Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sam Shirazi on the situation in Iran

My friend Sam Shirazi recently commented on the situation in Iran, and on what religion has to do with it. He gave me permission to post his comments here. Also, know that the mainstream media has been really awful in their coverage of the situation, so if you want more, Andrew Sullivan has been great.

The Situation in Iran Explained
Sam Shirazi
June 15, 2009; 1:02am

Since the American media is doing such a bad job and I know a lot of people want to learn
more about what is going on in Iran, I have made a note summarizing the situation.

1. Background

Iran was supposed to have an election for the office of President. The initial screening process eliminates many possible candidates and the government selects who can actually run. Off the bat, this means that the election process in Iran are not completely free. However in the past, the actual elections have been rather representative of the votes the people cast. The election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami with over 70% of the vote in 1997 is an example of this. Thus Iranians had a certain amount of faith in the voting process and this is why it was such a shock when the election was so blatantly fraudulent. The people believed that the regime would at least accurately count their ballots and are now outraged when this promise has been broken.

2. The Election Was a Fraud

There are numerous pieces of evidence to suggest why the election was a complete fraud. I would refer you to Juan Cole's article because it does such an excellent job:

3. This Was not an Election; this Was a Coup

It was clear that Mousavi, the moderate candidate, was going to win the election and not hardline incumbent President Ahmadinejad. This win would have meant that the hardliners in power would have to compete with a movement trying to change the system. Instead of accepting this result, the hardliners have effectively perpetrated a coup within the system in order to seize complete power from the moderates. This is significant because it demonstrates deep rifts within the regime with two clear camps emerging. The current Supreme Leader Khameini and President Ahmadinejad represent the faction of the hardliners who perpetrated the coup. Mousavi, Khatami, and Rafsanjani (a former President of Iran who currently hold important positions in the government and has much influence) are in the more moderate camp who are being purged out of the system. This article shows an Iranian journalist's explanation of why the current situation is a coup:

4. What's Next

The hardliner's have made their move. We must wait and see how the moderates and the rest of the country responds. Questions abound: how much support do the moderates have, will they negotiate with the hardliners, what final outcome do the moderates ultimate want (1. A new election 2. Major changes to the system 3. complete regime change), what is the endgame to the entire situation? Basically all the chaos that is unfolding is the attempts to wrest control from the hardliners who have seized power in a coup. These efforts can be categorized as a sort of counter-coup that is unfolding in the streets of Iran.

One thing is for certain: the situation is far from over.

p.s. One personal thing I would like to add. The protesters you see on TV and the internet are going out there with the possibility of imprisonment, injury, or even death. They are truly brave heroes who are really fighting for freedom and democracy at a time when those words are thrown around like they do not mean anything. I hope we can all realize how lucky we are to live in a country where we can express our political views and campaign for our causes and candidates without fear of anything bad happening to us.

There have been a lot of misconceptions about how religion plays out in the current protests in Iran so I thought I would clear a few things up. I would just want to qualify this by saying that I am not religious at all, but that one of the main ways of looking at the current situation is through religion:

1. Supreme Leader Khameini is not the leading religious figure in Iran

Contrary to reports that Supreme Leader Khamenei is the highest religious figure in Iran, the fact is many other clerics out rank him based on religious credentials. Khamenei is indeed the leading political figure in Iran, but he did not achieve his office as a result of his standing as the leading Ayatollah in Iran. He was designated to be Supreme Leader by the leader of the 1979 revolution Ayatollah Khomeini and draws much of his legitimacy based solely on Khomeini’s decision 20 years ago. Moreover people call him the rank of Ayatollah, but many observers believe he does not actually have the credentials to warrant such a title. Thus Khamenei is not as popular a figure as you would think and that is why his certification of the election did not matter.

2. Supreme Leader Khameini does have a check on his power

Even though people argue that Khamenei has limitless power, there is at least a theoretical check on his power. Under the Iranian constitution, a 86 member body of clerics called the Assembly of Experts selects the Supreme Leader. Theoretically they can remove the Supreme Leader if he does not effectively perform his duties. This fact is important because former President Rafsanjani is head of the Assembly of Experts and many call him the second most powerful man in Iran. Rafsanjani is one fiercest critics of Ahmadinejad and is widely seen as a centrist pragmatic politician who supports Mousavi. There are rumors swirling that he is Iran’s holy city of Qom to round up votes to possibly remove Khamenei from power. Thus Khamenei does not enjoy the full support of the people or the religious establishment.

3. This is not the Ayatollahs/Mullahs vs. the people

The news has described this as an uprising against the Ayatollahs and Mullahs in Iran by the people. The fact is that the religious establishment is not unified in one camp or another and some of the Ayatollahs and clerics support the protesters. In fact Iran’s actual highest religious leader is Ayatollah Montazeri and he recently put out a statement in support of the protestors saying, “a government not respecting people’s vote has no religious or political legitimacy.” Ayatollah Sanei issued a Fatwa or religious edict saying that it was a sin to manipulate with the votes of an election. That is not to say that there are not Ayatollahs who support Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, but the point is that the people are not protesting against all the Ayatollahs. The people are protesting with the support of many of reformist clerics in Iran against the hardline rulers of the country.

4. The reformist are not secular

The idea that the moderate or reformist elements are secular Western style liberals is not accurate. Mousavi who is the main challenger to Ahmadinejad in the recent election served as Prime Minister of Iran in the years following the revolution. Another reformist candidate in these elections was Karroubi who is a cleric. Moreover, former President Khatami who is a leading reformer in the current protests is also a cleric. The above mentioned Rafsanjani is also a cleric which is a requirement to be in the Assembly of Experts. Indeed Mousavi and other reformist have repeatedly invoked religious imagery in their campaign and have told the people to shout God is Great as a protest. While part of this is to cover their protest as within the bounds of the Islamic Republic, it is clear that many of the protesters are deeply religious.

5. A second Islamic Revolution

There has been a lot of talk that Iran is still a very religious country and thus Ahmadinejad has a large base of support in the country. Thus many have argued that the election may not have been that fraudulent and that the protesters make up a vocal minority of the country. As I have laid out, the reformist are made up of many of these religious Iranians and have a strong base of support within the religious establishment. They represent a new version of Islam that accepts freedom and justice as Islamic virtues. This contrasts with many of the hardliners who have been running the country who believe in a more militant and repressive versions of Islam. The battle between these two visions of Islam is now taking place in Iran, and the winner will determine the future of Iran and possibly political Islam. While there is certainly complicated power dynamics and personal ambitions in play in Iran, much of what is going on can be viewed as a battle between two visions of Islam. That is why I describe much of what is going on now as a second Islamic Revolution to reclaim the true nature of Islam.

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