Sam Ghandchiسام قندچي Shi'a Clergy and Iranian State

Sam Ghandchi

روحانیت شیعه و دولت در ایران


For decades, absence of democracy during the Shah's regime, hampered the formation of secular organizations in Iran, and the Islamic Republic, in the decades following the 1979 Revolution, has also blocked the development of secular political organizations in Iran.  The clergy which had its traditional organization was unchallenged to take over Iran, in 1979, when the Shah's regime fell apart. 


Shah should have modernized the political structure of Iran, if he wanted to save his government, and the cornerstone of such modernization should have been the protection of democracy, which Shah did not care for.  Also Secularism was opposed by the Shi'a clergy and this is why they opposed even the partial secularism of enghelAbe sefid  (Shah's White Revolution). 


Shah instead of moving forward with a thorough secularism, and augmenting it with democracy, tried to give concessions and appease the clergy on the issue of secularism, while blocking all democratic forces from forming their own organizations, using arrests, torture, and executions of the leading secular personalities like Dr. Mossadegh and Dr. Hossein Fatemi.


Concession to the clergy did not save Shah's government, and only helped the successor of his regime to become a Mediaeval Theocracy rather than a democracy.  Shah was successful in his suppression of Iranian democratic movement, which curtailed the further secularization of the state, a secularism which had started long before the Shah and Pahlavi Dynasty, at the time of mashrootiat (Constitutional Movement of Iran), and had continued during Reza Khan's era. 


During the Shah's regime, Shi'a clergy regained their status in the judicial branch of the state.  It is a fact that the clergy's role in Iranian state is not something that happened in the Islamic Republic, and unfortunately this truth is still not understood by many monarchists, who support the 1906 Constitution, which allows the veto of 5 mojteheds (Shi'a top Ayatollahs) for any law to become the law of the land, and considers Shi'a as the official religion of Iran. 


The presence of clergy in the judicial branch of state in Iran which has been the reality under monarchy, is the biggest obstacle to secularism in Iran, and this reality is still neglected by the Iranian opposition. Unfortunately most Iranian opposition groups still do not see the conflict of interest,  a member of Shi'a clergy has a position in the hierarchy of Shi'a religion, collecting khoms and zakAt, while holding a civil or state office. 


I wrote a detailed article about secularism and explained why the Shi'a clergy, as long as holding a position in the Shi'a organization receiving Khoms, Zakat, or religious estates like Mashhad's Asatane Ghodse Razavi,  should be kept out of the civil or state offices of all three branches of the government in future Iran, and I consider this to be a key issue for any future constitution of Iran.


As I have explained in details in that paper, I do not believe that anybody should be banned from holding an office just because of being religious, or even for having been a clergy at one time. But being religious, is different from having a position in the organization of Shi'a religion in Iran.  A former clergy can be looked at like a former general, when he does not have a position in Shi'a organization anymore.


A position in the organization of Shi'a religion means gaining from khoms, zakAt, religious donations, and the religious endowed properties such as AstAne Ghodse Razavi of Mashhad, which are important sources of income for the Shi'a hierarchy, and the state should tax those incomes of the Shi'a organization.


And the authorities in the religious organization who gain from these revenues, as long as they are holding positions and benefiting from these sources, should not be allowed to hold any state office in judicial, legislative, or executive branches of the government.




Let's now look at the rule of law under an Islamic Republic, which IRI reformists have been proposing as the so-called Islamic Democracy.  Khatami and his supporters created an illusion that democracy is just the rule of law, which I have responded to before, in great details, in Democracy is Not People's Rule, It is People's Judgment


I showed that when the institutions of judgment by the people are absent or destroyed, like the case of wiping out of Weimar Republic by Hitler, then the rule of law will not be tantamount to democracy, and it is an illusion to view such rule of law as equivalent to democracy. 


Thus leaving the main social and political institutions of the society in the hands of the Shi'a clergy, any rule of law will not mean democracy, because the institutions of judgment of people are obstructed.


Many of the monarchists blame Shah's fall on the U.S. or the British.  The reality is that the US supported the inevitable, when the time came in 1979, because the clergy were the only ones who had the organization to rule Iran at the time, thanks to Shah's eradication of secular democratic movement for over 30 years prior to the revolution. 


As far as the U.S., even after the Sept 11th, it still made deals with the clergy in two opposite ways, depending on US interests at any given time, and also depending on the international circumstances. 


On one hand, the U.S. not only in its fight with the Soviet Union in the past, but even still today, appeases the Islamists when it sees it fit, like it did in Afghanistan, by supporting a new state with an Islamic tag, long before Afghanistan's Loya Jirga was convened. 


On the other hand, U.S. has distanced itself from the fundamentalist terrorist forces in the Middle East, and these forces are more and more using terrorism to put pressure on the U.S., as their way of attacking the progressive forces and the Western interests. 


Therefore one should see how the real social and political development is unfolding in the Middle East, rather than trying to explain these events by the policy of the U.S.  Both the Islamists in the Middle East, and ultranationalist forces in the West, want to block the post-industrial development worldwide. 


Even the  Sept 11th tragedy and the rise of Islamism in the Middle East, should not be viewed separate from the reality of the response of pre-industrial retrogressive forces to the crisis of industrial society.  Again this means the absence of growth of institutions of judgment by the people and leaving the arena to the Shi'a clergy .




The issue of clergy is not even resolved by the Shi'a semi-protestant intellectuals asking for the end of religious need for clergy.   Not all critics of the Shi'a hierarchy are necessarily secular or democratic.  It is true that semi-protestant Shi'a opposition wants to limit the Shi'a clergy's presence in the state, but this does not mean secularism and Islamic Democracy is *not* pluralism


For example, a radical Islamic group, mojAhedine khalgh that has been slaughtered by Islamic Republic of Iran,  is more like Munzer of the time of Luther, and they share most of the Islamic dogma with the rest of Shi'a Islamists.  Or Aghajari. who recently received a death sentence in Iran, was very similar to Luther of 15th Century Europe, and his words echoed Luther's questioning the need for Catholic clergy, as the intermediary of people and God, when calling for direct contact of the individuals with God, which basically would end up in equating the clergy with the layman.  But at the same time, Aghajari defended Ayatollah Khomeini's death fatwa (edict) for Salman Rushdie.


Luther, just like Aghajari, was a dogmatic religious man himself, who attacked Copernicus, science, and rationalism even more than his Catholic counterparts.   I would have felt not much different to live under the rule of radical Munzer, or the fanatic Luther,  than the Pope himself.  When Luther heard of Copernicusís Heliocentric Theory, he strongly opposed the Copernican Theory, on biblical basis, and in contrast to the Catholic Church, he was *always* against any rational discussions of religion, and demanded the acceptance of Christianity solely on the basis of faith, and not on the basis of rational thought.


What caused the huge Protestant movement was not Munzer or Luther being less dogmatic or them contradicting religion.  It was rather their putting a question mark on any need for the clergy, which gained them the wrath of the Catholic Church.  And all these discussions about religious beliefs, using reason to see who is right and who is wrong, *despite* the opposition of protestants to allow reason to decide on issues of religion, opened the way for logical discourse, in a closed society, that was based on conception of indisputable religious truth, and thus helped the development of civil society in Europe.


It is interesting that the Catholic scholastics did the rational discussions on religious issues more than the protestants and they impacted later development of rationalism in Europe a lot more than their Protestant counterparts.  Jesuits who played a major role in development of rationalist discourse in Western philosophy were Catholic and not Protestants.


Today, we are witnessing something very similar in Iran with the rise of secular and scientific thinking on one hand, and Shi'a semi-Protestant reformation on the other, both challenging the necessity of the clergy, although the ones like Aghajari, are even more of a religious zealot than their counterpart.  Even Shariati who was a precursor of the likes of Aghajari, and is still revered by Iranian intellectuals, was not much different either. 


When it comes to these Islamic Protestants' approach towards liberalism, science, and rational thought, their views are as closed-minded and fanatic, as the Shi'a clergy which they oppose.  It is not even clear if the so-called "reformists" would support the exclusion of Shi'a clergy from the judicial system, which will be the key issue in the post-IRI state in Iran.


To sum up, the solution to the presence of Shi'a clergy in Iran is not thru any semi-Protestant Shi'a alternative of the kind of mojAhdein or Aghajari and only full secularism is the way to ensure that Iran's progress will not be hampered by the Shi'a clergy again.  A hindrance which was true, not just under the Islamic Republic, but was true during mashrootiat and the Pahlavi era as well.


Hoping for a democratic and secular futurist republic in Iran,

Sam Ghandchi, Editor/Publisher

August 26, 2004



*This article is from Chapter 5 of the new edition of Futurist Iran book




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