Educating Conservatives About Modern ‘Shi’ite Quietists’
The conservative take on Iranian theology and motives is not exactly correct.
March 14, 2014 - 12:00 am
The so-called “P5 +1” interim agreement with Iran was announced on November 24, 2013, amidst great fanfare, and giddy expectations of continued diplomatic success. Putatively, these negotiations were going to eliminate Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons, and constrain the regime’s hegemonic aspirations, including its oft-repeated bellicose threats to destroy the Jewish State of Israel.
Less than three months later, punctuated by cries of “down with the U.S.”—and “death to Israel”—Iranians took to the streets en masse, February 11, 2014, commemorating the 35th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic putsch, which firmly re-established Iran’s legacy of centuries of Shiite theocracy, transiently interrupted by the 54-year reign (r. 1925-1979) of the 20th century Pahlavi Shahs.
Many alarming developments since the P5 +1 deal was announced epitomize the abject failure of a delusive and dangerous policymaking mindset I have dubbed, “The ‘Trusting Khomeini’ Syndrome,” in my new book Iran’s Final Solution For Israel. This “Syndrome” is named after infamous Princeton International Law Professor Richard Falk’s February 16, 1979 essay, “Trusting Khomeini,” dutifully published in the The New York Times. The parlous denial—born of willful doctrinal and historical negationism—evident in Falk’s February, 1979 essay, now shapes formal U.S. policy toward Iran, merely updated as “Trusting Khamenei,” Iran’s current “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini. I further maintain that the sine qua non of this crippling mindset—bowdlerization of Islam—currently dominates policymaking circles, running the gamut from Left to Right.
The late Islamologist Maxime Rodinson warned 40-years ago of a broad academic campaign—which has clearly infected policymakers across the politico-ideological spectrum—“to sanctify Islam and the contemporary ideologies of the Muslim world.” A pervasive phenomenon, Rodinson ruefully described the profundity of its deleterious consequences:
Understanding [of Islam] has given way to apologetics pure and simple.
A prototypical example of how this mindset has warped intellectually honest discourse about Iran by conservative analysts, was published February 17, 2014 in The Weekly Standard. The essayist decried what he saw as misguided appropriation of Cold War era paradigms—“wishful thinking built around imagined Cold War analogies”—even by members of the Israeli “security establishment,” let alone their Obama Administration counterparts. Although correctly dismissive of the sham notion that Iranian President “Rouhani and his crowd are moderates,” the essayist also insisted Iran’s “ayatollahs” have somehow “perverted Shia Islam with the state takeover of religion.” He then ads, “the older quietist school [ostensibly of Shiite Islam] still has many adherents.”
The Weekly Standard essayist’s authoritative sounding reference to the “quietist school” of Shiite Islam and its “many adherents,” expressed the accepted wisdom on these matters published in a flagship conservative/neoconservative journal, and shared by a broad swath of like-minded conservative analysts. But who are exemplar modern Shiite “quietists” and what are their views (in writing and/or speech) on such critical matters as jihad, the imposition of the Sharia, including Shiite “najis,” or “impurity” regulations—and the Jews?
Decidedly hagiographic post-mortems written by American conservatives appeared immediately after the announcement of Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri’s death at age 87, on December 20, 2009. Neoconservative Michael Ledeen opined,
Some of us who have long fought against the terrible regime in Tehran were fortunate to have received wise observations from Montazeri over the years, and I am confident that, with the passage of time and the changes that will take place in Iran, scholars will marvel at the international dimensions of the Grand Ayatollah’s understanding and the range of his activities.
Perhaps the most curious of these early assessments included a contention by Michael Rubin that “…the real Achilles Heel to the Iranian regime is Shi’ism.” Reuel Marc Gerecht, writing in October, 2010, ten months after Montazeri’s death, dubbed the Ayatollah, simultaneously, “the spiritual father of Iran’s Green Movement,” and the erstwhile “nemesis of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ruler,” whom Gerecht derided (in contrast to Montazeri), as “a very mediocre student of the Sharia.”
These odd viewpoints were (and remain) merely the extension of a profoundly flawed, ahistorical mindset which denies the living legacy of Shiite Islamic doctrine and its authentic, oppressive application in Iran, particularly, since the advent of the Safavid theocratic state at the outset of the 16th century. Iran’s Safavid rulers, beginning with Shah Ismail I (r. 1501-1524) formally established Shiite Islam as the state religion, while permitting a clerical hierarchy nearly unlimited control and influence over all aspects of public life. The profound influence of the Shiite clerical elite, continued for almost four centuries, although interrupted, between 1722-1795 (during a period precipitated by [Sunni] Afghan invasion [starting in 1719], and the subsequent attempt to re-cast Twelver Shi’ism as simply another Sunni school of Islamic Law, under Nadir Shah), through the later Qajarperiod (1795-1925), as characterized by E.G. Browne:
The Mujtahids [an eminent, very learned Muslim jurist/scholar who is qualified to interpret the law] and Mulla [a scholar, not of Mujtahid stature] are a great force in Persia and concern themselves with every department of human activity from the minutest detail of personal purification to the largest issues of politics.
A gimlet-eyed evaluation of Montazeri’s recorded modern opinions—entirely concordant with traditionalist Iranian Shi’ism since the Safavid era—does not comport with the conservative eulogies of the late Ayatollah by Ledeen, Rubin, Gerecht, and their ilk.
Consistent with the institutionalized codifications of Islam’s classical Sunni and Shiite legists, Montazeri’s written views (from his Islamic Law Codes [Resaleh-ye Tozih al-masael]) on jihad war reiterate the doctrine of open-ended aggression to establish global Islamic suzerainty, and the universal application of Sharia:
[T]he offensive jihad is a war that an Imam wages in order to invite infidels and non-monotheists to Islam or to prevent the violation of treaty of Ahl-e Zemmah [Ahl-al-Dhimma, the humiliating pact of submission binding non-Muslim “dhimmis” vanquished by jihad]. In fact, the goal of offensive jihad is not the conquest of other countries, but the defense of the inherent rights of nations that are deprived of power by the infidels, non-monotheists, and rebels from the worship of Allah, monotheism, and justice. “And fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and polytheism: i.e. worshipping others besides Allah) and the religion (worship) will all be for Allah Alone [in the whole of the world].,” (Koran 8:39)…This verse includes defensive as well as offensive jihad. Jihad, like prayer, is for all times and is not limited to an early period of Islam, such as Muhammad, Ali, or the other Imams. Jihad is intended to defend truth and justice, help oppressed people, and correct Islam. In the Mahdi’s occultation period, jihad is not to be abandoned; even if occultation lasts for a hundred thousand years, Muslims have to defend and fight for the expansion of Islam. Certainly, if in early Islam the goodness was in the sword, in our time the goodness is in artillery, tanks, automatic guns and missiles. . . in principle, jihad in Islam is for defense; whether defense of truth or justice, or the struggle with infidels in order to make them return to monotheism and the divine nature. This is the defense of truth, because the denial of Allah is the denial of truth.
How would non-Muslims fare under the Shiite Islamic order—forcibly imposed by jihad—as envisioned by Montazeri?
Montazeri saw nejasat [najis] in twelve items including blood, dogs, pigs, wine, and kafirs [i.e., primarily, non-Muslims]…A kafir’s body, including hair, nails, and body fluids was to be avoided. The purchase, sale, or receiving of meat and fat from either non-Muslim countries or a kafir were forbidden.
Montazeri further argued that a non-Muslim’s (kafir’s) impurity was, “a political order from Islam and must be adhered to by the followers of Islam, and the goal [was] to promote general hatred toward those who are outside Muslim circles.” This “hatred” was to assure that Muslims would not succumb to corrupt, i.e., non-Islamic thoughts. Montazeri’s Shiite Islamic political Weltanschauung was articulated in his 4 volume treatise on the “Vilayat al-Faqih” [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists], a key rationale for the post-1979 Iranian Shiite theocracy. These views—openly antithetical to Western conceptions of individual liberty, religious freedom, and democracy—were aptly summarized by Montazeri’s student, Iranian Sociology Professor Mahmood Davari, in 2005:
According to Montazeri, Islamic rule differs from Western democracy in two matters. While the people in a democratic system are supposedly free to elect any person as their ruler, in a Shi’i society Muslims may not choose any other ruler except a just faqih. In a democratic society, people are free to legislate any law according to their collective wishes, whereas in an Islamic regime the legislation must be in accord with Islamic laws and ordinances. Therefore, according to Montazeri, Islamic rule is essentially different from democracy in the West.
Montazeri also adhered—quite rigorously—to the traditionalist Shiite dogma regarding punishment for the offense of “sabb,” or blasphemy. Kamran Hashemi’s 2008 study summarized the relevant Shiite jurisprudence:
… according to the majority of Shiite jurists, in cases of sabb, instant punishment [i.e., killing] of the offender, either Muslim or non-Muslim, is not only permissible, but also a religious obligation for any Muslim who realizes the offense, or any who comes to know about it. In this sense, as soon as the offense takes place, the offender must be killed immediately by any one who does not fear for his own life to be endangered.
Hashemi goes on to illustrate the “consensus among contemporary Shiite jurists on the instant punishment of an offender in cases of sabb,” 172 by referring to Montazeri’s opinion, specifically:
For example, in response to a question Ayatollah Montazeri [d. 2009] makes a reference to this issue: “In cases of sabb al-Nabi [blasphemy against a prophet, in particular Islam’s prophet, Muhammad]…if the witness does not have fear of his or her life and also there is no fear of mischief [mafsadeh] it is obligatory for him or her to kill the insulter.”
The practical consequences of Montazeri’s bigoted Shiite Islamic authoritarianism—which Ledeen, Rubin, and Gerecht all ignored—were highlighted by Iranian Studies Professor Jamsheed Choksy. In an essay (written with Nina Shea), published July 22, 2009, Choksy observed,
Iran’s constitution requires that laws and regulations be based on Islamic criteria, which mandate inferior status for three non-Muslim faiths, while withholding all rights and protections from all other faiths. Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian (specifically, Assyrian and Armenian) live in a modern version of dhimmi status — the…subjugated condition of “people of the Book” dating back to medieval times. While these three groups are allotted seats in the legislative assembly (a total of five out of 290 seats), they are barred from seeking high public office in any of the three branches of government….
Non-Muslim communities collectively have diminished to no more than 2 percent of Iran’s 71 million people. Forty years ago, under the Shah, a visitor would have seen a relatively tolerant society. Iran now appears to be in the final stages of religious cleansing. Pervasive discrimination, intimidation, and harassment have prompted non-Muslims to flee in disproportionately high numbers.
Choksy concluded with a reminder especially apposite for those who share the opinions of Ledeen, Rubin, and Gerecht:
Iran’s political dissidents are defended by the West. Its diverse non-Muslim minorities ask why they’ve been forgotten.