TitleDecoding culture of Rohaniat needed

Najaf, the cradle of Iranian politics today

26 Aug 2010

■ Shervin Nekuee
Font Size + | - Reset

For 31 years already, the riddle of the Islamic Republic of Iran – its developments and its reactions on both national and international developments – has remained unsolved. Foreign and Iranian political analysts are in the dark. Less than two years ago, Iran was the next ‘target’ on America’s wish list in their ‘war against terror’. As the end of the Bush era approached, the increasing insight in the disadvantages of George W. Bush’s Middle East war strategy led to the publication of articles and books that had to prove Iran was and could be America’s only stable and reliable political partner in the region, which is why a possible rapprochement with Iran had to be on the table. Indeed, one of Barack Obama’s most significant political deeds during the first six months of his presidency was his video message on the occasion of the Iranian New Year, in which he explicitly extended his hand to Iranian leaders. It seemed to be the beginning of a new era. But then the Iranian presidential elections came along, with the incumbent president Ahmadinejad as the winner (thanks to a massive election fraud, in my view and that of many others), and protests were violently suppressed. Some of the consequences were tens of deaths, hundreds of prisoners and a new gulf of political refugees from Iran. In the West, many people hoped that this time of political unrest would cause the Iranian leaders to be more open to concessions with foreign powers. To no avail: Iran – internal political crisis or not – kept using its bazaar strategy for the nuclear issue: cool-headed haggling and stretching time until the other side finally gave in as much as possible.

There is no doubt that the most complicated aspect of Iranian politics is the issue of balance of power. Since the death of the Islamic Republic’s grand architect ayatollah Khomeini two decades ago, confusion about this balance of power has become even bigger. The quite simple question is: who is in power when it comes to important national and international state affairs? And related to this: who has the final responsibility for which decision? With whom is it useful to talk? And who has to be addressed?

Of course, it is also possible in the case of Iran to make a schematic draft showing the names of the different councils, institutions and positions, and to draw all sort of arrows in between telling who is depending on whom. But such a simplified, formalistic and schematic way of thinking about the balance of power in Iran is nothing but self-deception.

The most complicated aspect of Iranian politics is the issue of balance of power

These questions have not only driven Washington’s Iran desk to despair for years already. Also many political analysts in Iran are in the dark. To make the situation more concrete: the average Iranian lawyer of prisoners of conscience who has to find out by whom his client has been arrested, why and in which prison he is, regularly needs two weeks to only find out which one of the many parallel functioning security and intelligence services has imprisoned his client. Iran (and so also the judicial system) has many dizzying parallel structures; non-transparent networks of power and forms of patronage.

There is a chronic lack of transparency and a dizzying complexity of power relations within the Iranian state. This labyrinthine form of networks that together make up Iranian politics is in my view no coincidence. But at the same time, this structure is not the well-considered product of an elaborated philosophy on a specific structure of power.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic Republic, was without any doubt a fearless, charismatic and if necessary sly leader who did not wince when offering thousands of lives for the creation and continued existence of his great dream. But he was not known as a very meticulous mason of a new state. He also had no confidence whatsoever in those intellectuals who could elaborate his ideas, nor in the necessary training, knowledge or expertise. He was just a mullah (a cleric), be it a very learned one, famous for his sharp-witted view on theological affairs and his curiosity about earthly matters. But still, he was just a mullah. As you cannot expect a professor in biotechnology to necessarily know something about building a state, you cannot expect a learned mullah to have gained a deep knowledge of politics during years of studying Shia theology, which in itself is already complicated enough.

When we take a look at the background of his disciples, we can see that his own students made up the majority – so more mullahs. In those singular cases where he really confided in a non-cleric with an academic background – as in the case of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the current leader of Iran’s opposition and the prime minister in Khomeini’s time – we can see that they were individuals coming from mullah circles, raised in families that had provided society with many clerics.

Upon what then were Khomeini’s ideas about the state based if he had nor knowledge nor faith in those with knowledge about how to create a state? I believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran is like an iceberg, which only shows us a tiny part of its structures of power in its formally established political documents. This state is formal, but above all informal, organized on the basis of Khomeini’s intuition and that of his disciples. They have organized things as they were used to organizing their formal and informal life. In other words, they have done what they considered ‘normal’. They have followed their intuition, which was grounded in the specific ‘corporate culture’ they grew up in, that of the Shia clerics.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Dealing with things intuitively and giving content to normality is – as sociologists and even more so anthropologists have shown us time and again – a very particular matter. That is, it is based on a specific culture. The ultimate and diverse cultural manifestations are what those individuals belonging to that specific culture do ‘automatically’; manifestations which they find normal.

The intuition of Khomeini and his disciples, and that of many people belonging to the power base of Iranian politics, is based on the specific culture of the subculture of mullahs, which we know as ‘Rohaniat’ in Shia Islam. That is the accumulation of Shia clerics and their formal and informal arrangements, relations, traditions, habits and manners. It is right to speak about a very crystallized cultural entity. Rohaniat is a closed circle of individuals who discern themselves from other individuals in their clothing, rhetoric utterance and manners; they discern themselves from those ordinary citizens from countries like Iran, Iraq, Lebanon or wherever you can find large Shia communities.

Between the ages of 12 and 15 and at least until they are 25, these clerics are instructed in theological seminaries, within institutions where everything is focused on the codes of this religious entity. The most important centers are the cities of Qom in Iran and Najaf in Iraq. The seminaries of these cities are the biggest suppliers of Shia clerics – thus also of the current people in power in Iran. Just like Oxford and Cambridge or the modern version of Berkeley in the US, these cities exist thanks to their professors and students, the difference being that in Qom and Najaf, everything is centered on religion and the way of living and thinking of the mullahs.

It is in these cities that a specific cultural form has been practiced for decades, one that has been cultivated by those who left these cities and returned to their own region, family and friends, where this cultural form had its influence on their intimate environment. It is this group, the mullahs and those people who have been indoctrinated by their thoughts and deeds, which have made up Iran’s political elite for 31 years now. Whether you talk about reformists, old conservatives or neo-conservatives; the key figures in the centre of Iranian politics today, both those in power and the main opposition leaders, come from this subculture or at least strongly identify with it. Iran’s conservative supreme leader Khamenei, reformist icon Khatami, opposition leader Karroubi who is so popular among students: they are all mullahs. And both the neo-conservative president Ahmadinejad and his opponent Mousavi are very similar to clerics in their way of speaking and their behavior, and they explicitly look for the legitimization of their thoughts and deeds among clerics.

So to see, it is the Rohaniat culture that has shaped political power in Iran since the 1979 Revolution. Decoding this culture could be the key to a sharper analysis and a more accurate prediction of developments in the Islamic Republic. I believe that trying to understand the culture of Rohaniat is only possible by learning to think and, even more important, to live like Shia clerics, so that you can really get under their skin and experience their culture in its deepest meaning. This is what is known in social sciences as participating observation – to take part and gaining knowledge in doing so.

It is the Rohaniat culture that has shaped political power in Iran since the 1979 Revolution

Contrary to what many Iranians and those interested in Iran think, Rohaniat as we know it today is not an age-old social institution. It is only two and a half centuries old, and its genesis goes back to the time of the decline of the Safavid dynasty in 1722. The Safavid dynasty rose to power in the 16th century, and it political mission was to turn Iran into a Shia state. Their main drive was the necessity to distinguish them and claim their very own position against their big competitor, the Sunni Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans saw themselves as the legitimate rulers of the world of Islam in the Near East, and they had accomplished this mission in a big part of the Middle East. Cultivating the Shia character of Iran gave a moral and ideological impulse to the resistance of the population against the advancing Ottomans.

The Safavid dynasty lasted for two and a half centuries, during which the Safavids had to attract Shia mullahs from all corners of the Islamic world, in order to realize a crystallized Shia jurisprudence for their Shia state and to ‘educate’ the people and learn them how to live according to these laws. Contrary to nowadays, Shia Islam was not the religion of the majority in Iran (there was actually no religious majority in Iran, many Shia and Sunni sects were living in a very multiform society, alongside Alawi, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians) and the most popular form of Shia Islam was not based on an elaborate theological doctrine; it was rather a religious practice with an inclination to mysticism. The mullahs were under the direct command of the Safavids and belonged to the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. The religious class was made up of the court mullahs of the Safavids, nothing more, and nothing less.

When in 1722 the Safavid dynasty was defeated by Sunni Afghans (and also later on when king Nader, who did not like Shia Islam much and hated mullahs) the court mullahs opted for a way-out to the most sacred (i.e. also safest) Shia cities: Najaf (burial ground of the first Imam Ali) and Karbala (where his son Hossein became a martyr). It was only in these cities that Rohaniat started to get its own shape as a separate organization, group and culture.

Although Najaf and Karbala belonged to the territory of the Sunni Ottoman Empire, their importance as a Shia site of pilgrimage made them in some sense autonomous Shia city states, where clerics had a lot of autonomy. It was here that mullahs – forced to do so by circumstances – had to learn to make ends meet. The competition between learned clerics was regulated; agreements were being made about collecting religious taxes from the worldwide Shia Ummah. This was the money that had to guarantee the continued existence of Rohaniat, because contrary to Shia kings in Iran, the Sunni Ottomans did not give one cent to these mullahs. In their eyes, Najaf and Karbala were dusty, uninteresting cities in the eastern remote corner of their empire, which were neither commercially nor geopolitically of any interest.

It was in Najaf and Karbala that for the very first time, a large-scale educational project trained young people to become mullahs, which really got its impetus in the 19th century. The bloom of these theological entities brought about more commerce and a thriving pilgrimage industry, which in its turn lead to the emergence of a strong and rich group of business men, who knew all too well that their prosperity and the success of Rohaniat were intertwined. That is how these cities came to be dominantly colored by Rohaniat. Especially Najaf knew how to safeguard this position and established itself as the heart of the Shia universe.

The rise of Qom in Iran in the 20th century meant great competition for Najaf. Still, I believe that the old Shia character of the Rohaniat culture that we need to know is first and foremost to be found in Najaf. The Islamic Revolution caused Rohaniat to be incorporated in the Iranian political institutions. Just like in the time of the Safavids, the Iranian mullahs of this day and age – at least a majority – are servants of the state who depend on a state income and live according to state guidelines. In that sense, they much more resemble the Safavid mullahs than the autonomous Rohaniat of Qom in the era before the Islamic Revolution. Now that Saddam Hossein’s yoke on the Shia community has disappeared, Najaf is in its prime, partly thanks to a group of self-conscious learned clerics, ayatollah Sistanie being the most important one. They do interfere in society and politics but refuse to take part in the state itself.

Ironically, it is in Najaf and not in Iran that you can find the cultural origins of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is here that you can find the culture on which the foundations of the Islamic Republic are built, and the logic with which the Islamic Republic goes about its business. If you want to understand politics in Tehran, you have to poke around in Najaf for a while.

Tehran Review
کلیدواژه ها: , | Print | نشر مطلب Print | نشر مطلب

What do you think | نظر شما چیست؟

Editor's choice
  • Are we media Cannibals?
  • Europe and Israel are not drifting apart, By Bilal Benyaich
News English

titr Iran’s supreme leader ‘likes’ Facebook despite ban

Critical comments removed

titr Iran sidesteps sanctions to export its fuel oil

Iran is dodging Western sanctions

titr Iran might let diplomats visit Parchin

“Allegations about Parchin is ridiculous”