Cleric's Defiance a Breach of Faith?
ISLAM AND THE WEST
By Daniel Brumberg
According to the constitution, everything in the country is determined by people's vote. People elect the members of the Assembly of Experts and then they elect the leader... Presidents, MPs, members of the councils are elected by direct votes....The title of Islamic Republic is not...a formality. It includes both the republican and Islamic nature.
-- Hashemi Rasfanjani, July 17, 2009
Friday July 17 may turn out to be one of the most fateful days in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Barely a month after Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad engineered an electoral coup, several hundred thousand people defied regime threats to hear former President Hashemi Rafsanjani give the single most important speech of his long career.
Consider the setting. Rafsanjani, a "son of the revolution" whose ruthless pragmatism had earned him the nickname the "Shark," was biting back at the very regime he had helped to create. Moreover, he did so during Tehran University Friday Prayers -- a venue that Iran's leaders had long used to orchestrate mass support for the revolution. But here was Rafsanjani turning a ritual of obeisance into a voluntary sacrament of mass defiance symbolized by a sea of green extending far beyond the gates of Tehran University.
That sea included prayer mats upon which men and women worshipped, in some cases side by side -- in clear repudiation of clerical orthodoxy. This unprecedented scene followed weeks of rooftop protests during which Iranians shouted out "Allahu Akbar." Often translated as "God is Great," the phrase actually means "God is Greater than anything," with the last part (min kul) implied rather than spoken. Hurled at the regime, this phrase was meant to remind Iran's leaders that they cannot speak for God.
And thus we come to the central issue: is it possible to have a republic ruled by cleric(s) who assert that they are "God's Shadow on Earth?" Can those who claim a kind of spiritual-political infallibility tolerate a political system whose decisions, Rafsanjani argues, should be "determined by the people's vote?"
Rafsanjani's own answers to these questions have varied over the years. During the early 1990s, when leaders of the Islamic Left (a key wing of the revolutionary family) assailed the regime's economic policies -- and by implication, the authority of the Supreme Leader -- Rafsanjani backed a purge that forced many Islamic Leftists into the political wilderness. But when the 1997 election catapulted Mohammed Khatami into the presidency, Rafsanjani tried to mend fences with Iran's new democratic forces, only to be rebuffed by a reform movement whose leaders had not forgotten his earlier sins. Unaccustomed to such slights, in 2001 the "Shark" retaliated by keeping silent as hard-liners accelerated their campaign to shut down the reformist movement.
Given this acrimonious history, many Iranians wondered if Rafsanjani would support their struggle when he stepped up to dais on July 17. Since he could not lead Friday Prayers without the Supreme Leader's acquiescence, it was widely feared that he would compromise the opposition's vital interests and aspirations.
But Rafsanjani did not sell out the opposition. On the contrary, if in the name of political unity and consensus he urged the regime to allow "all sides...to express their views," he was hardly accommodating. His call for the release of all political prisoners and an end to "limits on our media" flew in the face of a regime seeking total power. Moreover, when he proclaimed that he is "not interested in any factions," Rafsanjani set up a damning contrast between a Supreme Leader who has embraced one faction, and a former president who claims to speak for the entire "family...of which we are all members."
Yet that is not all. Rafsanjani went much further by asserting that the Islamic Republic's founding father -- Ayatollah Khomeini -- held that "Islamic rule is not possible without the people." Indeed, he claimed that Khomeini -- after invoking the scared example of Imam Ali, the first spiritual-political of the Shi'ites -- told Rafsanjani in no uncertain terms that if the "majority" does not accept the leader, "then you have to leave them."
Was Rafsanjani implying that Khamanei must go? Did he dare suggest that it was he who should follow in Khomeini's footsteps by leading the struggle to reunite the political "family?"
While we can only guess as to Rafsanjani's ultimate motives, there is one point of which we can be completely sure: Iran's political family is now irrevocably divided. And it is precisely because of this enormous breach that the opposition's fate may now partly rest on reaching out to those "sons of the revolution" who have thus far not abandoned the regime, but who fear that the state's repressive tactics might forever discredit the Khomeinist ideal of harmonizing popular and clerical authority. In time, such fears could provide the impetus for an expanding alliance of opposition elites -- a united front that could propose innovative approaches to the riddle that Iran's leaders have yet to solve: how to reconcile Islamic values with democratic practices.
Such a project must worry Khamanei. In the wake of Rafsanjani's Friday sermon, he warned that "the elites should be cautious as they are confronted with a massive trial. Their failure....will lead to their demise."
Perhaps this very admonition will one day apply to Khamanei himself.
Daniel Brumberg is Co-Director of Georgetown University's Democracy and Governance Program, and Acting Director of the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace.
Posted by: ccnl1 | July 27, 2009 12:11 AM
Report Offensive Comment
The comments to this entry are closed.