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June 22, 2009

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This certainly all seems correct to me, who is very much not a scholar of Islam of any sort. (This also covers a good deal of the relevant thinking/history.)

As a relatively trivial note, although the "reader" (is there some reason Sullivan doesn't give credit to what are essentiall guest writers he constantly presents?; do just about all of them request anonymnity?) is technically correct in referring to "the institutions created after 1979," this rather blurs history some of us remember well. The contemporary instituations of the Islamic Republic took a number of years to develop. Although the Islamic Republic was declared as such in 1979, those old enough will (or should) well remember Abolhassan Banisadr's ill-fated presidency.

As Wikipedia notes, in 1980, Khomeini's position was that "Khomeini had insisted that clerics should not run for positions in the government."

It wasn't until 1987, not long before Khomeini's death, that Khomeini declared:

[...] Two major changes in the ideological underpinnings of the Islamic Republic occurred toward the end of Khomeini's reign. In January 1988, he issued an edict declaring that the Islamic "Government is among the most important divine injunctions and has priority over all peripheral divine orders ... even prayers, fasting and the hajj." [107] In April of the next year he decreed a task force to revise the country's constitution to separate the post of Supreme Leader of Iran from that of Shia marja, (the `highest source of religious emulation`), since he found none of marja to be suitable successors as none had given strong support for his policies.[108] The amendments were drafted and approved by the public about one month after Khomeini's death (1989 July 9).
It's not as if this happened immediately in 1979; I just wanted to make that clear. As you say, Hilzoy, "Partly this is because the author thinks that the Islamic Republic is identical with "the institutions created after 1979," and that's not really so in several senses.

In that case, I think, both concern for your country and concern for Islam would lead you to jettison the idea of having a Supreme Leader at all, and to try to work out what other arrangement might best enable Muslims to have a state that genuinely lived up to Islamic principles.

Indeed. Recall that when Khomeini died, a triumvirate was originally proposed as a replacement, which seemed a tacit attempt to acknowledge human fallibility. Only after this failed, and actual Grand Ayatollah Golpaygani (Reza, not Safi) couldn't secure enough support, was politically ayatollahized Khamenei chosen. After all, he was the Chosen of Khomeini (which should have set off more alarm bells right there).

So I suspect that there's currently still too much inertia to the Supreme Leader idea, but going forward it might be possible for the Assembly of Experts to assume more authority, or something akin to the Guardian Council to extend its power of religious approval to be final without a Supreme Leader's affirmation.

Or maybe all those Mousavi supporters will suddenly abandon their support for abiding by the Islamic Republic's constitution, and create a revolution that will lead to secular democracy again, or whatever explicit US backing is supposed to accomplish. The problem with revolutions is that constitutional democracy isn't the inevitable endpoint of successful ones.

To the best of my understanding Khomeini was not proposing that a state overseen by Jurists would be infallible so much as that it would be the least bad form of government for Shia Muslims to live under until the Hidden Imam reveals himself. Again, unless I am mistaken, he acknowledged that an Islamic Republic would be an imperfect compromise between Modernity and Islam.

Great post. You (hilzoy) explore the potential legitimizing rhetoric of the reformers. If these disputes were made popular now, it would only be because of the predetermined ends of the reformers. \

In other words, the desired outcomes of various reformers will lead them to politically contemplate this or that critique of the Islamic republic.

What I would like to hear then is: okay, what avenues of legitimizing rhetoric will the conservative establishment counter with. Perhaps you are only presenting one side of an immanent dialogue.

Also, all of this creates in me a strange sense of familiarity, as many fundamentalist Christians in the US long believed that church and state should be separate, in part because of the corrupting effect temporal power would inevitably have upon the spiritual. Then we saw the rise of the Moral Majority, and the view that the church (as long as it was the right church) should seize the levers of power whenever possible, and defend the state's original godly nature from corruption. Was there something in the air in the late 70s / early 80s?

Yes, as someone who lived through part of this reversal from the inside, I know I'm oversimplifying just a bit. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention still has "Church and state should be separate" in its official principles, though you'd never know it. I just think it's interesting to see the parallels in End Times eschatology ("Hidden Imam" vs. "1.5 / Second Coming") and the changed stance on the role of religion in government. See also: Dominionism.

FWIW: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq (who is more senior in religious scholarship than Khamenei) does not subscribe to the Khomeini school of velayat-e faqih. Sistani believes that the clerical establishment should be less involved in politics (referred to as the quietist school).

Within the context, he actually has a fairly liberal political outlook, with some openness to a bill of rights type-doctrine.

Like mds, I immediately saw the similarity to our own history (e.g. John Leland).

Though I am curious -- is anyone (notable) in Iran making these arguments? Do they have any kind of influence among the movement taking place?

mds: Yes, the parallels can be interesting. -- Sometime back, there was a bunch of panicky conservative commentary about Iranians' belief in the Mahdi and its oddness, etc. I had always understood it to be a potential brake on the idea that any ordinary human can claim divine authority: if a perfect Islamic government cannot exist until the Mahdi comes, then there ought to be a lot of resistance to the idea of any actual human government claiming religious authority.

I suspect that it will eventually seem to people that Khomeinism was a theological deviation that might have seemed necessary when the Shah was in power and (arguably) no one but the clerics could possibly have opposed him, but that had to be rejected eventually, since it more or less has to become clear that no human is worthy of the claims he made for clerical government.

"So I suspect that there's currently still too much inertia to the Supreme Leader idea, but going forward it might be possible for the Assembly of Experts to assume more authority, or something akin to the Guardian Council to extend its power of religious approval to be final without a Supreme Leader's affirmation."

It certainly would seem to be at least a theoretical possibility that the Supreme Leader become mostly ceremonial, a la contemporary European royalty (such as it remains).

"Though I am curious -- is anyone (notable) in Iran making these arguments? Do they have any kind of influence among the movement taking place?"

What I've heard is that during the Presidential campaign things really heated up this time after that television debate where Ahmadinejad attacked Mousavi overly harshly who being a tough guy and founding revolutionary attacked back, especially after his wife was attacked. Mousavi attacked Ahmadinejad's bellicose foreign policy, his denial of the Holocaust, and his mismanagement of the economy.

Then Mousavi decided to put up a stink after the election was rigged/stolen and not go silently into that good night.

At Friday prayers, the infallible Supreme Leader weighed in and drew a line in the sand, and Mousavi crossed it by keeping on keeping on.

Seems like right now they're regrouping after the regime turned up the violence and repression.

This argument about the true "Islamic Republic" seem like it's all about semantics.

See also: Dominionism"

Jews have the Messiah/Moshiach,">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_messianism">Moshiach, though it's only various sects of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidim that make it a major part of their religious practice and contemporary life.

(Although the Lubivitchers have, in my lifetime, been quite loud as to their beliefs as regards Menachem Mendel Schneerson.)

So far as my quite sketchy knowledge of all this goes (I was brought up in extremely lukewarm Reform Judiasm and have always been an atheist), though, none of these groups particularly cares about politics amongst non-Jews, or any state besides Israel.

"Like mds, I immediately saw the similarity to our own history (e.g. John Leland)."

Although I've read many accounts of the incident, I just want to say that I love this sentence from that Wikipedia page: "A well-known secular incident in Leland's life was The Mammoth Cheese."

Oh, and this sentiment seems quite relevant to the discussion: "Upon the cheese was inscribed the Jeffersonian motto, 'rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.'"

"Sometime back, there was a bunch of panicky conservative commentary about Iranians' belief in the Mahdi and its oddness, etc."

This is still quite au courant amongst many rightwingers both in the U.S. and Israel, although it's more often delimited to "the Iranian leadership," "the mullahs," etc., rather than so much claimed of Iranians in general.

"Mammoth Cheese"

Gary: I'm assuming you know this -- amazing? alarming? -- poem. If not, enjoy. ;)

"This argument about the true 'Islamic Republic' seem like it's all about semantics."

Or, you know, theology and politics. Which seem more than a little important. "It's all about semantics" tends to be a dismissive assertion, although perhaps you didn't mean it that way.

"At Friday prayers, the infallible Supreme Leader weighed in and drew a line in the sand"

In Islam, no one but the Fourteen Infallibles are asserted to be infallible. Do you have a cite to support your claim that the Supreme Leader has claimed to be infallible?

"Gary: I'm assuming you know this -- amazing? alarming? -- poem."

No, I did not. (I'm vastly better on history than poetry. :-))

I see McIntyre also wrote Oxford Cheese Ode, as well as "Father Ranney, the Cheese Pioneer," "Fertile Lands and Mammoth Cheese," "Hints to Cheese Makers," "Lines Read at a Dairymaids' Social, 1887," "Lines Read at a Dairymen's Supper," and "Ode on the Mammoth Cheese."

It seems fair to assume he really really liked cheese.

Thanks muchly!

Perhaps someone could present Ali Khamenei with a Mammoth Cheese, and he could free the curds.

And let us all with songs and glees
Invoke success into the cheese.

"Perhaps someone could present Ali Khamenei with a Mammoth Cheese, and he could free the curds."

Of course you know, this means war...

Would it be ethnocentric to suggest that Iran has lost its whey?

"Or, you know, theology and politics. Which seem more than a little important."

I saw it that way too. I went back and tried to figure out how it was about semantics, but that just doesn't seem plausible.

But if you were a Catholic who loved God and the Church, you would find the idea that the Church sided with the priests horrifying in an additional way, and you would fear for the people whose faith might be destroyed.

Is this meant to sound ironic?

Perhaps someone could present Ali Khamenei with a Mammoth Cheese, and he could free the curds.

If onlty reagan had thought to try that, rather than sending Ollie North with a birthday cake!

During an earlier push for reform in Iran, I reflected that great revolutions can come from a simple change in a constitution; from "shall" to "may", or from "may" to "shall". The kind of reform that could reduce the guardian council from a gatekeeper of orthodoxy to an advisory role might come in a constitutional change that most people outside the Iranian government might not even notice.

"Would it be ethnocentric to suggest that Iran has lost its whey?"

Damn it jaconipus, don't do this! I'm already occupied with Gary...

"If onlty reagan had thought to try that, rather than sending Ollie North with a birthday cake!"

Not to spoil the joke, and only because I'm a terrible nitpicker, a bit of detail: it was Robert McFarlane, National Security Advisor at the time, who led the mission; North was quite subordinate. The cake was variously reported to be either key-shaped, or in the "shape of a Bible." (Don't ask me how this varies from an ordinary rectangular cake.) Accounts of the cake initially varied, but no one ever said (in any reporting I recall) that it was a birthday cake for anyone.

Rafsanjani, at the time the speaker of the Iranian parliament, originated the story about the cake, and the leak of the whole story of the mission, in an interview with Beirut magazine Al-Shiraa interview; McFarlane initially denied the existence of the cake, but a CIA official (who had since retired), George Cave, said it was true. FWIW.

[...] The Cake and the Bible: In a Nov. 13 television interview, just after Mr. Reagan confirmed the existence of ''a secret diplomatic initiative to Iran,'' Robert C. McFarlane, a former national security adviser, flatly denied that he had carried a cake or a Bible as a token of good will on his trip to Teheran last May.

''Did you bring in a cake?'' the interviewer asked Mr. McFarlane.

''No,'' he answered, ''I didn't have anything to do with a cake.'' ''Bible?'' he was asked. ''No Bible,'' he replied.

But a retired official of the Central Intelligence Agency, George W. Cave, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Mr. McFarlane and his party carried a cake and a Bible with a handwritten inscription from Mr. Reagan. Mr. Cave accompanied Mr. McFarlane on the mission. His account is in the committee's draft report. Mr. McFarlane said last week that he personally had nothing to do with the cake.

Ann Wroe reported this:
[...] McFarlane was said to have taken a cake and a Bible on the trip. There was no Bible on the trip except North's own, which the pilot with some surprise spotted him carrying onto the plane; an official Bible, autographed by Reagan, went on a trip in October. But there was a key-shaped chocolate cake -- a 'joke' between North and the Iranian middleman, Manucher Ghorbanifar, ordered by North from a kosher bakery in Israel -- and a pair of Colt pistols in a presentation box. The cake and the Bible were linked ever after with McFarlane, although neither was even his idea. Whatever larger and higher purposes the trip may have had, they were subsumed in circus. McFarlane knew it and resented it. He was reduced to saying stiffly to one interviewer: "Simply put, there was a cake on the mission. I didn't buy it, bake it, cook it, eat it, present it, or otherwise get involved with it." He had little chance; the Revolutionary Guards at the airport, famished by Ramadan, took it away and ate it.
(The "interviewer" was Ted Koppel on Nightline. I hand-typed this from Google Books, so any typographical errors are mine.)

"Mr. McFarlane said last week that he personally had nothing to do with the cake."

OK, that's funny... This almost makes up for "free the curds". Almost.

Really, everyone knows they should have brought a chocolate babka.

And, really, with Reagan being such a great President and all, Obama really should emulate his approach and send another mission with a cake.

And sell lots of missiles to Iran.

Shorter hilzoy: common man walks in, at best Gumby walks out. Clay is as clay does. Always. Please ignore inconvenient histories, just notice helpful ones.

I'm not saying you're wrong. However in this case you and Larison are wrong. Incremental history may be the norm but this is a case of punctuated equilibrium.

Observer: ??

Please say more; I don't get it.

Dear Hilzoy:

Thank you for your very interesting blogpost (ugh, what an ugly word). I have only a few vague, amateurish thoughts to offer.

First, as long as those who follow the Khomeini line remains in power, Iran will remain an EXISTENTIAL threat not only to Israel but also to the US. Men like Ahmadinejad will continue to believe that the best way to hurry the return of the Twelfth Imam/Mahdi will be to harass and threaten their enemies. Including, if necessary, the use of nuclear weapons.

Second, I don't see how any Muslim state, Sunni or Shia, can wholly escape the theocratic temptation. The belief that the only rightful source of law and government is the Koran seems to be common to both major strains of Islam--however they might differ in its interpretation. Which makes me a bit pessimistic about any "rethinking" of the Islamicness of Iran going on in that country. After all, the concept of rendering unto God and Caesar what rightfully belongs to them SEPARATELY (see Matthew 22.15-22)is lacking in Islam.

Sincerely,

mds:

Was there something in the air in the late 70s / early 80s?

IMHO, yes.

All over the world, the rate of cultural change was becoming too much for some people to handle. It was (and IMHO is) Future Shock. Technology and capitalism are the twin engines of change, and by the 70s it was becoming clear that there was no way out of dealing with them: everyone was going to get a full meal of change whether they're hungry for it or not.

I perceive that the biggest emotional problem people have is with changes in sexual mores and the role of women. I don't know if this is because sexual issues are actually more emotionally important than other things (pace Freud), or if all the issues of technology and economics that people have trouble dealing with are projected onto women. Either way, restrictions on women are the banner of fundamentalists all over.

Sean, people have managed to support all sorts of political philosophies using the Bible, and as far as separation of church and state is concerned, it's a pretty recent idea, not terribly popular with Christians until centuries of religious wars had persuaded most of us that we should be killing people for purely secular reasons. Pius IX was still condemning the separation of church and state in 1864.

Islam has only been around 14 centuries, so if anything they might be moving towards toleration faster than we Christians did. I have no idea what portions of the Koran a liberal Muslim might cite to justify modern liberal ideas of religious freedom and separation of church and state, but I have faith in the creative reading abilities of people of all faiths, and besides, maybe there are passages that wouldn't have to be twisted too much to give support to such notions.

"ugh, what an ugly word"

That would partially be because it's not a word; it's two words: "blog post."

"First, as long as those who follow the Khomeini line remains in power, Iran will remain an EXISTENTIAL threat not only to Israel but also to the US."

How on earth would or could Iran be an existential threat to the U.S.?

As a slightly less incredible claim, how is Iran currently any kind of existential threat to Israel? (Hint: responses involving imaginary Iranian nuclear weapons would not support your claim.)

"Men like Ahmadinejad will continue to believe that the best way to hurry the return of the Twelfth Imam/Mahdi will be to harass and threaten their enemies."

Sean, do you:
a) have expertise on Islam?
b) have mind-reading equipment?

If not, how can -- or do -- you support such assertions?

"Including, if necessary, the use of nuclear weapons."

Setting aside that Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa against producing, owning, or using, nuclear weapons, and setting aside that Iran doesn't have any nuclear weapons, the facts are that Iran isn't even close to producing nuclear weapons, and hasn't even come close to achieving weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.

You might want to look into the facts on this.

"Second, I don't see how any Muslim state, Sunni or Shia, can wholly escape the theocratic temptation."

How do Christian states escape it?

"The belief that the only rightful source of law and government is the Koran seems to be common to both major strains of Islam...."

It used to be exactly as common to Christianity, to. Moreover, your claim about Islam, again, flies in the face of the facts: how do you explain, exactly, the existence of the largest Islamic state in the world not having a theocratic government? Or Egypt not having a theocratic government? Or Syria not having a theocratic government? Or Turkey not having a theocratic government? Or Algeria not having a theocratic government? Or Libya not having a theocratic government? Or Jordan not having a theocratic government? Or Tunisia not having a theocratic government? Or Malaysia not having a theocratic government? Or Morocco not having a theocratic government? Or Bangladesh not having a theocratic government?

In short, what the heck are you talking about? There are 48 majority-Muslim countries on Earth, and yet very few of them have anything resembling a "theocratic" government. In point of fact, Iran is pretty much the only country on the planet that can be described as Islamically theocratic.

Even a country as fundamentally Islamic as Saudi Arabia doesn't have a theocracy.

I also find attempts by American Protestants to paint Shi'ites as "the more dangerous Muslims" rather ironic. When I read Hodgson's The Venture of Islam, it definitely seemed to me that over the course of history Catholicism:Protestantism::Sunni:Shiite.

It seems to me that Shi'a, like Protestantism, tends to be more doctrinally firm and thus prone to schism, and schism again, and schism again, so that today it is smaller but less unified than Sunni. Sunni is much more small-c catholic, more accomodating to different cultures and personalities, so it's got a lot of the amoeba-like quality of Roman Catholicism. I have the impression that Shi'a is also like Protestantism in being more apocalyptic than Sunni (or Catholicism).

In this analogy, the Wahhabis would be Opus Dei, I guess, but that may be a metaphor too far.

and as far as separation of church and state is concerned, it's a pretty recent idea, not terribly popular with Christians until centuries of religious wars had persuaded most of us that we should be killing people for purely secular reasons

Separation of church and state was popular with Christians around 2000 years ago and Christianity was a non-violent religion for quite a while after that time.

The decision by church leaders to pervert that stance in order to become more powerful and the development of the concept of a "just war" are more modern inventions that still carry on today.

Bush played the Urban II game as well as any of them.

"Separation of church and state was popular with Christians around 2000 years ago and Christianity was a non-violent religion for quite a while after that time.

The decision by church leaders to pervert that stance in order to become more powerful and the development of the concept of a "just war" are more modern inventions that still carry on today."

Yes, that's true, but once Christians acquired power attitudes changed very quickly. It starts with Constantine and iirc Christians start persecuting non-Christians and each other by the late 4th century.

I've read a little about Heraclius recently--the Byzantine Emperor who saw the beginning of the Muslim conquests. The Byzantine Empire and the Persians (Zoarastrians at the time) were bleeding each other to death, Christians were killing Christians, and also Jews and (to my surprise) at one point Jews managed to turn the table on Christians and slaughter some of them--

link

All this toleration and brotherly love goes a long way to explaining why the Muslims were able to conquer so much so fast.

Catholicism:Protestantism::Sunni:Shiite

I think of it the opposite, because it seems to me that with Shiite there is a heierarchy like catholicism, whereas Sunni seems much more freeform, and therefore whoever can gain a following can preach.

sorry.

"I think of it the opposite, because it seems to me that with Shiite there is a heierarchy like catholicism...."

I think that's a pretty difficult claim to support.

Hi, Donald. Thanks for your comments.

Respectfully, I disagree with you. One of the most common policies of the Catholic Church thru the centuries was RESISTING attempts by the state to meddle with her, either in doctrine or in self governement. An idea which can be found as early as the letters Pope Gelasius wrote to the Emperor Anastasius I in the 490s. And other examples were the Investiture Controversy and the quarrel between Henry II of England and St. Thomas a'Becket over the Constitutions of Clarendon. And I cited Matthew 22.15-22 because that was a foundational source for the belief church and state have SEPARATE spheres of authority.

And, unfortunately, fanatical Muslims can find all too many texts in the Koran with which to justify persecution of Jews, Christians, pagans, and atheists. One example which stuck in my mind being Sura 48.29 (Dawood's translation): "Mohammed is Allah's apostle. Those who follow him are RUTHLESS to the unbelievers, but merciful to one another."

Sincerely,

Hilzoy, I want to thank you for a very informative and intertaining post (I'll avoid the ugly word). Those of us who are facinated by Iran, but whose knowledge is a cut or two below, can only read, and learn.

Sean, I don't believe in the threat theory as applied to Iran, although I acknowledge that it has gained standing as conventional wisdom in the US and Israel. Clearly as long as the hardliners are in power, it will continue to be the CW, and all those who doubt it can and will be marginalized. But, some of us would rather be right, and marginalized, then acorded the benefits that accrue from espousing the CW.

I suspect even (or perhaps especially if), the current batch of revolutionaries/reformers gain power, that near term they will have to prove their anti-Americanism. I doubt we will be able to deal with either side until emotions die down. I expect our two civilzation's period of estrangement to go on, a casualty of history.

From Donald's link:

[...] To their dismay, the Jews discovered that the Persians were even crueler and harder to live with than the Christians had been. They immediately tried to work out a deal with the Byzantine emperor Heraclius to help him retake the Holy Land. The emperor agreed to the terms set by the Jews and, in 629 CE, after a bloody war, the Byzantines succeeded in winning back all of the territory which the Persians had conquered eighteen years earlier. Both countries were exhausted financially by the wars. Neither was in very good condition, but Judea was in even worse shape because so much of the fighting had taken place within her borders.

When Heraclius gained control of Judea, the Jews went to him reminding him of his promises. Heraclius, assured by the Christian clergy that it was God's will and that a week of fasting would atone for any possible sins, ordered all Jews killed and all synagogues destroyed. The Jews who didn't get caught and slaughtered at once fled to Egypt and other points north or south.

Heraclius ordered forced conversion for all Jews in the Byzantine Empire, but the order was carried out only in Carthage. Heraclius asked the king of the Franks to kill all Jews, but he refused.

This sort of thing being archetypical of Jewish history is why most Jews tend to not be reassured with the "this time will be different" assurances. When your history has people telling you this hundreds and hundreds of times, under every possible circumstance, you don't expect Lucy to hold the ball still this time, no matter that those not very familiar with Jewish history find it completely inexplicable, because this time it's different.

"And, unfortunately, fanatical Muslims can find all too many texts in the Koran with which to justify persecution of Jews, Christians, pagans, and atheists."

And fanatical Jews can find endless number of texts in the Torah to justify slaughtering their enemies. So what? Very few Christians, or Jews, or Muslims, act on these bits of text nowadays. There are something on the order of a billion Muslims on Earth; the number of them who are religious terrorists is something between a few hundred and a few thousand; it's statistically insignificant.

Hi, Gary. Thanks for your comments.

Split into two or not, "blog post" is still ugly!

I consider Khomeinist Iran a threat to us because I believe the current regime is not only trying to build nuclear weapons; but would also be seriously tempted to USE them. Especially if it fears soon falling from power. In other words, I dont share your optimism.

And whether you believe it or not, Christianity is not a theocratic religion. Even Boniface VII, during his quarrel with King Philip IV of France, denied he was trying to interfere with the legitimate authority of the king.

I am by no means an expert on Islam. Recall, I merely offered some amateurish thoughts. Besides the Koran, I have read a fair number of books about Islam. I'll list the ones I considered best.

THE BIBLE AND THE QURAN, by Jacques Jomier
ISLAM AND THE WEST, by Bernard Lewis
THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE KALAM, by Harry Austryn Wolfson

WHY I AM NOT A MUSLIM, by Ibn Waraq. I'm hesitant about this one becaue the author is so violently hostile towards his former religion.

And you over look how extremist forms of Islam are not limited to Iran. They exist as threats in other countries as well.

Sincerely,

I really wish that people who know almost nothing about Islamic theology would stop making arguments as to what Islam is and isn't capable of.

Dear Omega: Thank you for your comments.

Respectfully, I disagree. IMO, the so called conventional wisdom today is to igmore or deny even the possibility of Iran trying to build nuclear weapons. My view is that the threat is real and should be taken seriously.

I actually agree with you, that if the current regime soon falls, its successor will have to loudly proclaim its anti American stance. If only for a time and to appease supporters of the former regime.

Sincerely,

"I consider Khomeinist Iran a threat to us because I believe the current regime is not only trying to build nuclear weapons; but would also be seriously tempted to USE them."

Sean, I'm much more interested in facts you can support, than what you believe. Iran has not weaponized uranium or plutonium, has it? Can it build nuclear weapons without nuclear fuel? No, it cannot. What citable fact can you link to demonstrate that Iraq is anywhere near enriching uranium to weapons grade?

If you can't cite any such facts, I ask you why you'd believe propaganda about this more than you'd still believe Saddam Hussein was trying to build nuclear weapons. (You do know that that turned out not to be at all true, right?)

But let's stipulate that at some point in the future, in disregard of their religion, in disregard of their policy statements, and in disregard of any current abilities, Iran does achieve nuclear weapons: what citable fact can you link to to demonstrate that Iran would be more irrational, and less deterrable, about using them than the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union, or than Mao Tsetung?

And setting that aside, how exactly would you propose Iran would be delivering nuclear weapons to the U.S.?

And setting that aside, how would Iran be able to do so in such large numbers that it would pose an existential threat to the U.S.? That would take many hundreds of such weapons small enough to fit on missiles, and missiles powerful enough to reach America (ICBMs).

Have you noticed how long a chain of imaginary threats you have to go through to get to that claim? That Iran has none of these things? That Iran couldn't possibly have have any of these things for many years, at best?

Might it then occur to you that you're being stirred up by a lot of propaganda designed to get you to believe something that isn't true?

"My view is that the threat is real and should be taken seriously."

That's nice. I suggest you'll want to cite links to support your views, please, if you want anyone to find them plausible. Views unsupported by facts aren't worth a lot. If you have any questions about any of my assertions, please do ask and I'll give you credible links out the wazoo. (But first I'd rather you try your own research into objective sources -- sources that aren't, you know, The National Review.)

Sean: Thanks. I tend to look at Iran and note that it has not actually attacked another country since the founding of the Islamic Republic, and think that that counts for something.

I also think it's very dangerous to take bits of the Qur'an and note their potential uses, without considering what Islamic theology actually says about them. I mean, it would be fairly easy to do the same to the Bible: "I come to bring not peace but a sword" would be a nice starting place, along with "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones Against the rock", or that nice bit from Galatians (iirc) where Paul, discussing people who say that Christians should be circumcised, says "I hope the knife slips".

I think there are problems about the relationship between Islam and the state that do not exist for Christianity. Islam claims to be an authoritative guide to, basically, everything; there is no handy "render unto Caesar" passage in the Qur'an. However, (twelver) Shi'a Islam, at least, also has (as I said) a long tradition of holding that no one can form a genuinely Islamic state until the return of the Mahdi, which those of us who don't believe in Mahdis should take to mean: never. (Likewise, people who are not Christian do not need to be threatened by any Christian claims about what they might do after the heavens roll up as a scroll and the Lord descends in glory.)

Khomeinism is, as I understand it, utterly heterodox. (Which is why Ayatollah Sistani has not tried to become an Iraqi Khomeni.) I suspect -- I hope , at any rate -- that the problems with entrusting fallible humans with divine authority are now clear enough that, in time, the orthodox view will prevail.

As I said, though, it will be very interesting.

"One of the most common policies of the Catholic Church thru the centuries was RESISTING attempts by the state to meddle with her, either in doctrine or in self governement"

Well, yes, the Church objected to the state telling it what to do. Which tells us precisely nothing about the Catholic Church's attitude towards the church meddling in the state.

I get the impression you're a Catholic, Sean. I know Protestants (thankfully not that many) with a rather rose-colored view of Protestant history--they tend to think Catholics did all the persecuting and Protestants stood for religious freedom. And I've known Catholics who seem equally clueless. I've got a book about the history of the Orthodox Church--looking in the index to see what it might have to say about the rather unfortunate relationship between some Orthodox Christians and Jews (see the passage Gary quoted from my link above for an example), I find that the words "Jew" and "Judaism" aren't even there. I think books like this probably give the unwary reader a nicely sanitized view of ecclesiastical history.

There's really quite a long history of Christians killing each other, and killing Jews, and killing pagans and Muslims in the name of Christianity (and I'm aware that it's not a one way street, though in the case of Jews most of the time it was). I don't think this violence is inherent in the teachings of Christianity, though I've read enough of "Constantine's Sword" and other works to realize one can make a case for saying that Christian antisemitism has its roots in the New Testament. (Certainly there are passages there that antisemites have always quoted). At any rate, there's around 17 centuries worth of violence to explain. It really won't do to tell me in response that the Catholic Church objects when the state tries to tell it what to do.

Dear Hilzoy:

I hope you are well. And many thanks for replying to me.

But Khomeinist Iran does not HAVE to openly attack her neighbors to be a dangerous threat. It's enough for the regime to subsidize terrorist groups to further its ambitions. Hezbulla in Lebanon is one example of Iranian subsidized terrorism.

And I agree with you about the need to handle the Koran carefull, no matter how much I dislike it. I DO believe a reasonable can be made from PRIMARY Muslim sources for arguing that Islam is at least PRONE to tolerating war and violence. And I insist on not being accused of claiming all or most Muslims are murderous fanatics. I do not believe that to be the case.

And I'm fully willing to accept or hope that "orthodox" Shia Islam is not as prone to a theocratic view of the state as the Khomeinist brand. As you said, we shall see!

Btw, I hope you look up Wolfson's THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE KALAM sometime. Basically, it's about the early Muslim reaction to contact with Classical and Judaeo/Christian thought and theology. Bsst book about Islam I've ever read. Altho it is somewhat above my head!

Sincerely,

Hi, Donald. Many thanks for your note.

I only need to point out how Christianity has never had an insitution like the caliphate, merging mosque and state, and claiming the right to rule all Muslims. Yes, I know this was only an ideal, soon shattered when rival caliphates amd breakaway Muslims like the Shias arose.

And I do NOT deny the evils, crimes, and follies my fellow Catholics, past or present, have or will commit. No honest historian of the Church denies that. I only need to cite the unflinching depictions given us by writers like the late Fr. Philip Hughes in works like his THE CHURCH IN CRISIS or more recent works like Eamon Duffy's THE STRIPPING OF THE ALTARS. And far earlier writers like St. Gregory of Tours (d. AD 594)were also brutally frank about unworthy Catholics in THE HISTORY OF THE FRANKS (which is one of my favorite chronicles).

I don't quite see your point about the Jews, tho. The shameful history of anti Semitism by Christians doesn't seem relevant to the many quarrels between Church and State.

Sincerely,

"Hezbulla in Lebanon is one example of Iranian subsidized terrorism."

Hezbollah in Lebanon has 14 seats in the Lebanese parliament, and brings out hundreds of thousands of people to its demonstrations. Iran has little or nothing to do with this.

"I only need to point out how Christianity has never had an insitution like the caliphate, merging mosque and state, and claiming the right to rule all Muslims."

The Papal States.

Hilzoy, possibly you could turn off the italics that have been running in this thread since jrudkis's June 22, 2009 at 11:49 PM? Thanks muchly.

There were and are many states where the Head of State is also head of the state church. And all "Roman" empires (including the 'third Rome' = Moscow) claimed at least in theory to speak and act for all Christians at least during some time of their existence. St.Thomas Aquinas codified the theory that the secular authorities are subservient to the clerical and he has been affirmed repeatedly by the RCC up to the present day. That does not mean that the cleric does the formal day-to-day ruling but that he can veto any action (unrestricted)and demand any action (if it can be defined as touching the divine interests). Modern age RCC theologians (with imprimatur) have claimed that "the pope is the conscience of the believer" (context: RCC opposition to the conscientious objection clause in the Western German constitution, later also quoted in the context of sexual self-detrmination) and that obedience to the pope trumps obedience to divine law ("If the pope orders to sin, then one has to sin for it is less evil to sin than to disobey the pope"). Sorry, can't give a link to the latter claim. Not sure whether it was late 19th or first half of 20th century.

There were and are many states where the Head of State is also head of the state church.

Indeed, the Eastern Roman Emperor was "God's vicegerent on earth." The Byzantine emperors certainly had trouble with patriarchs from time-to-time, and there was the whole iconoclasm back-and-forth, but nothing like the West's Investiture Controversy established church supremacy over the emperor.

And one could argue that both Cromwell and the Massachusetts Puritans did a fair job of fusing church and state. Freedom of conscience was one of the reasons Roger Williams fled to Rhode Island, after all.

Also, anyone who thinks that Shi'a Islam is intrinsically more hierarchical than Sunni should probably do a little bit more reading. Especially since this very post is about how the Supreme Leader's position is such an aberrant one.

Fantastic, utterly necessary post (they always are, of course, but this one is particularly insightful, in that "why on earth is no one else talking about this aspect of the debate?!" kind of way that hilzoy does so well).

-

Throwing another side into the thread mix here (in an ironic agreement with Mr. Brooks, above), an anti-theistic Sam Harris-esque critique would argue that any faith-based political power is inherently dangerous: In the modern age of overpopulation, environmental impact, and mass destruction technology, non-reality (i.e. "religious faith") based influence upon the levers of material power may constitute an "existential threat" in general.

Examples would include: a born-again fundamentalist Christian POTUS literally believing in Revelations while pondering his Middle East policy, certain American legislators' faith-based denial of science, various Israeli politicians' belief in the God-given destiny of their geographical borders, or young men being told that they'll be given a holy orgy in the afterlife if they just put this vest on and walk into a marketplace, or learn how to fly a plane but not land it. The differences would be ones of the extent or effect of the influence, not necessarily the differences between the various religions: arguing about "relevant" texts in particular books of ancient poetry is neither here nor there when contrasted with the dichotomy between faith-based and reality-based decision making.

Therefore, in a somewhat reductionist way, any event that winds up increasing the power of religious faith in a state's mechanisms (or even to continue to legitimize such faith through "moderation") might be seen as a net loss.

[Lukewarm disclaimer: I, myself, do not necessarily whole-heartedly endorse this position (for instance, I believe that a reformed Islamic Courts system in Somalia might be an excellent method for the fixing intolerable humanitarian crisis there), but I recognize that it is a legitimate (and rather compelling, imho) argument to be made.]

"an anti-theistic Sam Harris-esque critique would argue that any faith-based political power is inherently dangerous: In the modern age of overpopulation, environmental impact, and mass destruction technology, non-reality (i.e. "religious faith") based influence upon the levers of material power may constitute an "existential threat" in general."

What little I've read of Sam Harris doesn't impress me too much. For one thing, his argument that one might have to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against a religious fundamentalist state with the Bomb seems sorta like the "ticking time bomb argument" multiplied by a million. I wonder about people so certain of their own notions of rationality who think like this. Here he is defending himself from the criticisms of people like me--

Link

Separate church and state--I'm all for it. But go on and argue that "moderate" religious belief is ultimately a danger because it is irrational in itself and provides respectable cover for the crazier fanatical types--well, even if I wasn't one of those moderate religious types apparently giving cover for suicide bombers and crusaders I'd find this kind of thinking dangerously utopian and borderline intolerant in its own right.

link

"I don't quite see your point about the Jews, tho. The shameful history of anti Semitism by Christians doesn't seem relevant to the many quarrels between Church and State."

The point is that Christians who argue that Islam, unlike Christianity, is a uniquely dangerous religion that provides justification for state oppression look a little silly, given the actual history of Christianity.

If you believe in Islam, the problem cannot be that the Islamic Republic is too Islamic.

I believe in Christianity, but I dont want America to be too Christian. Especially if it's the form of Christianism used by much of the Right.

Surely there can be Iranian Muslims who dont support the fundamentalist Islam preached by the mullahs.

The reason I think of Shia as more heirarchic than Sunni is the existence of grand ayatollahs. I do not think there is an equivalent in Sunni Islam that are held in the same esteem. So, for example, Sadr needs Sistani to provide legitimacy (or at least not be in the way).

"The reason I think of Shia as more heirarchic than Sunni is the existence of grand ayatollahs. I do not think there is an equivalent in Sunni Islam that are held in the same esteem."

Shia have ranks of how esteemed your scholarship are, but not a hierarchy in any sense of organization. Both Sunni and Shia believe in the caliph, and respect for someone with greater scholarship, but which scholar one should look to is a matter for individuals to decide (aside from the matter of some states making official appointments, but that's more politics than it is religion).

Really, Islam just can't be compared to hierarchalism like the Catholic Church. It's much more similar to Protestantism, or Judaism, in its diversity and lack of hierarchy.

For those of us who rode the short bus to school, Thomas Friedman brings significant clarity to a complex social & political issue.

The Iran crisis well explained:

Bullets & Barrels.

Gary,

Thanks for the explanation.

How things are going in the Islamic Republic:

[...] Ayatollah Khamenei now has a very big image problem among influential Shi’a clergymen. Over the course of the political crisis, stretching back to the days leading up to the election, Rafsanjani has succeeded in knocking the supreme leader off his pedestal by revealing Ayatollah Khamenei to be a political partisan rather than an above-the-fray spiritual leader. In other words, the supreme leader has become a divider, not a uniter. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Now that Ayatollah Khamenei has become inexorably connected to Ahmadinejad’s power grab, many clerics are coming around to the idea that the current system needs to be changed. Among those who are now believed to be arrayed against Ayatollah Khamenei is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shi’a cleric in neighboring Iraq. Rafsanjani is known to have met with Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s representative in Iran, Javad Shahrestani.

A reformist website, Rooyeh, reported that Rafsanjani already had the support of nearly a majority of the Assembly of Experts, a body that constitutionally has the power to remove Ayatollah Khamenei. The report also indicated that Rafsanjani’s lobbying efforts were continuing to bring more clerics over to his side. Rafsanjani’s aim, the website added, is the establishment of a leadership council, comprising of three or more top religious leaders, to replace the institution of supreme leader. Shortly after it posted the report on Rafsanjani’s efforts to establish a new collective leadership, government officials pulled the plug on Rooyeh.

Meanwhile, the Al-Arabiya satellite television news channel reported that a "high-ranking" source in Qom confirmed that Rafsanjani has garnered enough support to remove Ayatollah Khamenei, but an announcement is being delayed amid differences on what or who should replace the supreme leader. Some top clerics reportedly want to maintain the post of supreme leader, albeit with someone other than Ayatollah Khamenei occupying the post, while others support the collective leadership approach.

Read The Rest Scale: 3 out of 5.

This thread has pretty well run its course, so I won't write at any length. But I did want to point toward a recent wave of scholarship on the origins of the Western conception of church and state.

In a nutshell, it's a three-stage process. First, early modern scholars became obsessed with the notion of the Hebrew Republic - a godly realm which dispensed with invidious distinctions between political and ecclesiastical authority. These ideas took particular root in Northern Europe, as the Reformation flourished. They led to a series of experiments - in Geneva, Massachusetts Bay, Commonwealth England, and elsewhere - in which the civil and religious were indeed merged. But these experiments failed, as power corrupted the church, and the church proved unable to impose orthodoxy by force. And that led to the third stage, a backlash, leading to the first clearly defined separation of the church and the state and the birth of freedom of conscience in its modern form.

The take-away lesson is this: Despite the precedents cited above, for two millenia, the lines between the Christian church and the states in which it operated were muddled and indistinct. They were not the same, but neither were they entirely separate. But the separation didn't emerge gradually, and it didn't emerge in where the distinction had historically been strongest. Just the opposite. First, the experiment was carried to one extreme, and then to the other.

So what we're witnessing in Iran is incredibly intriguing. Already, for the past couple of decades, there's been a rising course of dissent from within Qom and other centers of scholarship, as clerics have watched the corrupting influence of power. Now we're starting to hear it from political leaders and rank-and-file protesters as well. Like the Christians of England, these are overwhelmingly devout and pious people. They want to hold true to their faith, and increasingly, they see its separation from the organs of state as the best means of preserving it.

So I don't think we're going to see a simple reversion to earlier forms of ecclesiastical guardianship - in which religious leaders exercise limited authority in civic realms. It's not about resetting the clock. It's about ushering in something entirely new. Iran, somewhat ironically, now offers the greatest hope of an Islamic people opting for a secular government. Not, mind you, an anti-Islamic government, or an agnostic one. No, merely a government focused on governance, while clerics tend to religious matters on their own. It won't happen overnight. But if we are indeed witnessing such an intellectual revolution, it would be far more momentous than any political change.

Hilzoy, Sully's reader is quite wrong. Musavi and the other candidates protests are based on a violation of Islamic law in an Islamic republic. The Iranians live under a rule of law in a republic, just like us. It is just islamic law and an Islamic republic. And it is definitely a reform movement.
tant pis for the neocons, the Islamic republic of Iran will survive.

Sayeed Ali al Sistani is the titular leader of Shi'ia Islam. But when the holiest site of the Shi'ia was controlled by Iraq, an enemy of Iran, Iranians established the holy city of Qom where shi'ia muslims could fulfill their obligation to hajj. So Qom does not actually owe subservience to Karbala, or take direction from Sayeed Sistani....they are more parallel, and authority flows from both holy cities independently.

The Assembly of Experts has the constitutional power to remove the Supreme Leader. What would happen if the Leader became corrupt, insane, or too ill to perform his service to the people?
It is being said that Khameni is ill and old and wishes to ensure his son Mojtaba will succeed him, and that Mojtaba made a shaitan bargain with Nejad. There has been noise calling Khameni "the Ali of the Age", implying he could hand down his position to his son like Imam Ali handed his to his son.
Both genetics and scholarship figure prominantly in succession in Shi'ia islam.
Remember the 1979 revolution took about a year. Every action the regime takes against its people de-legitimizes it more in the eyes of Qom, the true source of authority. It is the greatest sin for a muslim to kill another muslim.
This is actually much more a culture war between two versions of al-Islam. Nejad's fundies are rural, poor, older, ostentatiously pious, less educated, socially conservative and....outnumbered. Much like conservatives in this country they are frightened and angered by the loss of power that demographics is dealing them. 70% of Iranians are under 30.

I would expect a large protest at 40 days out from Neda Soltani's martyrdom. If Rafsanjani has consolidated his coalition in Qom, he will make his move then.
The brutal crackdown today I think is a mistake, but it is truly the only option left to Khameni and Mojtaba to secure the succession. If they cannot brutalize the population into submission before the 40 day event they will fail. I do not think the regime can achieve a sufficient quantity of brutality to destroy the dissident movement, and they can only force it underground for a time. It may take a year, like it did with the Shah, but the Shi'ia will never accept a dictator. The Shi'ia are very good at non-violent protest and resistance. That is how they survived the Umayydd Caliphate, and how they overthrew the tyrant Shah.
I would place my bet on the Sea of Green.

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