Divine mass psychology
Ali Shariati haunts the reform movement even today
December 11, 2005
There are several discernible features of a cult or cult like behaviour that are known to us. The cult creates a parallel world with parallel moralities and parallel realities. It is manipulative because it relies on mass psychology in order to sustain and enrich its introverted and sect like behaviour. It has its own rituals and traditions. It is a distortion of either an existing religion or a new and fabricated one. Its oxygen of publicity is recruitment and its recruitment tactic involves gently coaxing people to its world view. Above all its leading propagators are people of questionable character and questionable conduct.
The accepted wisdom on Ali Shariati is that he was a Muslim Reformist intellectual; he is even known as the Martin Luther of Shia Islam or the precursor of Islamic Protestantism. The motion presented to this forum by this essay is that Shariati was a despicable cultist and charlatan. The political grouping ideologically closest to Shariati namely the Mojahedin Khalgh has displayed disturbing signs of this cult like behaviour. This is no accident there is a clear cut reason for this. We will explore those reasons here.
Our point of embarkation must be the point at which Shariati ideologically departs from Al-e-Ahmad. Both belonged to a two-some mutual admiration club. A club whose unwritten article of faith was the 'Return to Oneself'. If you remember from my Al-e-Ahmad article I argued that he advocated a bizarre form of Nativism. He held this to be the right anti-dote to the Westoxification (Gharb-zadegi) brought about by import of Western culture and the advent Machinism. Neither of these people are of course the real authors of this thesis; for that you need to read Franz Fanon's 'Wretched of the Earth'. As with every thing else they simply took his idea and refashioned it to their own ideological sensibility. Shariati was a friend of Fanon and even Fanon had smelled a rat when Shariati had talked about his Islamic return to oneself (another story another fallacy).
Shariati fully concurred with Al-e-Ahmad that the Iranians must return to their traditional past in general and their Islamic past in particular. He was not interested in Iran's pre-Islamic past because he felt that the Iranians had been totally indifferent towards that pre-Islamic past (besides which Iran's Pre-Islamic past was more of a Pahlavist discourse). His odyssey was one of returning to the real Islamic past which he held to be insurrectionist, socially aware, pervaded by activism (as opposed to quietism) and Revolutionary!
Up to now he is at one with Al-e-Ahmad but where he departs from Al-e-Ahmad is on his position towards the Clergy. Whereas Al-e-Ahmad revered the likes of the grotesque Sheikh Fazllollah Nouri (also endorsed by Ayatollah Khomeni) Shariati ostensibly despised him.
Shariati held that the Iranian Shia clergy had now become entwined with the establishment and the Bazaar (which paid it stipends and religious dues). This close liaison, he held, dates back to the Safavids who needed the clergy to legitimate and sustain their new Shia Theocratic Monarchy and consolidate power.
The consequence of this unholy alliance, argued Shariati, has been the institutionalisation of the Shia religion which has traditionally been revolutionary and socially responsible. Bereft of all independence from the state it has lost all its will to rise against social and economic injustice, towards egalitarianism and empathy for fellow Muslims. In fact the whole set of insurrectionist and socially aware discourse of the Allawi Shi'ism (the revolutionary Shi'ism espoused by Imam Ali-Ibn-Abi-Taaleb) has been replaced by a ritualistic and idolatrous form of Shia religion which acts as 'the opiate of the people'. It is not too difficult to see the influences of Ahmad Kasravi with a Marxian rhetoric thrown in for good measure on the beliefs of this former Mossadeghist.
Even as a detractor I would probably be doing a disservice to this man if I did not try to put this anti-Clerical aspect of his teachings in some political perspective. Shariati was a former Mossadeghist who like Al-e-Ahmad suffered from the post '53 angst. A former member of the 'Society of God-worshiping Socialists' which later on founded the Iran people's party and an active member of the Iran National Front (Jebhe-Melli-Iran), Shariati was later to join the Nehzat-e-Azaadi under Mohandess Bazargan. The torment of political defeat and the failure of Mossadeghism to lead the anti-colonial struggle within the confines of the Constitution led some people (notably Shariati) to soul search and come up with a new blueprint to mobilise the now cowed and quiet masses.
After many years of soul searching and reflection it was perceived (notably by Bazargan) that for the masses to be mobilised against the might of the Pahlavi State, Islam can be used as the language of this discourse. A language that the masses understand and can relate to. Iranian history has been littered with cases of appealing to the religious sensibilities of Iranians for political ends.
If however Bazargan and the his fellow elder Mossadeghist statesmen wanted to reform the system within the legal framework of the Constitution, Shariati was of a more insurrectionist persuasion. Shariati rightly sensed the increasingly radicalised atmosphere of youth politics. A radicalising atmosphere which looked to the Armed struggles in Central America and South-East Asia and chose to emulate them.
A romantic and often apocalyptic vision of defiance imbued with Marxist thinking. Which Marxist thinking was often at odds with the temperament and religious sensibilities of the Iranian people. To resolve this dilemma he finally came to the conclusion that in order for the people to be led and the largely secular intellectuals to lead his only hope is to infuse Marxist Social theory and Islamic moral teachings together. In other words his eclectic (Elteghaati) synthesis of two radically opposing philosophies appealed to both the radical intellectuals and the masses.
This is why Shariati was anti-clerical; he needed to de-robe the clergy. He needed the ideological garb that would usually be the preserve of the clergy in Iran. He was treading on their turf as indeed he was treading on the turf of the secular so called intellectuals who were of a Marxist persuasion. If he railed at the regressive practices of the clergy it was not out of a propensity to reform but coveting the exalted moral position that they held. A position that we today know they did not deserve and he deserved even less.
Shariati was from a religious family. He himself had conducted academic research in Paris on 'History of Medieval Islam' where he obtained his Doctorate. It is unimaginable that he might have erred on essential questions over which he was in dispute with the traditional clergy. There is mounting evidence to refute Shariati's claim that Islam was the religion of egalitarianism. The clergy could prove with relative impunity that Islam had not treated all man equally.
There were palpable differences between the way the Believers and Non-believers were treated. There were palpable differences between the way men and women were treated in Islam. The practice of polygamy which the clergy could allude to and which had been sanctioned by Islam was a precedent. Even within the Islamic Umma Islam had differentiated between those who had Ijtihad (theological authority) and those who did not. Islam had for centuries sanctioned private property and was even entwined with the feudal order. Its recommendations are far removed from the Socialist discourse that Shariati and Mojahedin Khalgh wanted to project.
If Shariati's attempted theft of the Cleric's domain was suspect his Islamic Marxism was even more so. His philosophical strategy for synthesising Islam with Marxism was simple: remove the Materialist basis of Marxism and replace it with Islamic morality while accepting evolutionary progress. If Marxists believe that Capitalism is a by-product of Socio-Economic evolution and the contradictions that eventuate are at the core of worker's class struggle against the Capitalists; Shariati contended that this contradiction was more of a moral nature. He would then explain in a quasi-Hegelian fashion that the genesis of this moral hazard is to be sought in the evolution of human thought and what he called 'belief classes' in particular.
So where the Marxists argue that the prehistoric Communistic societies would give way to Asiatic slave owning societies then to a feudal order and then Capitalism; he would argue that this evolution is more applicable to 'belief classes' of which the clergy would be its most pernicious manifestation. The overthrow of this 'belief class' would then give rise to a true revolutionary Allawi Shi'ism. In other words he had distorted Marxism completely on questionable moral grounds (See Ali Rahnema). This man was not even a moral Socialist he was a moral Marxist.
When Luther nailed his polemic against the buying of 'Indulgences' and going to the 'Purgatory' (to gain absolution in day of judgement) at the door of Wittenberg Cathedral; he was counting on the support of the King. As Doctor Ervand Abrahamian quite rightly argues (see radical Islam, the Iranian Mujahedin) both he and John Calvin enlisted the support of the local king against Papal cannon. The equivalent as he rightly argues would be for Shariati to enlist the support of the Shah against the clergy in Qom.
When people come to level what can only be described as justified but misguided criticism against Shariati; they simply treat this aspect of Shariati's discourse as an error of judgement. It takes a huge leap of faith to accept that this is simply an 'error of judgment'. Shariati's whole objective was to call for an insurrection against the regime of the Shah. The nature of this enterprise required the usage of Islam as the language of this discourse which every one can understand and relate to.
If now Islam becomes the tool at the service of this enterprise and the means of acquiring this tool would be to dispossess the clergy by reformism; then appealing to the temporal authority of the Shah is irrelevant nay self defeating. In other words in case of Luther and Calvin Reformism was the end and enlisting the King's support the means. In case of Shariati the overthrow of the Shah was the end and reformism was the means. Talking of Islamic reformism without temporal support is not error of judgement; it is a judgement which is fully mindful of this incompatibility of circumstances. Truth is that reformism, which is now a means to an end; has to be corrupted to suit the end itself.
Why should Islam be reformed in the direction of Socialism? Why? Because of the universality of socialism as the ultimate truth? Or is it because the student movement was dominated by a Marxist discourse? Would Islamic reformism today embrace Marxian values in its reforming crusade or is Civil Society the new aspiration? When Luther had nailed his pamphlet he was raging against the corrupt practices of the clergy who were generating a not too modest personal income for themselves. Which personal income was legitimated by the church backed by Rome. This is universally and morally reprehensible by any yardstick. Socialism was controversial even in those days. When Shariati was advancing his Islamic reform in the direction of Socialism he was adapting the nature of that reform for clear political ends.
The truth is that if the conceived reality is revolutionary Marxism then parallel reality is an eclectic and islamified version of Marxism. This is exactly what Shariati offered his audience. An ideology that is Marxist enough for the intelligentsia and Islamic enough for the urban poor.
Shariati was not only aware of what he was doing but also needed to fabricate an alternative narrative for Islam in order to mobilise the masses to his political calling. He HAD to create a parallel world with parallel realities and parallel moralities in order to legitimate his position. There would be no other way to do it.
Furthermore Shariati used mass psychology to manipulate people to his way of thinking. The tool of this mass psychology was again Islam. Islam (and its Shia variant in particular) is a religion built upon a great deal of myth. The myth of martyrdom, the myth of heroism against overwhelming odds, the myth of tears and blood. The myth of outstanding generosity and self sacrifice. His sermons at Hosseineyeh delivered with his poetic oratory and appealing to the basest emotions of his audience are a case in point.
The other case in point is that his eclectic synthesis of Marxism with Islam was not only the creation of a parallel reality but also a deviant attempt at manipulation. His audiences were initially not Muslim militants but Marxist and left leaning secularists. It would be extremely hard to sell Islam and the thesis of return to oneself as a progressive and forward looking idea to a largely university educated audience imbued with Marxist and secularist values. In order to sell Islam to them he would have to fashion that Islam into a conceptual product (namely Marxism) that they can buy. His manipulative oratory allowed him to reconcile a meta-physical analysis with a materialist ideology. His strength was reading the mass psyche and tapping into that with the right language both emotionally and intellectually.
In this fashion he would forgo some very important questions on the flaws in his philosophy: if Islam had been such a potent revolutionary ideology why would it fall prey to the parasitic clergy and bureaucracy? The standard belief is that Shariati's outlook was simply naive. I do not believe that he was naïve for if he was he would have, like Al-e-Ahmad, embraced the clergy; instead he rightly saw the clergy as his opponents. The reality in my view is that far from being naïve and flawed he was exercising mass deception.
One might ask that even if this writer's claim about Shariati being a cultist is correct what value is added in saying so? The answer is simple; what is based on a lie is dangerous because it is oblivious to the dark forces it unleashes. It does so simply because of the very irresponsible manner of its propagation. When Luther and Calvin embarked on their reforming enterprise they were both theologians with scholastic authority. Shariati was not. He was refashioning the traditional discourse of the clergy from outside the mosque. It is an act of reckless irresponsibility to risk the propagation of an ideology which can only result in the resurgence of the Mullahs.
Moreover and this is where the cultist aspect of this ideology is exacting a high price; another of the discernible features of cult like behaviour is that its practices become so ingrained in the psyche of its adherents that it becomes very hard to break out of. Today and despite so many years of intense suffering from the Islamist ideology we have people such as Aghajari who continue to talk about a religious government. It is precisely 'religious government' that has caused so much problems in the first place. We need to move beyond Reform of Islamic state and move towards secularism. It seems though that some people are still hooked on the notion of Islamic Democracy and Islamic Civil Society. This is the other aspect of this cult like behaviour. Dr Shariati is haunting even the reform movement today from his grave.
If you are still not convinced by my arguments ask yourself this question: why should the culture of Mojahedin Khalgh be so prone to cult of personality? One answer is of course the savage repression that this organisation has suffered. A culture of grief breeds its own myths and fantasies. The more coherent response though is that its ideology is based upon deviant distortions that suspend normal scepticism and is tailor made for manipulation.
I shall leave you with this sobering fact about Shariati. He was often asked difficult questions in his lectures about various aspects of his discourse. When ever he could not back up his theories by authoritative works he would cite quotations from a certain philosopher by the name of Dr Chandel. This philosopher was another one of his fabrications. Chandel did not exist at all. Chandel is another word for candle or the Persian 'Shami'.
If you break down the word Shami it comprises of the Persian letters: Shin, Mim and Eyn. The Shin stands for Shariati, the Mim stands for Mazinani and the Eyn stands for Ali. He was in effect acquiring scholarly credibility by supposed quotations from a non-existent character: professor Chandel. Dr Rahnema argues that this is the product of a fictive mind. I contend that this is the product of a deceptive and manipulative mind. In short I submit to this forum that Ali Shariati-Mazinani was a charlatan for all seasons.