Iran's Regime of Religion

By Khalaji, Mehdi | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Iran's Regime of Religion


Khalaji, Mehdi, Journal of International Affairs


Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has modernized and bureaucratized the clerical establishment, redefined religion and created institutions to enforce this new definition. The effect has been a transformation of religion into a symbolic form of capital. By monopolizing religious affairs, the political system has become a regime of religion in which the state plays the role of central banker for symbolic religious capital. Consequently, the expansion and monopolization of the religious market have helped the Islamic Republic increase the ranks of its supporters and beneficiaries significantly, even among critics of the government. This article demonstrates how the accumulation of religious capital in the hands of the government mutually influences the nature of the state and the clerical establishment and will continue to do so in Iran's uncertain future.

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"The problem is not one of constructing definitions of religion.... It is a matter of discovering just what sorts of beliefs and practices support what sorts of faith under what sorts of conditions. Our problem, and it grows worse by the day, is not to define religion but to find it."

Clifford Geertz (1)

The political orientation of the Shiite clergy did not originate with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Shiism had political value in Iran long before the founding of the Islamic Republic. Five centuries ago, the Safavid dynasty established Shiism as the government's official ideology. This was a historical turning point for the Shiite clerical establishment, which benefited from new political, social and economic privileges. For about five centuries, Iranian politics has been made in coordination with the clergy. Even the Pahlavi dynasty--known for its authoritarian and secular agenda--needed to give the impression that it was safeguarding Shiism as the government's official religion in order to gain legitimacy.

The overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty and emergence of an Islamic Republic in 1979 was an exceptional development in the history of the Shiite clerical establishment. Prior to the revolution, the clergy's role had been officially limited to the realm of sacred affairs, but the post-revolution era fundamentally changed the relationship between state and religion in Iran by thrusting clerics into unprecedented positions of political power and laying the groundwork for the development of Iran's unique strand of religious authoritarianism. However, over the past three decades the Islamic Republic has consolidated power and is now imposing its will on the clerical establishment that produced it, particularly the seminaries in the holy city of Qom, as well as on society more broadly. Thus, in order to better understand religious politics in Iran, we must also examine the politics of religion or, more precisely, Iran's political economy of religion. (2)

Iran's regime of religion has transformed religiosity into a form of social and symbolic capital that can be bought, sold and traded in a new marketplace. Religious capital, as I define it, encompasses social status, network and class, along with educational credentials and popular perceptions of public displays of piety. These factors legitimize the outwardly religious, provide them privileges and imbue them with a unique authority in Iranian society. The government has used the following three mechanisms to confiscate religious capital: monopolizing the management of the seminaries in the hands of the state, regulating and supervising religious rituals and creating parallel institutions to implement functions traditionally monopolized by the clerical establishment. This article explores the ways in which individuals, including clerics, use socioreligious capital to improve their economic or political positions within the government-defined parameters of this new marketplace. It then explores the implications of this phenomenon for the perpetuation of authoritarianism, religious or otherwise, in Iran.

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