One interesting feature of the current world dichotomy – the division between the United States and its “war on terrorism” and the Islamic movement, with Islamic Iran at its heart – is the emerging realization in the central countries of the two sides that they can no longer rely on their principal constituents.
One interesting feature of the current world dichotomy – the division between the United States and its “war on terrorism” and the Islamic movement, with Islamic Iran at its heart – is the emerging realization in the central countries of the two sides that they can no longer rely on their principal constituents. For the Islamic State of Iran, the mustad’afeen – the oppressed and dispossessed – had been natural allies from the very beginning of the Islamic Revolution, which proudly proclaimed its championship of the Qur’anic ayah “wa nureedu an namunna ‘ala alladhina istud’ifu fi al-ard”: ‘and We want to entitle [or empower] those who have been oppressed on earth’ (28:5). For all its errors and deviations in recent years, the Islamic movement remains the final recourse for the powerless and exploited masses of the world.
But over the last decade, as the agenda of the Islamic movement outside Iran has been hijacked by groups whose strategies have discredited the movement among non-Muslims everywhere, government officials in Iran seem to have decided that they cannot afford to base their strategic thinking on issues concerning oppressed peoples, or to get involved with the myriad issues and problems of the wider Muslim world. Their attitude seems to be that they sympathize with the problems of other Muslims, but need to withdraw from this larger arena of activity which was inherited from the late Imam Khomeini. One of the first hints of this change of attitude was the renaming of the Mustad’afeen Foundation as the ‘Alavi Foundation. This clearly suggests that the Islamic state had gone from being a pace-setter for all oppressed peoples to one that does not even aspire to reach beyond the Shi’i community, and perhaps not even beyond Iran’s territorial borders. Not only is this a remarkable downsizing of the vision of Imam Khomeini, but it is also a dangerous departure from the strategy of Islamic unity and the issue of justice on earth. It is not clear why some bureaucrats in Iran have opted for this compromised position, and it is clear that not all levels of the Iranian leadership are involved in it, but the pressure that Iran continues to face from the US and the West, most recently on the issue of its nuclear plans, indicates that it has not succeeded in reducing or modifying the West’s hatred and enmity of Iran.
The Islamic Uprising in Iran a quarter of a century ago is too important and too special for Muslims to simply watch it wander from its original and true course. We remember all too clearly the impact this breakthrough had on Muslims everywhere. For the first time in modern history, Muslims had risen against a corrupt government and its imperialist and zionist sponsors, and were able to take control of their own country, and begin to show the rest of us how things should be done.
Of course, the road forward was not likely to be smooth. The sponsors of the Pahlavi regime could not be expected to sit and watch a people shape their own future on the basis of their Islamic faith and commitment. Throughout the last 25 years, America and Israel have been working to bring the Islamic government in Iran to its knees, with the support of their Western allies, Iran’s pro-Western neighbours and even supporters within Iran. Iran’s borders amount to some 8,000 kilometers; American troops are now based across six thousand kilometers of this border. This grim scenario has been gradually built over 25 years, and has passed almost unnoticed by most Muslims, and even most Iranians. There has never been any cessation of hostilities between the followers of the line of Imam Khomeini (r.a.), who refuse to compromise when it comes to the independence and sovereignty of the Islamic state, and the numerous other interests wanting to shape the state on their terms.
Part of our object in this new column is to look at some of the gaps that have developed since the passing of Imam Khomeini (r.a.), many of which are rooted in earlier events, and how these gaps have caused serious problems about which we can no longer remain silent. But before we walk into this sensitive area, one point needs to be made absolutely clear. This is that none of the points we make are intended to express any criticism of Imam Sayyid Ali Khamenei, the successor to Imam Khomeini (r.a.) as Rahbar of the Islamic State. Many of the points we make will be highlighting natural processes in the evolution of post-Revolutionary state and society. Others will indeed involve criticism of errors and failures in Iran, mainly on the part of those who have been responsible for aspects of Iranian government and policy at the executive level. It was inevitable that such errors and failures should emerge over a quarter of a century in an unprecedented and highly-pressured historical situation; unfortunately they have contributed greatly to what many now see as the Islamic experiment’s current stagnation.
Sometimes frank statements of truth can be bitter pills to swallow; we hope no-one will consider this column to be too bitter a pill. We say what we say only to express our honest understanding of the issues. If we are correct, we appeal earnestly to Allah to accept our humble words to our humble readers. If not, we request Allah’s forgiveness and correction from anyone able to do so; without, we hope, descending into personal issues or hidden agendas. Ameen.
Parallel to Iran’s apparent withdrawal from global Islamic concerns, there is a similar change in approach in the US administration. The neo-conservative strategists now in charge in Washington appear to have withdrawn their confidence from their client-regimes in Muslim countries, who have been the US’s key agents in the Muslim world for the last half-century or more. At the same time, they are attacking many so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ for being insufficiently critical of Islamists and insufficiently secular and pro-American. The neo-conservatives’ plan for a “new American century” seems to be based on the dismantling of the infrastructure of the US’s previous strategies, beginning with Iraq and then spreading to such places as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and wherever else the pursuit of their “war on terrorism” may take them. As some of our brothers in Iran seem to have washed their hands of the international lectures, programmes and conferences that were, until a few short years ago, their near obsession, so does the US government seem to have washed its hands of patting the Saudi royals on the back. The Saudi royals in their turn have withdrawn diplomatic passports from their da’is, and the Saudi–Ikhwani relationship is becoming strained to breaking-point; last year, the Saudi Minister of the Interior, ‘prince’ Nayef ibn ‘Abd al-’Aziz, blamed al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen for all the problems and difficulties that Saudi Arabia has had since 9/11.
The irony is inescapable: Iran has retreated from support of revolutionary Islamic movements, apparently for fear of the wrath of the US (although Iran’s continuing support for the Palestinians is a notable exception to this trend), and the Saudis have distanced themselves from moderate Islamic movements to try to prove to Bush and his clique that they are with the US and against the “terrorists.” This disturbing trend in Iran appears to be based on the desire of some diplomatic types in Tehran to prove their credentials as ‘moderate Muslims’ that the US can deal with. The litmus test has become Iran’s nuclear programme. Unable to attack Iran for involvement in Islamic terrorism, because of the clear difference between Iran and salafi groups, the US is instead pressuring Iran on this issue, so reminiscent of the accusations about “weapons of mass destruction” made against Iraq to prepare world opinion for the US invasion.
The most dangerous thing that could happen at this juncture is for the US to succeed in exploiting the oppressed Muslims’ desire for ‘democracy’, identified for some reason with justice and good government, while Islamic Iran falls prey to the desire among some of its officials to develop friendly relations with the governmental elites in the Muslim world. The key arena in which these two dynamics are coming together is Iraq. The US has gone into Iraq promising to establish democracy and a ‘representative’ government by elections. Tehran, as far as we can tell, has failed to push for the establishment of Islamic government in Iraq, despite its close links with Iraq’s people.
Saudi Arabia is another litmus test of Iranian politics. The cordial political exchanges between Tehran and Riyadh keep on growing from year to year. In the meantime, homegrown opposition to the Saudi Arabian government cannot but increase as the years go by. The Saudi royals cannot survive the coming Islamic groundswell against them, and are happy to make friends wherever they can, in Washington and Tel Aviv as well as in Tehran. But Iran should be wary of the company it is keeping when its diplomatic friends depend on Bush and Sharon for their survival. It is clear to the rest of the Islamic movement that the appeasement of the mustakbireen has gone too far. The pro-Saudi elements inside the Islamic movement and inside the Islamic state should realize that they need each other more than they need the crutches that are thrown to them by the Saudi Qaruns. If these Saudi contacts inside the Islamic movement do not learn their lesson, the field will be wide open for American and Israeli mischief, trouble-making and infiltration. Equally, if the Islamic State of Iran does not realign itself solidly with the global Ummah of Islam, and the oppressed and dispossessed of the world, it risks being boxed into the boundaries of its Shi’i and Iranian elements. The consequences of this would be disastrous.
Take the current massacres in Falluja and Iraq. While the United States and its local mercenaries are destroying a city with a population of 300,000 people, mostly Sunnis, and masjids (well over 80), and while there are ominous threats from the US and its local proxies that the same methods will be used against other centres of resistance, such as al-Ramadi, Mosul, and Ba’qubah, Iraq’s Shi’i religious establishment is widely perceived as having failed to support the victims of these murderous policies. Senior Shi’i scholars, such as Ayatullah al-Sistani and Ayatullah al-Madirrisi, and political leaders such as al-Sayyid ‘Abd al-’Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iran (al-Majlis al-A’la) and Ibrahim al-Ja’fari of Hizb al-Da’wah, all of whom made common cause with the Iraqi Shi’is who were butchered and massacred by Saddam Hussein, seem relatively unmoved by Iyad ‘Allawi’s similar massacres of other Iraqis who happen to be Sunnis; only Muqtada al-Sadr inside Iraq has been forthright in his condemnation of the attack on Fallujah and his solidarity with its Muslims. The only more senior Shi’i voices to have been heard in defense of the Iraqi Muslims thus far have been from outside the country – those of Imam Khamanei and al-Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah in Lebanon.
The fear must be that if the Islamic government in Iran confirms what many consider to be its Shi’i and Iranian character, it will be traditional quietists such as Ayatullah Sistani that will set the tone of its policies, rather than revolutionary ulama following the line of the late Imam, such as his successor as Rahbar of the Islamic State, Imam Khamenei. Relations between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims have routinely been strained throughout Muslim history. Both communities have been suspicious of each other, and all too willing to believe the worst of the other’s intentions and actions. The fact that the first, prototypical Islamic Revolution of the modern era came in a Shi’i country made it inevitable that the enemies of Islam would exploit this fault-line in the Ummah to try to restrict the impact of the Islamic Revolution elsewhere in the Muslim world. But it is not only the actions of our enemies that feed suspicion and fuel historical uncertainties. All too often, our own actions or inactions create discord and weakness where there should be unity and strength. The current developments in Iraq are a case in point.
The failure of so many Shi’i scholars and leaders to speak out at this time, and to back their words with political action, is intensely disappointing. It will be a loss of tragic proportions if the voices of Imam Khamanei and al-Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah are drowned by the scholarly silence of the likes of Ayatullah Sistani, whose traditionalist quietism has made the success of the militaristic American takeover of the country a real possibility. And it will be just as great a loss if the bureaucrats, technocrats and diplomats in the ministries of state in Tehran opt for a similarly quietist approach, abandoning both the ideals of the Islamic Revolution and the rest of the Islamic movement, instead entering into political manoeuvres with the shaytan-e buzurg of our time and its regional allies.