Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Saturday, June 27, 2009

More on legitimacy in Iran

The Economist is a valuable teaching tool. The latest edition, which arrived in my mailbox today, includes another of those gems of background and analysis that make this magazine worth its subscription price.

I know I've read most of these facts. I've read or made most of the implications. I doubt that I've read them all in one of the half-dozen texts or half-dozen other books I've read about Iran.

This article is one to "clip" and save as a supplement to whatever your students read. You can ask them to note the date on the clipping and update it from June 27, 2009, to whatever date in March or April of 2010 that they are studying about government and politics in Iran.

Iran's debate over theocracy: Why the turbans are at odds
THE Koran is the word of God, which every Muslim must follow, but its commands can be hard to interpret.* So people should submit to the rule of a properly trained religious scholar. The idea is a simple one, and the father figure of Iran’s revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, made it the central principle of his Islamic state.

But the notion of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) has proved to be controversial as a religious doctrine and tricky in practice. The turbulence now sweeping Iran has many causes, among them a simple urge for freedom. Yet the tensions, inconsistencies and hypocrisies generated by trying to impose velayat-e faqih lie at the heart of its troubles.

Divisions among top Shia scholars are nothing new. In the main seminary towns of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran, followers of competing ayatollahs have frequently clashed, sometimes with fists. One recurring split has pitted scholars who believe they should stay outside politics against those who believe they must engage in it. Ayatollah Khomeini pushed this argument to a new level. His revolutionary constitution created the post of supreme leader, placing an unelected senior scholar in overall command of the country.

Many of his fellow ayatollahs saw this as an “innovation”, a bad word in Muslim jurisprudence, signifying an unsubstantiated departure from Islam’s founding texts. Some feared that immersion in worldly affairs would taint clerics and end by repelling believers from the faith. Others argued that democracy was a better way to divine God’s will, or that a committee of scholars, rather than a single man, would suit the leadership function better...

The doubters [of Khomeini's teachings] include not only leading scholars in the seminaries of Qom, but some of Ayatollah Khomeini’s closest associates, including prominent members of his own family...

One group of mid-ranking clerics has blasted the election as a fraud...

Many [other] Shia clergymen either depend on his largesse or hold loyalty to the state and its Islamic mission above matters of personal opinion. Besides, Mr Khamenei’s tenure has seen power steadily drain away from the clergy and towards Iran’s security services...

*See Egypt imam approves punctuation use in Quran for one example of why the Quran "can be hard to interpret."

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