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Minority rule
Shiism has a problem with majority rule

By Sohrab Mahdavi
January 30, 2001
The Iranian

The affable letter of Majid Tehranian ["Rah-e sevom"] once again proves how well-meaning thinkers lodged abroad are incapable of grasping the most elementary factors that figure into the equation of power in the Islamic Republic, and how by appealing to commonplace reasoning they are only out to satisfy their sense of nostalgia and sentimentalism about Iran without wanting to return until their fanciful ideals have seen the light of day. Tehranian's reply

That Tehranian's intentions are valiant and honorable is not in dispute here (though one still needs to prove it, if not to him, then to oneself; after all, "good intentions pave the road to hell," and one must always be on guard). But the slew of baselss assertions that shine through the monitor are mawkish to the point of disturbing.

The cream of the argument can be gleaned early: "Our religion is one of unity and homogeneity, not division and divisiveness.. Our religion is the religion of freedom of conscience and expression." It is always a mistake to assume that within any cult or faith in Islam there has always -- or at times -- been unity. Islam has spawned countless cults and schools, which have in turn branched out in infinite directions.

Whether reactionary or progressive, these branches have taken on a life of their own, and though attempts at reconciliation have always been there, at no time has the Muslim Umma been entirely content in counting itself entirely in an indivisible universality -- the way, for example, the Catholic church has been the pre-eminent representative of Catholicism around the globe.

While one of its six principles of jurisprudence has revolved around ejma' (consensus), Shiism has never accepted the right of the majority with ease, or without devising trappings that would make that right contingent upon the approval of a religious figure of eminence. The historical dispute between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam has hinged on this particular issue. The roots of this dispute must be sought in the worldview of each, and not in some quixotic concoction of principles.

Shiism is a minoritarian force. This is not to appeal to an economy of numbers. A worldview maybe minoritarian while holding the consensus of the majority or, conversely, grudgingly holding to principles while being in a qualitative minority. The virtue of the highest figure of representative Shiism is precisely that he maintained integrity in the face of a veritable impossibility.

The legend of Ashura is borne on the wings of an insubordination to the rule of the majority. This is the only way that one can explain the eminent position of Shiite luminaries such as Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi who are not only tolerated but held at high esteem by those currently in the minority. Here are samples of Mesbah's views:

* "From the beginning of the creation of man until this day, the cultural situation has never been as critical as that of our society today. Today they say religion is a [personal] choice. today the situation is decisive. Today is a state of emergency."

* "If the right of the public is truly a legitimatising force, then let's assume that people decide to vote for the rule of Yazid or Haroon ul-Rashid or Reza khan Pahlavi and the like. In that case, would their government, in the eyes of God and the Messiah, be legitimate and founded on truth?"

* "People are deceived on various pretexts and this is due to their [intrinsic] ignorance."

* "Where religion is under attack, principles are put to question, the blood of martyrs is stepped on, and skepticism enters the religion, one must not sit back because it is freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, even those who are supposed to defend the truths of religion are now in the dark. What kind of Islamic government is this whose state of women's covering is so [licentious]?"

* "Islam does not want its leaders to distribute [power] among themselves only because they want to avoid bloodshed and damage to public interests - sacrificing the exigencies of the Islamic society and exigencies of God to individual interests. It is one more proof of the victim-hood of Amir al-Momenin that he has followers like us."

These are not effusions of a rogue religious figure. Throughout the history of Islam minoritarian figures have voiced similar sentiments, ready to line up their (few) numbers against those who have been deemed a threat to the sovereignty of God on earth.

It is precisely because Shiism is a minoritarian religion that it so strongly supports a messianic outlook on history. History is not deterministic, but is moving in the direction of the kingdom of the Messiah (even if one day away from Armageddon). While it "waits" for the day of truth, the messianic force will not be content with the rule of majority (god forbid, democracy), but only that of the infallible jurist, which, by implication, is bound to open the way to that kingdom by his failure.

Tehranian may cringe at the quotations above (which, by the way, have all been offered in the past five months), but the truth is that by not considering the place that these assertions occupy in the political philosophy of "our" religion, he is bound to misjudge and patronize the readers of his letter (the people of Iran).

No wonder his letter is reduced to a series of truism that can be summarized in a sentence, and which could have easily been uttered by a father to his sons: "It is good to be good to each other, to respect the rights of each other, to believe in our interests, to be happy."

Mohammad Khatami's reading of religion is simply one in a field that gravitates around many. One may conceivably assert that it reflects the will of the people, but one should never underestimate the power of the minority in holding its ground against the mostly-silent force of the majority.

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