The Death of Theocracy

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Hitchens

Tehran's thugs cannot last.

The term "theocracy" trips readily enough off the tongue and is an accurate description of a system where mortals claim the right to dominate other mortals in the name of God. But it is also a word that has uncomfortable implications for those who hope to stay out of the "internal affairs" of other societies. The Iranian theocracy, and the crisis of its regime, is a near-perfect illustration of this dilemma.

By the rule laid down by the mullahs, the Iranian people are not even allowed to meddle in their own internal affairs. They are counted as wards of the state, as children in the care of a paternal priesthood. (It's for this reason that the humiliation of dictatorship is felt with especial and stinging keenness by the rising generation of young Iranian adults.) The immediate result of theocratic policy when measured by the standard of repression is pretty clear and getting ever clearer: any government that imagines it has a divine warrant will perforce deal with its critics as if they were profane and thus illegitimate by definition.

But now see how this plays out in the ordinary human world, and watch what happens to a state or society that forbids itself the secular catharsis of self-criticism. In 1988 a certain Mr. Rafsanjani paid an urgent call on a certain Mr. Khomeini in order to tell him that Iran had no serious choice but to sign a U.N.-sponsored peace deal with Saddam Hussein. Not even the consecrated martyrs of the Revolutionary Guards could go on taking the catastrophic casualties of the war. Khomeini had resisted Rafsanjani's "realism" for a long time, claiming that God was on the side of Iran and that his will would therefore prevail. But he was obliged to sign.

Then, desperate to recover religious credibility and honor, and noticing that there were angry protests against an Indian-born novelist living in England, Khomeini doubled and quadrupled the cultural stakes and pronounced a death sentence on Salman Rushdie. Thus the West came to hear and understand the words AfatwaA and "jihad," as exported to non-Muslim societies by bribery and force. To this day--as evidenced by the Danish cartoon controversy and other crises--there is a palpable fear of printing or broadcasting anything that may offend Islamic extremist "sensibilities. …