By Amir Taheri
May 3, 2019
Last November Westminster University in London organized a seminar with an enticing theme: Is a Plan B for Iran possible?
In its simplest form the main argument was that 40 years after the Islamic Revolution, the clergy-led ruling elite was still behaving like a sect rather than a state, thus preventing Iran from behaving like a normal nation with all its merits and defects.
In the paper that I presented, I drew on the teachings of several Iranian classical historians, most notably Abul-Fazl Beyhaqi (died in 1077 AD). Tracing the course through which the Ghaznavids, a Turkic warrior tribe, seized power in Iran and established a dynasty, Beyhaqi identifies five stages.
The first stage is that of “conquest” when Saboktakin, the warrior-chief seizes a chunk of territory to use as a base for future episodes in his saga. In the next stage, known as “domination,” the conqueror tribe establishes itself as the predominant force within the territory seized.
The next stage is known as “control” and sees the new ruling elite set the agenda throughout the region seized, and preventing putative rivals from challenging it on major issues.
The fourth stage is that of “governance”. In it, the power provided – thanks to “control” – is used to arbitrate among diverse, often conflicting, interest and agendas in a way that ensures a minimum of law and order and the elimination of the threat of civil war.
The fifth and highest stage is that of “statehood” which becomes possible when society is used to the rule of law regardless of the quality of the law in force, and respects the primacy of state institutions as representations of the public will and interest.
Thus, the creation of a “state” is regarded as the highest goal of politics and the sine qua non of what one might call civilization.
In the 19th century, some Muslim intellectuals, including many with a clerical background, identified the failure of the Islamic “ummah” in developing the structures of statehood as the principal cause of Islam’s decline and eventual domination by Western Powers.
Ruling elites in the Islamic world, including even empire-builders such as the Ottomans and Safavids, progressed through the first four stages described above but never reached the fifth stage, that is to say, the creation of a proper “state” based on the rule of law.
The same is true of most of the present-day Islamic nations. In many cases, what they offer is a caricature of statehood in the sense intended by Muslim classical historians.
In some instances, such as the Taliban “emirate” in Afghanistan, the Boko-Haram “caliphate” in West Africa and the ISIS in Iraq and Syria – the process stopped at the second (domination) or the third (control) stages.
But, what about the ”imamate” created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran?
By what may have been a coincidence it seems that the “Supreme Guide” of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may have been reading some of the texts that I had been re-reading last winter.
In what he terms “a guide for the new Islamic civilization”, published last March, he claims that the Khomeinist revolution has successfully completed the first four stages of conquering, dominating, controlling, and governing Iran, but has failed in the fifth stage which is the creation of a state. And, yet, he argues that without building genuine state structures he would be unable to realize his dream of creating “the new Islamic civilization” within the four-decades timeframe he has fixed.
In 40 years’ time, Khamenei may still be around to assess the success or failure of his project for mankind under his ideal state.
For my part, since I doubt that I would be around to interject an “I-told-you-so”, the best is to assert straightaway that, as far as creating proper state structures is concerned, the Khomeinist movement is unlikely to do any better than the Qarametah, the Thwarat al-Zanj (Revolution of the Blacks) and Hassan al-Sabah’s Hashasheen not to mention Mullah Abdul-Rahman in Somaliland, Akhund Abdul-Ghafour in Swat, Muhammad Ahmad in the Aba island, and more recently, Mullah Omar and Abubakr al-Baghdadi.
Islamic history is full of instances in which a tribe, a group or even a charismatic leader, used religion as a rallying point in the service of a political project.
But those who succeeded beyond the first two or three stages did so by putting religion back in its proper place, and move to the later stages of progress towards statehood. In some cases, that “putting back in its proper place” took the form of massacres of former allies. In other cases, the goal was achieved through reform, redefinition of roles and, as often in Islamic history, outright bribery.
In the best cases, there was a realization on all sides that confusing the political space with the religious one was bad for both. This does not mean adopting “secularism”, whatever that means or, worse still, making religion subservient to the state as was the case in Kemalist Turkey.
In Iran of the 1930s, a group of intellectuals tried to guide the nation towards modern statehood not by shutting religion in a ghetto but by persuading and, when needed, coercing it, to know its place and play its proper, necessarily circumcised, role in society by abandoning totalitarian ambitions. The scheme worked by allowing Islam to prosper in its proper sphere while Iran recast itself as a modern nation-state.
Now, however, four decades after the Khomeinists seized power, Iran cannot behave like a nation-state while Islam, in its Iranian Shi’ite version, has suffered a historic setback.
Khamenei admits failure in creating a genuine state. And, Grand Ayatollah Abdullah Jawadi Amoli, one of Iran’s highest-ranking Shi’ite clerics, signals an equally big failure on the religious front.
“In the past 40 years, The Seminary in Qom has not produced a single book that could be regarded as a reference,” he told a conference of senior seminarians last month.
“If they take the Najaf Seminary from us, we won’t have anything left.”
Khomeinism has produced two losers: Iran as a nation and Shiism as a faith.