Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, August 16, 2010

The other Shiite political theory

Ayatollah Khomeini's Wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the jurist), was a departure from traditional political thinking in Shiite Islam. Even today it may not be a majority position. Mohamad Bazzi's analysis in Foreign Affairs makes that point and offers insight into Shiite political theory. This might be a good reading to supplement the textbook your students are assigned to read.

Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a journalism professor at New York University.

Khomeini's Long Shadow
For many Shiite Muslims, whose religion was born of rebellion, last year's popular uprising in Iran was just the latest in a centuries-long struggle against injustice and tyranny… But the 2009 unrest and violent crackdown in Iran were actually battles in a larger war that has been raging for centuries within Shiism -- a war over who should rule the faithful, and how. There is a more moderate, democratic vision of Shiism -- one that has been stifled ever since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution -- that could ultimately resolve the current conflict.

Shiite clerics have long debated their role in politics. The "quietist" school… argues against direct engagement in political matters. The more activist school emphasizes the martyrdom of Shiism's founding figure, Imam Hussein, who advocated rebellion and confrontation. But even within the activist school, there is a debate over the extent of clerical power.

The model of absolute rule that dominates Iran today is just one of several competing doctrines within the Shiite clergy. Wilayat al-faqih (velayat-e faqih in Farsi), or "guardianship of the jurist," triumphed under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 revolution. He modeled his doctrine on the concept of absolute rule exercised by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors in the early days of Islam. Khomeini's charisma and political skill overshadowed the more moderate vision of Shiism emanating from the Iraqi city of Najaf…

But contrary to popular perception, many Shiite clerics have long opposed Khomeini's vision of an all-powerful supreme leader. They do not want to seize political power directly, whether in Iran, Iraq, or elsewhere. One faction believes that a group of senior clerics should rule by consensus, while another camp argues that leadership should be left to politicians who are devout but not necessarily clerics…

Emboldened by last year's protests, some dissident scholars spoke out forcefully. One month after the disputed presidential election, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri issued a religious ruling that did not mention Khamenei by name but declared Iran's leaders no longer fit to rule. It was the strongest criticism by a fellow cleric in 20 years. Montazeri said leaders who put their own interests above those of the people breach the implicit trust between ruler and ruled. "Those leaders are transgressors and usurpers, and therefore lose their right to rule," he wrote. "It is incumbent upon the people to call for their removal from office."

Montazeri, who died last December at the age of 87, was one of the most senior clerics in Iran. He was Khomeini's designated heir until the late 1980s, when he condemned the violence committed in the name of the revolution. In his critiques of Khamenei last year, Montazeri reiterated an argument he and other clerics had advanced for years: that an Islamic system of governance must rest on the sovereignty of God as well as the sovereignty of the people. "The government will not achieve legitimacy without the support of the people," he wrote. "As the necessary and obligatory condition for the legitimacy of the ruler is his popularity and the people's satisfaction with him."...

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