Track Persia- December 20, 2016
The crisis of ideology in Iran started shortly after the victory of the 1979 revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, promised to implement populist economic policies that promised to provide all the people’s basic needs, including water, electricity and transportation, along with implementing Islamic law when he took power.
Many people in the West think Khomeini succeeded in mobilizing the Iranian people for his political purposes only based on his religious charisma and the ideological character of his message. Whereas in his speeches before and right after the revolution, Khomeini promised to provide people with perfect happiness in this world and salvation in the next. One of the major elements of Khomeini’s campaign against the shah’s regime was that the shah allowed foreigners to “loot” the country’s economic wealth.
In February 1979, in his Behesht-e Zahra cemetery’s speech, the same day he returned to Iran, Khomeini said, “In addition to providing you a rich satisfying life, we aim to improve the quality of your spiritual life as well. You need spirituality, which they [shah’s regime] have taken away. Don’t think it will be enough if we build a home for you. We will provide you water and electricity and bus rides free of charge. Don’t be satisfied just by those. We will exalt your souls. We will give you the status of a true human being. They [shah’s regime] degenerated you. . . we will cultivate your world; this world and the other world.”
But after he saw the incompatibility of Islamic law, as it is in tradition, with the reality he faced, Khomeini used his theory of the Guardianship of the Shiite Jurist to rule (wilayat al-faqih) in order to free the hands of the ruling jurist from the bounds of Islamic law. Accordingly, a ruling jurist has the authority to overrule Islamic law if it is necessary for the safeguard of the regime.
In a letter to then president Khamenei, Khomeini stated, “the government has the right to unilaterally terminate its religious contracts with the people, if those contracts are against the interests of the country and Islam. The government has the right to prevent anything, whether related to religious rituals or not, as long as it is against the interests of Islam.
The hajj [pilgrimage], which is one of the important religious tasks, can be prevented temporally by the government if it regards it against the expediency of the Islamic Republic.”
Khomeini emphasized that if a ruling jurist had to make decisions based only on Islamic law, the religious government and his absolute authority would be meaningless. Therefore, the ruling jurist is not necessarily the jurist who understands Islamic law better than others, but he is the jurist who has the ability and authority to understand the interests of Islam and the Islamic Republic beyond the sacred text of Islamic law. The religious texts in themselves without interpretation are “silent Islam,” but the ruling jurist who has the exclusive right to understand the texts and apply them is “speaking Islam.” In other words, Islamic texts alone have no meaning without a jurist who has the official right to interpret and implement them.
Khomeini legalized many practices that were religiously illegal. According to his interpretation of Islam, in principle there is no principle in Islam. He not only legalized many religiously illegal acts but also put religion in many issues that were not subject to religious legislation. For instance, Khomeini issued a fatwa stating that respecting driving rules was a religious matter. Paying taxes to the government, which had been religiously illegal before the Islamic Revolution, became a religious duty after it.
Therefore, Iranian political leaders after the revolution, especially in the past two decades, have been more concerned about concrete and practical interests than abstract and absolute Islamic ideals. Even the political, economic, and military investments for supporting the “Islamic cause” should not be understood as a policy merely driven by abstract religious motives, but it has to be contextualized within the historical and political conditions that shape the behavior of Tehran.
Iranian leaders, whether in theory or practice, have shown that in a conflict between the interests of government and religion, they will stand for the first over the second. But the establishment’s understanding of the Islamic texts has provided for them the ability to justify every decision with Islamic ideology.
During the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian regime used all available elements, icons, and concepts from Islam to justify the war and recruit people for the military. Furthermore, Iran’s compliance with the UN ceasefire resolution, which was supported by Khomeini, proved that Khomeini’s Islamic ideology could justify both war and peace. In fact, one of the most important consequences of that ceasefire was an overwhelming doubt of the honesty of the regime’s leader.
Based on ‘Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy’, by Mehdi Khalaji, January 2008