The Growing Iranian Clerical Critique

As other have noted, Friday’s news that the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom, a prominent Iranian clerical group, have declared Iran’s recent elections illegitimate is pretty significant, though by no means decisive. Even though Khamenei has spent the last years cultivating a stronger and deeper relationship with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), maintaining a genuine sense of religious legitimacy is obviously important for a regime that bills itself as “Islamic,” and the clerics’ statement took a big whack at that already battered legitimacy.

Writing in the Weekly Standard, Reuel Marc Gerecht suggests that the clerics’ dissent “guts the religious attacks of Khamenei’s most powerful allies — the Revolutionary Guard Corps and their baton-wielding thuggish appendage, the Basij — against Mir-Hussein Mousavi, the leader of the opposition.”

To use an Iraqi parallel: what the clerics of Qom just did to Khamenei is similar to what Ayatollah Sistani did to the Bush administration’s original idea of caucus balloting in Iraq (if we recall, the Bush administration came up with this plan since it feared both the demands and the results of a free election). Qom has shown itself to be the worthy inheritors of the more progressive clergy of the 1905–11 Iranian revolution, when ideas about representative government began to seep into traditional clerical views about the need for independent religious scholars to supervise the ethics of government. Qom has clearly said that the June 12th elections were fraudulent and therefore null and void; most of the city’s religious scholars have now implied, more openly than ever before, that Khamenei is an illegitimate ruler, who has betrayed the faith as well as the people.

I think Gerecht’s reference to Sistani’s deft management of Bush is pretty interesting, though the situations obviously differ in important ways. (To say that Khamenei is more attuned to the realities of Iran’s religious politics than Bush was to Iraq’s is to commit felony understatement.) It goes without saying, though, that whatever criticisms Qom’s clerics may have of Khamenei, they are not secular democrats seeking to join with the West. Nor have we seen any evidence that Iran’s demonstrators are seeking to eject religion from their political life.


Interestingly, Gerecht’s article indicates a new acknowledgment of the explicitly Islamic nature of the Iranian political resistance. Writing a few weeks ago, in the immediate wake of Iran’s elections, Gerecht claimed that “we are witnessing not just a fascinating power struggle among men who’ve known each other intimately for 30 years, but the unraveling of the religious idea that has shaped the growth of modern Islamic fundamentalism since the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928.”

I think this was off the mark, but it was in keeping with the general tendency of conservative pundits to define Islamism as narrowly and negatively as possible in order to deny it any legitimate place in the ongoing debate in the Middle East over political reform.

As I wrote at the time, one of the most interesting and, in my view, significant aspects of what has been occurring in Iran is the way that a long-suppressed Islamist critique of the Iranian regime (and of the Khomeinist theory of “rule of the cleric” that underpins it) seems at last to have found a vehicle in the protest movement now being led by Mousavi and Rafsanjani. The Islamist discourse of struggle and sacrifice, so long vilified by American conservatives, is now being deployed on behalf of freedom and reform, and conservatives are scrambling to adjust.

Responding to attempts to write Islam out of Iran’s protests, scholar Chibli Mallat writes in Lebanon’s Daily Star that “doubts over the ‘Islamic’ nature of the revolt are hard to sustain when the shouts on rooftops evoke Islam.” Mallat — who has done some of the best work available in English on the intellectual origins of the Iranian system — also outlines necessary reforms for the Iranian constitution:

The overhaul required today should bring the Constitution up to accepted democratic standards. This could mean restoring the leadership council. Better still, it could honor the more democratic wishes of the Iraqi cleric at the origins of the Iranian constitutional system, the late Mohammad Baqer as-Sadr, executed by Saddam Hussein in 1980. For him, the leader cannot be chosen outside a consensus of society at large “in accordance with the normal means historically followed.” This requires rethinking the institution in ways that shield the leaders from the pressure of everyday politics, much in the way Iraqis have shielded in the Constitution the immense authority of Ayatollah Sistani and the Najaf religious leadership.

Grand Ayatollah Baqr al-Sadr is generally regarded as the most significant and innovative Shia scholar of the 20th century, whose work deeply influenced both Sunni and Shia scholars and activists. As Mallat indicates, however, unlike Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, Sadr didn’t advocate the “rule of the clerics” — he had a far more nuanced and democratic view on managing the tension between popular and religious legitimacy. Sadr is only one of a great number of Islamist thinkers who have struggled with the question of how to create a just, modern society. Debates along these lines, which have taken on a new vibrancy in the wake of Iran’s disputed elections, are precisely the sort that American policy should be aimed at facilitating. But, apart from continually underlining our support for fundamental values like human rights and democracy, the best way to do that is to get out of the way of them. It would also help if we stopped pretending that “Islamist” was just another word for “terrorist.”