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Iran and Political Islam

Islam is a comprehensive belief system which embraces the political system. Moreover, Islamic concepts such as freedom (al-hurriya), equality (al-musawat), justice (al-adl) and consultation (shura) can all be found in a liberal multi-party democracy. Hence, Islam is quite compatible with our modern political system. In addition, there is a clear separation of the sacred and secular in Islamic thought which dovetails the separation of Church and State in Western political thought.

Indeed, at the end of the 7th century there emerged a clear separation between political power (sultans, emirs) and religious power (the caliph). From this Islamic tradition, the idea of an Islamic theocracy as we see in the Islamic Republic of Iran is problematic on religious grounds. Indeed the concept of an Islamic state itself is problematic given the fact that the concept of a state based on territory is absent from Islam. Islam rather speaks of the ummah – a worldwide, deterritorialized body of believers as opposed to citizens. For this reason Olivier Roy notes that it is impossible to achieve a modern Islamic state, which is by definition territorialized.

By political Islam I refer to a particular brand of Islamist thought which emerged in Sunni and Shia Islam which maintains that through the capture of state power, and through legislation, one could create good Muslims. From a theological point of view this is, of course, problematic since the Quran (2:98) is quite specific that there can be no coercion in religious affairs. Moreover, various Islamic scholars have also pointed out that where religious values are enforced, it undermines faith; that human beings have free will and must willingly submit to God (Allah). In Sunni Islam, this trend towards political Islam emerged in the 1930s with Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and Abul al-Ala Maududi, the founder of the Pakistani Jamaat-i Islami. In Shia Islam this was best represented by Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Since, it is often asserted that political Islam was most successful in Iran where through the capture of state power, it has been institutionalized; it is to Iran we now turn and ask the question – “How Islamic is the Islamic Republic of Iran?”

Shortly after taking power, Khomeini turned to the Qur’an to serve as a blueprint to create the ideal Islamic society. Alas, the Qur’an proved no such constitution or guide to create and regulate state structures. Thus, Khomeini was left to his own devices. One of his innovations was the concept of velayat –e-faqih or rule of the supreme jurisprudent. This was the idea that the most competent and senior mujtahid or Shia jurisprudent alone could bring God into human affairs. However this concept was soon to prove an abject failure as early as 1989 when Khomeini removed Ayatollah Montazeri, the most learned mujtahid after Khomeini, as his successor. Instead the crown shifted to Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader, who was not even a mujtahid. Khamenei was ostensibly chosen on account of his following and political skills to control the security apparatus of the state. In bypassing Montazeri and choosing Khamenei for political reasons, Khomeini discredited the notion of velayat-e-faqih as a form of legitimate Islamic rule.

The further debasement of the concept and so-called Islamic rule were further seen through the actions of Khamenei who acted for purely political reasons as opposed to a higher, more spiritual calling. In an effort to quash all potential rivals, Khamenei had the senior advisers to Ayatollah Montazeri arrested and executed Montazeri’s son-in-law, whilst Montazeri himself was placed under house arrest. Khamenei also had Khomeini’s son removed from power and it is believed had him poisoned. These are scarcely the actions of a religious or spiritual leader; rather these are the actions of a Third World despot desperate to hang onto material pleasures. In the process, the Islamic legitimacy of this regime has been steadily eroding over the years and the protests on the streets of Tehran and elsewhere we witnessed in June, 2009 following rigged presidential elections proves that ordinary Iranians are losing respect for this regime.

But, it was not only on the domestic front where political Islam is proving to be highly contradictory, but also at the level of foreign policy. Despite labelling the US as the Great Satan and talking of the destruction of Israel, Khomeini had no qualms with receiving his arms from these countries. During the Iran-Iraq war which started in September 1980, Israel supplied Iran with at least US $500 million worth of arms annually for the duration of this eight-year war. Moreover, in July 1985 US President Ronald Reagan authorized Israel to sell TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran and the following year Reagan approved direct arm sales to Tehran. More recently, it was Iran who assisted in organizing the Northern Alliance – a long-term Iranian ally –to overthrow the Taliban and once the Taliban were ousted Tehran had no problem with cooperating with the Great Satan in forming the interim government in Kabul. Similarly, it was Iran who assisted the US with ousting Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The actions of the Iranian government prove the poverty of political Islam and make a strong case as to why a clear separation should exist between the secular sphere and the religious realm. Where religion mingles with politics, religion is corrupted whilst politics triumphs.


Professor Hussein Solomon is the Director of the International Institute for Islamic Studies and teaches at University of Pretoria, South Africa.


Also carried by New Indian Express, 14 October 2009

 As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy