Mr. Khatami: Stoning & Killing Heretics Are Not Private Matters

(Iranians are not the ommat of Islamic clergy)



President Khatami of Iran has been promising a so-called "Islamic Democracy" for Iran for some time.  Let's not bother with the fact that his boss Khamenei, as well as Mr. Khatami's idol, Khomeini himself, openly have rejected democracy as a Western concept, on many occasions, while borrowing the Western term of *republic* for their theocracy to deceive the Iranian people.  Also let's disregard the fact that as long as Mr. Khatami is speaking for a theocracy, any illusion that he creates about considering religion as a private matter, is nothing but more deception of Shi'a clergy. And if Mr. Khatami says he does not consider religion as a private matter, but wants this oxymoron called "Islamic Democracy", then one can wonder what differentiates the role of religion in his imaginary "Islamic democracy" versus the existing Islamic theocracy we already have in Iran.  Needless to repeat that the same critique applies to MojAhedin Khalgh's plan of Islamic Democratic Republic.  Having said all this about the deceptions of advocates of Islamic Democracy, I should say that this is not my subject of this article. All these contradictions have been discussed over and over again, in the Iranian political circles, and we all know about the oxymoron phraseology called "Islamic Democracy" and there is no need to spend more time on these trivia gimmicks of Shi'a clergy of Iran.


The issue I would like to discuss is about respecting "religion as a private matter".  Well, if a religion like the Islam of today believes that a porn movie star must be stoned to death, and does it, or believes that one condemned of blasphemy should be killed, which is the basis of Khomeini's fatwa on Salman Rushdie, then how can a civil society treat such a religion as a private matter?  True that what people believe as God or whether they want to wear a veil or not, do prayers or not, can be looked at from a liberal standpoint as a private matter, and whether the believers *act* on those beliefs or not, really is not a life and death issue.  But on an issue like murder of a blasphemous person as a religious *duty*, how can anybody consider such an act as a private matter?  If a Satanic cult believes that it is their religious duty to spill the blood of a virgin for their initiation ceremony, would a civil society consider it a private matter of their religion and not interfere?


Well, the accepted formulation of religion as a private matter in the West may get one to wonder how such a formulation could have stopped the Christians who believed to burn Giordano Bruno alive at the stake?  If the state was *not* a theocracy at the time, but if the Christian believers thought they should burn him at the stake, could they do that themselves, without the state doing it, as a "private matter", the same way the Muslim fanatics in countries where they are not in power, kill people condemned by fatwa, extra-judicially, as a religious duty?




The reality is that "religion as a private matter" is more of an American concept than a European one.  It is what developed in America as is best illustrated in the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville in 1830's .  I have written about Tocqueville' s observations of the United States in another article before:


How was it possible to shape religion as a private matter in the United States? Was it because of U.S. being a Protestant country from start?  Well, that is an important factor but is not all.  In Europe, first the decisions for burning the apostates were made in the Councils of the Catholic Church.  Then during the reformation, similar religious differences were fought out in the wars between the Catholics and Protestants, and finally there was the stalemate of the Thirty Year War in the15th Century, and thus the birth of individualism in Europe, because if neither the Council was able to make such decisions, nor the war could make it one way or the other, the individual was left to decide for himself/herself. 


Nonetheless even the Lutherans looked to the monarch, head of the state, to be the head of the Protestant religion, and Calvin in Geneva asked the people to follow the state in religious matters,  to challenge the Catholic theocracy, although in some other countries the Calvinists did not go along with the royal power, in spite of their strong opposition to the Catholic religion.  In other words, the civil law took control of *social role* of the religion and religion in the social sphere was replaced with various forms of *social contract* theories, natural law theories, and similar civil laws, and in this sense religion got  more and more away from its social role, and more focused on individual's spiritual needs. 


In the U.S., the "religion as a private matter" attitude, became the way of life from the start, and religion had *no clearly defined social role* in the life of the individuals in the United States.  And the multitude of protestant groups made it more meaningful to have a view of religion as a private matter, so that no denomination would dominate, and the concept later expanded to include other religions such as Hinduism, as one's private matter in the U.S.   If Calvin in Geneva would have asked the people to follow the state even in religious matters to end the Catholic way of theocracy, in the U.S., there was no presumption of a social role for the religion, and thus there was no such dilemma for the protestant priests to deal with, and for that matter no such dilemma even for the Catholic priests either, in the U.S., and therefore "religion as a private matter", was a "natural" reality in the United States of 1830's, when Tocqueville visited the United States.


In Europe the process has been a lot more arduous and never as complete as what one sees in the U.S., where in a way it all started with a clean slate.  This is why still to our times, one sees the battle of Pope and Madonna as a living example of continuation of persistence of the Catholic Church to assume a social role, roles like deciding about contraceptives, but of course this is a far cry from the days when the Church allowed itself to burn apostates at the stake.  Moreover for "religion as a private matter", to become the accepted norm, the civil law, in the forms of social contract or others,  needed to take over the judiciary of the European societies, and the clerics had to be replaced with the graduates of secular law schools, so that no social role would be distinguished for the clergy. 


The clergy that had already been out of the executive branches of government and out of the parliament, after the Protestant attacks on the Catholic Council, was removed from the judiciary, and this put an end to the social role of religion.  In other words, whenever there was a conflict between the individual right and social right, a secular body was to make the decision, i.e., the Catholic Church  was stripped from the authority to make such decisions or to execute them after the end of Inquisition.  Therefore, if a Christian priest felt that someone was blasphemous, and wanted to burn him at the stake, he no longer had the power to make a verdict, or to execute it, because not only the state took away such social roles from the Church, the pious also no longer considered such decisions or actions within the scope of authority of their priesthood. 


Now let's see what the situation is with regards to Islamic countries.  Even in countries where the executive branch is not in the hands of Islamic clergy, such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, the judiciary is controlled by them.  Why didn't the Catholic clergy continue to burn people, after not being in control of the state, in extrajudicial ways, as it has been done by Islamic clerics using fatwa and vigilantes, even during the Shah's regime, to murder heretics like Ahmad Kasravi?  The noteworthy issue to remember is that with the fall of the Middle Ages, European view of the human became more and more as *individuals* and not community, and the Church was no longer able to kill heretics, in a social role. 


In contrast, in Islam to this day, the *ommat* is a community view of the human, and this is what prevails in the Islamic countries.  Even the Greece of Plato and Aristotle viewed the individual as part of the community, and the same view prevailed in Mediaeval Europe, and only Modern Europe and the United States shed the community view of the human, and developed the concepts of individual rights, and the individual, as an end in himself/herself.  I have noted the work of John Rawls about Ancient, Mediaeval and Modern views of human in my following article that I noted before:


In short, the reformation, and the individualism following the stalemate of Catholics and Protestants in the Thirty Year War, ushered in a new view of human, which was an *individual* and not a community, and this view of human was finally triumphant in the European societies after the defeat of the Inquisition in Europe.  Such a process in Islamic countries has not been that long and the *ommat* is what supports the stonings and murders of mortads for blasphemy, as punishment of the outcasts who do not follow the norm of community of *ommat*.  In fact, for "religion to be a private matter", one has to end the ommat view of people in the Islamic countries.


As we all saw, Ayatollah Khomeini tried his best to instill among the Iranians that the people of Iran are *not* individuals, and tried to call Iranians as a herd of *ommat*, led by the Shi'a Clergy.  This is the cornerstone of what Islamists have done to Iran, and the so-called Islamic "Reformists",  like Mr. Khatami and Mr. Monatzeri, do not want to end this ommat view of Iranians, and they are as much part of the system that does stonings and murder of heretic *individuals*, who challenge the confines of *ommat*, as their so-called conservative counterpart in the Iran's Islamic clergy.


Yes, Mr. Khatami, Iranian people are *not* the *ommat* of Islam.  Iranian people are *individuals* who can think for themselves, and are not a herd of ommat of the Shi'a clergy to stone and murder *individuals* in their name.  The only acceptable community for Iranians is a community of free individuals, with no forceful religious dogma, where people can democratically choose who they want to associate with, in free parties and organizations.  The time for the end of *ommat* view of Iranians and seeing us as free individuals has long been overdue, and this is why we do not need any "Islamic" tag for any form of democracy in Iran.


Sam Ghandchi, Publisher


March 2, 2003

Oct 30, 2002








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