ELECTION TIME IN IRAN
In Islam's State, an Islamic Cry for Change
By JOHN F. BURNS
The New York Times
January 30, 2000
When he arrived at the shop of a specialist in old Islamic scripts in
Tehran, the mullah, about 40, was neatly bearded in the way of the college-educated
Shiite clerics. But he was dressed in a business suit, not his cleric's
attire, and he was flustered.
Late for his appointment, he explained that he had waited in the street
in his white turban, black cloak and collarless white shirt, and had seen
a dozen empty taxis pass. So he returned home and changed to a suit, and
the next taxi picked him up. But the driver, eyeing his fare's salt-and-pepper
beard in the mirror, asked, "You're a mullah, aren't you?"
"Well yes, I must confess that I am," the mullah said.
"If I'd realized that when I first saw you," the driver said,
"I wouldn't have stopped."
Hearing the unhappy man tell his story a couple of months ago, it seemed
like an apt metaphor for the troubled times confronting Iran's 180,000
Muslim clerics. Having wrested power from Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in
1979 and created an intolerant, often vengeful theocratic state that has
ruined Iran's economy, sponsored terrorist groups abroad and left the country
profoundly isolated, the clerics are now widely unpopular among Iran's
65 million people.
These days, it is not uncommon to hear Iranians whisper the shah's
name with shades of nostalgia, even reverence. "God bless the shah!"
they will tell a foreigner, glancing about nervously as they tour the preserved
magnificence inside Neyavaran Palace in Tehran, just below the field from
which the shah boarded a helicopter on his way into his final exile. This
is not to say that Iranians have forgotten, much less forgiven, the brutality
of the shah's secret police, his modernizer's insensitivity to Iran's 1,350-year
embrace of Islam or the corruption he tolerated.
Rather, it is a measure of how anguished Iranians have become after
nearly a generation under "the government of God," and of their
desperate yearning for change. On Feb. 18, they will have an opportunity
to register their sentiments in a parliamentary election, the sixth since
1979 but the first in which the alienation engendered by the mullahs has
resolved into a coalition capable of winning the legislature. Reformers
already claim the Iranian presidency, which Mohammed Khatami won in the
1997 election with 69 percent of the 29 million votes cast. That success
was repeated in a sweep of municipal elections last February.
Khatami, 53, was not always a challenger of the regime's orthodoxies.
Son of a leading ayatollah, and a senior cleric himself, he was a close
aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic revolution.
But like Mikhail Gorbachev, the reform-oriented Soviet leader with whom
he is sometimes compared, his experiences persuaded him that the system
could survive only if it responded to the people's democratic yearnings.
To hard-line clerics, remembering Gorbachev's fate, only oblivion beckons
in the attempt to graft the political ideals of democratic liberalism onto
the ancient beliefs of Islam. But many thousands of mullahs, alarmed by
what might happen if the popular discontent is not assuaged, have joined
Predictably, the president, since his election, has had a difficult
two and a half years. His powers under the Islamic constitution are nominal
compared with those of the "supreme leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
who inherited the mantle but not the charisma or religious authority of
Khomeini. And Khamenei has shown less flexibility, in some ways, than Khomeini.
Although he was an absolute ruler, and approved much of the cruel repression
that accompanied the Islamic takeover, Khomeini repeatedly warned his fellow
clerics not to lose touch with popular opinion. But under Khamenei, the
hierarchy has been archly selective in ignoring the parts of the Khomeini
legacy that might embarrass them, especially warnings about clerical dictatorship.
Since he inherited the supreme leader's position in 1989, Khamenei
has rested his authority on a rigid interpretation of a concept written
into the constitution, velayat-i-faqih, the guardianship of the religious
Traditionally, the faqih was a cleric learned enough to render binding
interpretations on religious matters. But Khamenei and conservative clerics
have taken the concept as endowing the clerical hierarchy, through the
supreme leader, with the Islamic equivalent of the divine right of kings.
Last week, responding to reformers who say that the people are sovereign
and that the supreme leader is bound by the constitution and the laws,
Khamenei said the true meaning of velayat-i-faqih is that "the person
in charge of the Islamic government does not make mistakes and if he does
he will not be the supreme leader from that moment."
Many scholars specializing in Iran find in the opposing views an illuminating
echo of the arguments that flowed in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, when
Western concepts of democracy were forged on the anvil of the Reformation
and the Enlightenment. In England, when Charles I insisted on his divine
right to rule and Oliver Cromwell declared the sovereign rights of the
people, as represented by Parliament, it took a civil war to settle the
matter, and the king's severed head was part of the price paid for parliamentary
democracy. The ideas born then were central, later, in America's revolution.
But where Iran scholars find the European and American experience most
instructive is in the theological debate that underlay the political evolution
-- the way in which men like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke found sanction
for their ideas in a reinterpretation of the Bible. Today, it is tempting
for Westerners to think that Iran could emerge from its bitter experience
of the past 20 years as a secular republic -- a Turkey, perhaps. But most
people who know Iran well say that however the immediate political struggle
comes out, what lies ahead will be an Islamic republic -- albeit, perhaps,
a more civil and gentle one than the mullahs have built so far.
Many Iranians would have it otherwise. But most accept that political
change, to be stable in a country where faith is a pervasive fact of life,
will have to come from a redefinition within Islam of the relationship
between state and religion. It will not, they say, come from a separation
of church and state that leaves the mullahs as voiceless in temporal matters
as they were under the shah. Pressed, many Iranians will cite Turkey as
proof. However secular its system, it still has had sharp challenges in
recent years from resurgent Islamism.
This, in fact, is the message of Khatami. Although he is the author
of a best-selling book that discusses the merits of Locke, Hobbes and Montesquieu,
he has never disguised that his democratic, pluralist, tolerant principles
would find expression within a body politic that had Islam at its core.
Addressing the throngs who mob him everywhere, he invariably returns to
the Koran and his belief that the prophet's teachings rested, at base,
on the need for dialogue and consent among the governed.
In the parliamentary election, Khamenei and his allies, having used
their powers to disqualify scores of reformist candidates, may yet hold
the reformers at bay. But whatever the vote's outcome, Iran's political
struggle will still hold the attention of all who care about the world's
1 billion Muslims. For if Iran, the fount of modern Islamic militancy,
can find a way to reconcile the ancient beliefs of Islam and its people's
yearnings for freedom, the lesson will not stop at Iran's borders. It can
be expected to ripple outward across the 53 Muslim nations that have been
notable absentees, so far, from the rise of democracy that followed the
collapse of the Berlin Wall.