God or mammon in Iran

The New York Times article “Power Struggle Is Gripping Iran Ahead of June Election” offers a detailed examination of the Iranian political scene as the country prepares to elect a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Well written and intelligently crafted, the article, as the lede notes, discusses the:

power struggle ahead of the June election between Mr. Ahmadinejad’s faction and a coalition of traditionalists, including many Revolutionary Guards commanders and hard-line clerics.

However a religion ghost lurks beneath the surface of this front page story. A knowledgeable reader will be able to discern what lies behind the political dispute from the text of the New York Times story — but though the information is there the article will likely not inform the typical reader as to what is really happening.  The article does aptly summarize the recent moves by Pres. Ahmadinejad to undercut the power of his opponents. The Times notes:

At the funeral of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader, he was photographed embracing the former president’s mother, a display that was denounced by the clerics, who forbid physical contact between unmarried men and women who are not closely related. But urban Iranians, many of whom have moved far beyond the social restrictions set by the Islamic republic, viewed his action as a simple gesture of friendship.

Despite his early advocacy of Islam’s role in daily affairs, the president is now positioning himself as a champion of citizens’ rights. “He more and more resembles a normal person,” said Hamed, a 28-year-old driver in Tehran who did not want his last name used. “He doesn’t allow them to tell him what to do.”

In speeches, he favors the “nation” and the “people” over the “ummah,” or community of believers, a term preferred by Iran’s clerics, who constantly guard against any revival of pre-Islamic nationalism. He has also said he is ready for talks with the United States, something other Iranian leaders strongly oppose under current circumstances.

Writing at Commentary magazine’s blog Jonathan Tobin argues the article’s liberal/conservative, left/right worldview masks the issues.

The differences between Ahmadinejad and Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are, no doubt, quite real. But they ought not to be interpreted as a sign that the regime is in danger of falling or there is any significant divergence between them and their followers about keeping an Islamist government or maintaining the country’s dangerous nuclear ambitions.

But unfortunately that is probably the conclusion that many of the Times’s liberal readers will jump to after reading the piece since it brands Ahmadinejad and his faction as the “opposition” to the supreme leader. That may be true in the literal sense but, as even the article points out, that is the result of the fact that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei worked together to wipe out any real opposition to Islamist hegemony in 2009 as the United States stood silent.

The religion ghost materialize towards the end of the Times article when it touches upon Pres. Ahmadinejad’s support for Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as the next president of Iran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s support of Mr. Mashaei, his spiritual mentor and the father-in-law of his son, is a particular stick in the eye for the conservatives, as well as a subtle appeal to more progressive Iranians. In messages filled with poetic language, Mr. Mashaei repeatedly propagates the importance of the nation of Iran over that of Islam.

Leading ayatollahs and commanders say that Mr. Ahmadinejad has been “bewitched” by the tall, beardless 52-year old, whom they have called a “Freemason,” a “foreign spy” and a “heretic.” They accuse Mr. Mashaei of plotting to oust the generation of clerics who have ruled Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and of promoting direct relations with God, instead of through clerical intermediaries. He and his allies, they say, are part of a “deviant” current.


Buried in the paragraph above is the theological or ideological grounds the dispute between the two factions. In 2011 the New York Review of Books reported that Pres. Ahmadinejad’s clerical opponents “hate” Mr. Mashaei.

The mullahs who make up the country’s conservative establishment hate Mashaei because he is reputed to be in contact with the Twelfth Imam—a messianic figure who, according to the dominant branch of Shiism, has been in a state of “occultation” (in effect, hiding or concealment) since the tenth century.The ramifications of Mashaei’s alleged “gift” of having relations with the Twelfth Imam are enormous. Most Shia Muslims endorse a dynastic line of claimants to the leadership of Islam that began with Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, who was elected caliph in 656 and murdered five years later. There were eleven more of these hereditary imams, or guides, and all but one of them met a violent death at the hands of their enemies—the forebears of today’s Sunni community, who had rejected the dynastic principle and established their own caliphate. According to the Shia tradition, in 941 the Twelfth Imam was occulted, promising to reveal himself at an unspecified moment in the future to end vice and confusion.

The prospect of an infallible imam who might return at any moment (having miraculously retained his youth) holds obvious attractions for an embattled minority religious community, and the history of Shiism is full of controversial figures who have alleged—or let it be alleged on their behalf—that they have met the Twelfth Imam. But these claims are a challenge to Shia clerics, who regard themselves as the rightful intermediaries between God and the community. What if someone from the community claims to be in direct contact with the imam, and can transmit his wishes to society? In that case, the clergy becomes superfluous.

What are the motivations at work among the various actors? The prospect of financial gain or the accumulation political power are certainly present. But it is also important to stress the place of ideology or religion in the affairs of men. While the outward workings of the dispute between Pres. Ahmadinejad’s faction and the clergy are taking place on the material or carnal plain — I would argue the real battle is over revelation. How does God communicate to his creation?

Which leads to the journalistic question. How much context is too much? It is easy to report on power struggles — but hard to report on ideology, on motivation. I would argue that when reporting on a theocracy such as Iran the theological divisions are more important to understanding the story than any other factor. Can a reader understand story unfolding in Iran without an appreciation of the Twelfth Imam? No.

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  • Newark

    More than likely in a few years the current “theocracy” will be fulfilling the ideas of the old Shah…rember him? Teheran will become the “Paris of the East”, Both Hollywood and the Television mavins will be happy at having more people to pervert.

  • Jerry

    Given the level of hypocrisy in evidence today, I also wonder if the expressed beliefs are held sincerely or religion is being used as an excuse. That’s hard to know sometimes, of course, but it’s the back of my mind as I read about Iran (and elsewhere).

  • John M.

    Thanks, George.

    -John

  • Julia

    “But these claims are a challenge to Shia clerics, who regard themselves as the rightful intermediaries between God and the community. What if someone from the community claims to be in direct contact with the imam, and can transmit his wishes to society? In that case, the clergy becomes superfluous”

    I’m confused. Isn’t the Imam part of Shiite clergy; in fact he would be the chief clergyman, right? Does the guy getting his direction right from the Iman make the Imam superfluous as well as the clergy who now run Iran?
    Perhaps the use of the Western word “clergy” is not appropriate in this context?


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