buys the nonsensical “Islamofascist” construct that powered the “Global War on Terror.” You’re probably also dealing with someone who either hasn’t been following, or would like to ignore, the way that the Iranian system has been changing, especially in the wake of the June 12 elections, from one controlled primarily by “the mullahs” into one that, though still presided over by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and furnished with a fading veneer of religious legitimacy by a cadre of extremist clerics, is increasingly a military dictatorship controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
While using “the mullahs” in such a pejorative fashion may allow certain commentators to communicate their prejudices in a marginally acceptable way and stoke fear of scary guys in robes and turbans, it also elides one of the most important aspects of the current situation in Iran: The role of the mullahs in confronting “the mullahs.”
Flipping through the TV channels late last night, I landed on the 700 Club just as Pat Robertson was offering his, err, “analysis” of Iran. Suppressing with great difficulty the urge to turn away from the stupid, I watched as Pat assured his viewers that the Iranian people “hate those mullahs,” but then noted that the latest anti-government demonstrations had occurred at the funeral of the dissident Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Montazeri, “one of the better-liked mullahs.” I could see on Pat’s face that he realized that he’d just kind of clowned himself, but this is the situation that a lot of conservatives find themselves in now. Having fulminated for years against “the mullahs,” they’re unsure how to react to an Iranian opposition movement powered in considerable part by mullahs.
And not just mullahs, but Islamist mullahs, such as Montazeri himself, who even though he had turned against what the Iranian Islamic Republic had become, remained a firm believer in the principles of the Iranian revolution, in the idea of an Islamic Republic, and in the appropriateness of Islam as the organizing force in society.
Noting Montazeri’s passing, neoconservative analyst Michael Rubin (who, though an occasional “mullah”-baiter himself, has also been very clear-eyed about the costs of a military strike on Iran, unlike many other neocons) gets part of the way there:
While the media focuses on popular protests in Iran, such as those which occurred in Iran after this summer’s flawed elections, the real Achilles Heel to the Iranian regime is Shi’ism. Simply put, it is hard for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to claim ultimate political and religious authority when he is outranked by many clerics who oppose him and his philosophy of government.
Rubin’s right: Shi’ism supplies a powerful anti-authoritarian critique, and Khamenei’s meager religious credentials make it difficult for him to convincingly push back against it (the fact that his government has been murdering people in the streets certainly doesn’t make it easier). It’s very important to recognize, however, that these critiques are not just being generated from within Shi’ism, but also from within Islamist Shi’ism of the same sort that enlivened the 1979 Iranian revolution. Having ceaselessly condemned Islamism as inherently inhumane and undemocratic, many conservatives are now simply unable to appreciate the manner in which Islamist arguments have been redeployed against the Iranian regime’s inhumane and undemocratic behavior.
Given the resonance of Islamist arguments, in both their Shia and Sunni variants, to significant numbers of Muslims throughout the world, developing a more nuanced view of the various trends that have too often been carelessly grouped under the scare-term “Islamist” is essential in order to cultivate a more serious and rigorous U.S. policy discussion about political reform not only in Iran, but in the broader region. We shouldn’t have any illusions that Islamists are our allies, but neither should we presume that they’re all necessarily our enemies. As events in Iran show, moderate Islamists can be an important source of religious legitimacy for the forces of reform.