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.

[Read more...]

Jesus, the Mahdi and Hugo Chavez

A note of condolence written by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, upon the death of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has been the occasion of some of some mirth in the press. The Washington Post and the Huffington Post have made arch references to President Ahmadinejad’s statement that Hugo Chavez will be resurrected at the end of time. The Washington Post observed:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left Tehran today to attend Hugo Chavez’s funeral. But that’s not all — in his condolences for the former Venezuelan president, Ahmadinejad said he has “no doubt Chavez will return to Earth together with Jesus and the perfect” Imam Mahdi, the most revered figure of Shiite Muslims, according to AP. Ahmadinejad also said the three men will together “establish peace, justice and kindness” in the world, and that he is “suspicious” about the cause of Chavez’s cancer.

The Huffington Post began its story by stating:

Hugo Chavez had a friend in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who apparently held the Venezuelan leader in such high regard that he believes he will “return on resurrection day” with Jesus Christ and will “establish peace, justice, and kindness” on earth. After Chavez’s death on Tuesday afternoon, Ahmadinejad released a statement on Wednesday to announce a day of public mourning, according to Iran’s Raja News, Ahmadinejad’s official news agency. In his message, Ahmadinejad voiced skepticism over Chavez’s “suspicious” illness and proclaimed that the 58-year-old will resurrect with Jesus one day.

The tone of these stories suggests the Iranian president is a loon. Is that fair? I don’t know if President Ahmadinejad is a loon, but the statement on his website cited by these reports is not sufficient cause for making such a claim. Let’s look at the text and see what it actually says. The translation provided by the Mehr news agency states in part:

Chavez is alive, as long as justice, love and freedom are living. He is alive, as long as piety, brightness, and humanity are living. He is alive, as long as nations are alive and struggle for consolidating independence, justice and kindness. I have no doubt that he will come back, and along with Christ the Savior, the heir to all saintly and perfect men, and will bring peace, justice and perfection for all.

The language is flowery but not inconsistent with Muslim teachings on the end of time. Like Christians, Muslims believe that at the end of time Jesus will return, the dead shall be raised and the wicked and the righteous shall be judged, and will merit a place in Heaven or Hell. How this happens and the role played by Jesus are very different in the eschatology of Islam and Christianity — that is to say they are completely incompatible. Nor are Muslims in agreement on all aspects of eschatology, the final things.

[Read more...]

Bloodshed in Saudi Arabia, for some non-religious reasons

Some of the world’s most important religion-news stories are also the hardest for your GetReligionistas to write about because they happen over and over and over. Are we supposed to do a post a week on some of these topics? Criticize the same holes in mainstream stories again and again?

It’s hard. Trust me.

Take, for example, coverage of human-rights stories linked to life in majority Muslim lands — especially stories linked to the persecution of religious minorities. The key issue is whether the press buys and sells the familiar argument that these conflicts are actually about politics and economics, not religion. No matter what the mobs are yelling about God and Sharia, these stories are, supposedly, sparked by class conflict, ethnic concerns, etc. Truth be told, these tragedies are driven by multiple factors — including religion.

One of the news subjects that, over the past decade, has frustrated me the most is the bloody split between Shia and Sunni Islam. How is the American public supposed to understand the recent history of Iraq without understanding that deep and bitter divide? Yet, day after day, week after week, year after year, American newsrooms produce floods of ink on these conflicts without giving readers any information about why this divide exists in the first place. There have been a few exceptions — such as this Time cover story.

I used to write posts on this subject all of the time.

I quit, after GetReligion readers responded with waves of apathy — which is often the case with posts about international stories, especially those centering on coverage of human rights. We need more liberal readers, I guess, in the old meaning of the word “liberal.”

Anyway, The Washington Post recently served up another long news story of this kind that ran under this simple headline: “Shiite protests pose major challenge for Saudi Arabia.” The top of this report tells a familiar story:

AWAMIYA, Saudi Arabia – This much is beyond dispute: Khalid al-Labad is dead.

Labad, 26, and two teenage relatives were fatally shot by police Sept. 26 as they sat in plastic chairs on the narrow sidewalk in front of their house in this broken-down little town in the far east of Saudi Arabia. To police, Labad was a violent “menace” wanted for shooting two police officers, killing another man and attacking a police station. To human rights advocates, he was a peaceful protester silenced by the government for demanding equal rights for the country’s oppressed Shiite Muslim minority.

The killing of Labad and the two teens marks an escalation in Saudi Arabia’s worst civil unrest in years. The sectarian uprising in the kingdom’s oil heartland has been an often-overlooked front in the wave of revolts remaking the Middle East.

Yes, there are major political and economic components to this story, starting with the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But this is also a story about the treatment of a minority form of Islam in the context of a majority Sunni culture. It’s a story about a religious minority, in other words, even though Islam is — inaccurately and simplistically — often portrayed as a monolithic religion.

So why do the Shia and Sunni clash? What are the historical and, thus, doctrinal roots of this conflict?

As usual, Post readers learn nothing about that. Nothing at all. There is no room, in this long report, for even a paragraph or two on the “why” in this who, what, when, where, why and how equation. The following is interesting, but it’s simply not deep enough:

Shiites, who form a majority in Iran, have long been treated as second-class citizens by the ruling Sunni elite in Saudi Arabia. They account for about 10 percent of the country’s 28 million people and are concentrated here in the Eastern Province’s industrial center, sandwiched between the vast Arabian desert and the glistening Persian Gulf.

The death toll here — 14 civilians and two police officers since the beginning of last year — is small compared with those in recent rebellions in other Arab countries, especially the civil war in Syria. And, unlike elsewhere, protesters here are not demanding the overthrow of their government. They want long-denied basic rights: equal access to jobs, religious freedom, the release of political prisoners. But in a nation where even peaceful protests have long been banned, the clashes between police and demonstrators have become a big concern for King Abdullah and his ruling family.

So what are the differences between these two communities and how do they affect daily life? How do they affect the content of Islam and Islamic law? What is the difference between a Sunni mosque, of which there are many in Saudi Arabia, and Shia mosques, of which there are few? What happens if a Shia Muslim tries to pray in a Sunni mosque? Etc., etc.

Are there economic elements in this conflict? Of course there are and this story covers them well. Ditto for the ties into larger Middle East conflicts. The story covers a wide variety of important themes — pretty much everything except, of course, religion.

Sorry, but I felt the urgent need to point this out. Again.


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