Thursday, June 25, 2009

A genuine Islamic revolution

Guest post by Hamid M. Khan

(You can find Hamid's previous guest posts here, here, and here. His bio is below. -- MJWS)

While history is replete with revolutions, successful ones are able to match a collective will with an endemic philosophy for change. Days ago, Iranians gathered to elect a president, but in the ensuing firestorm from Iran’s electoral results found reason to challenge Iran’s current government. And while there are almost an infinite number of reasons to alter the Iranian Republic, from the perspective of both Islamic thought and current practice, there is perhaps no better focus for a revolution than tearing down the post of “Supreme Jurist” and its current occupant, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

When reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi challenged conservative hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the presidency, a robust debate ensued. The electoral fervor prompted throngs to march into the streets, including a multitude of women and students, most of whom were born after the 1979 revolution. The anticipation, however, turned to outrage when it was announced that Ahmadinejad was the indisputable victor, a dubious claim at best given that authorities, among other things, could not have counted 40 million votes in a couple of hours.

Immediately, crowds challenged the results and quietly began to conclude that the manipulation was the doing of Khamenei. Initial impressions gave way to Khamenei’s pronouncement that the results were divinely inspired, despite the fact he previously asked the Guardian Council to investigate any election irregularities. Finally, after witnessing crowds not seen since the inception of the Iranian Republic, Khamenei mounted the pulpit adorned with Quranic verses at Tehran University during Friday prayers to assert once again the validity of the election (but before the Guardian Council could conclude its supposed investigation) and also to warn dissenters that continued protests would end in bloodshed. For many, it was clear the mandate of the people was being supplanted by Iran’s supreme leader, and pleas for denouncing the results turned into denunciations of a dictator.

While many are familiar with the broadest brushstrokes of the current Iranian regime, it is worth closer inspection. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khamenei’s predecessor, and leader of the revolution, proposed that the Iranian government be divided between popularly elected individuals such as the president and, borrowing a page from Islamic history, a body of un-elected religious jurists. The idea was that popular rule would be moderated by clerics who would ensure the Islamic character of the notion, a role tracing back to early Islam and shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. Khomeini, however, did not stop there, but, using a twisted form Shiite theology, he created a position of unparalleled authority that many Shiites today believe is heretical to Islam itself.

Under Shiite belief, the Prophet Muhammad was succeeded by a finite number of direct descendants, known as the Imams, who were, among other things, infallible and direct interlocutors with God. The last of the Imams, known as the Hidden Imam, was thought to have gone into hiding (or occultation) centuries ago and is prophesied to return to Earth as the Messiah, or “Madhi,” to presage the Judgment Day. It is also believed that upon his return the Madhi will establish the perfect state, or a perpetual Kingdom of God on Earth. Using this Shiite devotion to the Madhi, Khomeini artfully established the position of the Valayat-e Faqih, or Supreme Jurist (misinterpreted as “Supreme Leader”), to sit atop Iran’s government and to act as agent of the Madhi before his return to earth. The heresy (and genius) of Khomeini’s theologico-political theory is that the Supreme Jurist is a parallel to the Madhi and, like the Imams of the past, possesses a divine authority equal to the Prophet Muhammad himself.

Thus, when the 1979 Revolution prevailed, it was no coincidence that Khomeini was immediately declared Supreme Jurist. However, in the years following the Revolution, Khomeini invoked the Madhi to his largely Shiite population to usher in constitutional amendments that would turn Supreme Jurist from a religious figurehead into a near-absolute religious monarch. Today, the Supreme Jurist possesses the power to dismiss an elected president along with the power to veto all legislation and assert control over the judiciary, not to mention absolute control over the nation’s armed forces.

It should be noted, however, that a few vigilant followers quickly deemed Khomeini’s government as an aberration of both Islamic history and centuries of Shiite thought, not to mention religiously presumptuous in light of the fact that the only true government would rest with the Madhi. Khomeini, following the path of other dictators, dismissed, arrested, and even executed his detractors. When Khomeini died in 1988, his position shifted to Ali Khamenei, who had been hand-chosen by Khomeini as his successor. Khamenei’s selection, however, added insult to injury because, in theory, the Supreme Jurist was the most senior cleric of the community, who coincidently Khomeini had imprisoned long before. Khamenei, however, was weak to the task and outwardly lacked either religious credentials or the political charisma of his predecessor. For years, he stood in the background and has only emerged to demonstrate the weakness of leadership, all but urging violence upon those who would challenge an election and, ultimately, his authority.

With Khamenei at his weakest, it is time for all of Iran — women and students, old and young, including the clerical elite, who have already shown unparalleled bravery — to struggle in the spirit of Islam against the injustice of their own government and to bring to an end the totalitarian rule of the Supreme Jurist. The theological predicate has been laid as clerics throughout the Shiite ranks (in and outside Iran) have become outwardly skeptical of the religious underpinnings of the Supreme Jurist. And with the bloodshed in the streets all throughout Iran, including the vicious murder of the woman simply known as Neda, it is clear that Khamenei has lost his moral authority to rule.

It should not be forgotten that it was failure of moral authority to lead a nation that brought about the revolution in 1979. Now it is time to usher in a genuine Islamic revolution in 2009.

Hamid M. Khan is a fellow with the
Truman National Security Project, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado Law School, where he teaches Islamic Law, and an associate with the law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.

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