Iranians Hold a Dress Rehearsal for Revolution

By Sardar, Ziauddin | New Statesman (1996), July 26, 1999 | Go to article overview

Iranians Hold a Dress Rehearsal for Revolution


Sardar, Ziauddin, New Statesman (1996)


President Khatami wants to modernise his nation and Islam. He has powerful allies.

Recent student demonstrations in Tehran brought the long-running shadow-play of Iranian politics out into the open. Pro-democracy students defied a government ban on protest and fought a week-long pitched battle with the police and hardline vigilantes. At least one student was killed and 1,400 people were arrested during the unrest. But the student rebellion, like all good shadow-pantomimes, does not tell the whole story. For that you have to go behind the screen.

Students, young people and women, the most dissatisfied elements of Iranian society, swept President Mohammad Khatami to power in the 1997 election. They remain crucial to his strategy to shape a new Islamic identity and transform the "Islamic revolution" from within. Khatami and his allies have spent a decade shaping this strategy. At stake is the very soul of Islam. Just like the Iranian revolution itself, the outcome of Khatami's struggle will reverberate throughout the Muslim world for decades to come.

The first and most significant component of Khatami's strategy relates to the doctrine of Vilayat-e-Faqih or the "Guardianship of the Supreme Jurist". This notion is an innovation introduced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution. Shi'a Muslims use the term "Imam" to describe the 12 leaders of their sect. Each Imam, a direct and early descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, serves as a guide to the whole human race. The last of these is said to have gone into occultation in the very early period of Islamic history and will appear towards the end of time. The perennial problem for Iranian Muslims is the question: who has the right to rule in the absence of the 12th Imam? Ayatollah Khomeini solved the problem by arguing that, as the moral and spiritual guardians of the people in the absence of the 12th Imam, the religious scholars were duty-bound to oversee the entire political process. The most prominent scholar/jurist would thus be the "Supreme Leader"; and a council of leading jurists would serve as guardian of the people.

This simplistic solution had a profound effect on Muslim intellectuals everywhere during the early days of the Islamic revolution. Even Sunni Muslims like myself - who reject the notion of Imams - thought that religious scholars serving as spiritual advisers to the Islamic state could prove useful in solving contemporary ethical problems. We did not, however, see the Iranian "Islamic state" as a theocracy but as a new variant of constitutional monarchy. The Iranian clergy had other ideas. The doctrine of Vilayat-e-Faqih accumulated wide-ranging powers in the hands of a single jurist - including the power to declare war, appoint the chief justice and prosecutor general, approve presidential elections, veto the legislation of parliament and presidential decisions and appoint six jurists of the Shura-e-Nigahban, or Council of Guardians.

Khatami's goal is to turn Vilayat-e-Faqih into something akin to a constitutional monarchy. But to carry weight with the Iranian people, this transformation has to be justified in terms of Shi'a theology. Thus, Khatami has developed a broad-based reform movement consisting of more enlightened clerics, lay religious thinkers, university professors, writers, film-makers and journalists.

The decisive blow to the doctrine of Vilayat-e-Faqih has come from the Liberation Movement of Iran, which, in a widely read and cited document, The Explanation and Analysis of the Absolute Governance o f Jurist, reached the explosive conclusion that "from the Koranic perspective, the absolute governance of the jurist is baseless and tantamount to polytheism". The document asserted further that Ayatollah Khomeini provided no Koranic evidence for his theory. As a result of this and other efforts, Vilayat-e-Faqih is now openly questioned in Iran.

The second component of Khatami's strategy is to expose the corruption of the Council of Guardians.

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