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Generational Dynamics Web Log for 9-Nov-2009
Theological split in Iran widens as opposition protests continue

Web Log - November, 2009

Theological split in Iran widens as opposition protests continue

The Islamic Republic of Iran versus the Persian Republic of Iran.

I've written several times about the belief of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Mahdaviat -- the Shia Muslim belief that the Mahdi (or "the 12'th Imam" or "the Hidden Imam") is coming to save mankind. See, for example, "Iran and Ahmadinejad are waiting for the Mahdi" This belief is roughly equivalent to the Christian belief in the second coming of Christ. (There's also a Buddhist belief in the Maitreya -- that a new Buddha is to appear on earth, and will achieve complete enlightenment.) (Paragraph corrected, Dec 16)

In that article, I quoted a couple of paragraphs from his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 17, 2005:

"From the beginning of time, humanity has longed for the day when justice, peace, equality and compassion envelop the world. All of us can contribute to the establishment of such a world. When that day comes, the ultimate promise of all Divine religions will be fulfilled with the emergence of a perfect human being who is heir to all prophets and pious men. He will lead the world to justice and absolute peace.

O mighty Lord, I pray to you to hasten the emergence of your last repository, the promised one, that perfect and pure human being, the one that will fill this world with justice and peace."

Now, a new BBC documentary by Edward Stourton sheds new light on the depth of this belief, and the way that it's affecting Iranian foreign policy.

According to Stourton, Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and top level government officials are members of a narrow Shia Muslim sect called the "Hasteners" -- people who believe that the return of the Imam is imminent, and that it is the duty of the faithful to take whatever steps they can to hasten the return.

It's as if President Obama, or some other Christian political leader, belonged to a sect that advocated starting a nuclear war in order to hasten the second coming of Christ.

Thus, Shia Islam has two conflicting doctrines that guide the faithful in their lives. One doctrine, known as Intizar (patient waiting) maintains that the best that believers can do is to be patient and wait until the Imam decides to return. That doctrine is opposed by another known as Ta'ajil (to hasten). The Ta'ajilis (hasteners) insist that believers should seek to unite the entire Islamic community and lead it into battle against the "Infidel" with the view of provoking a final showdown for global domination, to hasten the return of the Mahdi.

Thus, Ahmadinejad is quoted as saying, "Do you know why we wish to have chaos at any price? Because after the chaos, we shall see the greatness of Allah."

And so we have Ahmadinejad doing things like talking about pushing Israel into the sea or pursuing policies that would allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. The implication is that Ahmadinejad is pursuing these policies in order to provoke world chaos (presumably, chaos in the form of war) in order to hasten the return of the Mahdi.

Stourton quotes Mehdi Khalaji, a Shia theologian who studied in Qom and a senior fellow of the Washington Institute:

"We call apocalyptics people who believe in the imminent return of Hidden Imam and people who believe that worshippers have some duties more than prayer in order to prepare the ground for the return of Hidden Imam. Apocalyptics, they've been always in margin of the religious community and also political structure of the country. But with Ahmadinejad, this is the first time that they take over the political power. ... [this apocalyptic trend] is frightening, and it is not only frightening for the international community...."

Of course, not everyone agrees with that explanation of Ahmadinejad's policies. Stourton quotes Professor Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews:

"Ahmadinejad and the others, yes, they do believe that the hidden imam will arrive when the world has reached the most disastrous situation. Whether they feel they have to help that along is a different matter. I think thatís where youíve got to be a little bit careful. I havenít seen anything which suggests that. I mean he hasnít said anything specific. Thatís not to say that he might not at some stage. Itís perhaps a question of semantics and a question of being quite pedantic about it but itís important because people do then extrapolate from things that he has not said yet Ė whole policy decisions, which I think are unhelpful."

And so the question is whether the religious beliefs of Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and other senior leaders of Iran's government are pursuing a policy of provoking war BECAUSE OF their religious beliefs.

Religion doesn't cause war; war causes religion

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, the view that Ahmadinejad decided at one point, perhaps in his childhood, to join a sect called the "Hasteners," and then later was guided by those religious beliefs to become a politician with the job of provoking world war -- that view makes no sense all. What makes much more sense is the view that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have adopted a certain set of policies designed to keep themselves in power, and that they've adopted a version of the "Hastener" religious doctrine to justify those policies.

I discussed the role of religion in Generational Dynamics at length in 2007 in "Book review review: Christopher Hitchens: 'God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.'"

In the past few years, Christopher Hitchens has made a career of claiming that religion is the cause of all wars, with the bizarre implication that if we could only get rid of all religions, then we could get rid of all wars.

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, the opposite is true. Wars have a political component as well as a military component, and the political component requires the political leaders to justify the moral superiority that's required to kill other people. There are many possible ways to do that, but the easiest vehicle is religion. Thus, Osama bin Laden may be attacking Western interests because he hates his father, but he justifies his terrorism by talking about infidels and 72 virgins.

What we're seeing in Iran right now appears to be an archetypical example of how war causes religion.

I've written many articles on this web site describing how Iran's strategy evolved, and it has nothing to do with religion. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was a massive civil war that brought into power a new group of politicians who justified their victory in religious terms. They achieved this victory by blaming all their problems on outsiders -- America, Britain, Israel, and later Iraq. They took over the American embassy in Tehran, and held 52 American hostages for 444 days.

They described Iran as an innocent victim of outside exploiters and invaders, and in doing so, they unified the entire country behind their Revolution.

Now, they're trying to repeat that strategy, by attempting to blame America, Britain and Israel as interfering, or threatening to attack, the same innocent victim, Iran. But that strategy worked in 1979 because Iran was in a generational Crisis era; today, Iran is in a generational Awakening era, when that kind of strategy cannot possibly succeed.

(For information about generational eras, see "Basics of Generational Dynamics." For information about America's Awakening era in the 1960s, see "Boomers commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love." For an extensive analysis of Iran's strategy, see "China 'betrays' Iran, as internal problems in both countries mount.")

When the big street protests began in Tehran after the June 12 presidential elections, every mainstream analyst that I'm aware of, including the BBC and Stratfor, predicted that the government would crush the protests and that they would end quickly, as happened in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China. I wrote that, from the point of view of Generational Dynamics, Tiananmen Square is the wrong historical analogy; the best analogy is America's Summer of Love in 1967, which led to almost a decade of political conflict, and failed presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

In fact, the street protests are continuing and growing, especially since colleges opened in the fall.

Last week, Iran celebrated the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, on November 4, 1979. The government scheduled large pro-government demonstrations, but they were met with large anti-government counter-demonstrations.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that the student protests are gaining in strength and are presenting a fundamental threat to the Ahmadinejad / Khamenei government, just as America's 1960s protests threatened the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

If Ahmadinejad and Khamenei succeed in politically surviving the protestors, then the "Hastener" sect will be given a huge boost. From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, that would be a typical example of how a new religious sect gains traction. On the other hand, if they fail, and they're forced to step down, then the "Hastener" sect will also suffer a major setback, and that would be an example of how a religious sect can fizzle.

An Islamic Republic or a Persian Republic?

Iran is going through a generational Awakening era, and really it's quite typical of such eras. There is massive political chaos, with occasional violence that fizzles fairly quickly. We've seen this in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, three Awakening era countries that I've written a lot about on this web site, all having had crisis wars in the 1980s. The political chaos always reflects the themes of the preceding crisis war, and always pits the generations of war survivors, who attempt to impose austere measures to prevent a new war, against the younger generation, born after the war, rebelling against those austere measures.

Today, there are three major political factions in Iran:

One thing that should be clear from the above description is that even if Ahmadinejad steps down and is replaced by someone from the Opposition, the riots and demonstrations won't stop.

It's also pretty clear that as the older generations die off, and the size of the younger generations grows from 70% to 80% to 90%, the Kids are going to win. The only question is how long it will take, and how chaotic the transition will be, over the next 10-15 years.

The growing theological dispute

At the beginning of this report, I referenced a new BBC documentary by Edward Stourton. That documentary was triggered when Stourton submitted some questions to Grand Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri via his web site. Montazeri is one of Shia Islam's most respected theologians, and much to Stourton's surprise, Montazeri answered the questions with detailed replies.

Here are some excerpts:

"Q: What is your view of claims that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in contact with the Hidden Imam and that his government is working for the return of the Mahdi? ...

Montazeri: During his occultation or disappearance it is possible to establish contact with His Holiness the Hidden Imam (may God speed his return). But anyone who made such contact would never dream of announcing it publicly because making use of such claims for propaganda and political purposes would be contrary to the qualities required for such contact. The best way to prepare for the re-appearance of the Hidden Imam would be to act in accordance with Islamic teachings in order to establish justice and Islamic values in society.

Q: How far has the current regime fallen - in your view - from the ideal of the Islamic Republic?

Montazeri: Although some sincere and faithful people have made great efforts and endeavours now and in the past to implement the goals of the revolution, unfortunately, due to the short-sightedness, ineptitude and lack of wisdom, as well as arrogance and neglect of the demands of the majority of the people by a small inefficient minority, many of the initial ideals of the revolution have not been fulfilled. In view of this, our people are very dissatisfied and they protest against the deviations from the goals of the revolution. ...

Q: What (if anything) should Iranian clerics do to bring about change in Iran?

Montazeri: The important action that the esteemed Iranian clerics can and must take in order to initiate reforms, to change the present situation and the current policies, must be in step with the people - with intellectuals and experts, with the members of the elite and with committed political activists. The clerics should tell the people of their rights. They must also remain faithful the values of the revolution and to the goals of the reforms. Otherwise, their social standing among the people will become weaker and shakier."

The fact that a high level Iranian cleric would be openly critical of the government with the press shows how deeply the Islamic government is under attack.

Effect of Iran's conflict on Islam

If you look at the 20th century from the point of view of Islam, there have been two major earth-shaking events.

The first was the destruction of the Ottoman empire after World War I. Centered in Istanbul, Turkey, the Caliphate had been the office of the supreme spiritual leader for Sunni Muslims worldwide, and it was abolished, leaving Sunni Muslims around the world rudderless. After several decades passed, this rudderlessness turned into al-Qaeda and international terrorism.

The second was Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979. For the first time since the 1920s, there was an Islamic state, and a revolutionary method for achieving it. Unfortunately for the Sunnis, Iran is a Shia Muslim state, so it didn't help them. But it did reveal a path by which a Sunni Muslim state might appear again.

Just as Iran's leaders have been trying to recapture their own revolutionary unity by provoking a confrontation or even an attack by Western powers, Islamist Sunnis have been trying to provoke a war in various countries, in the hope of creating a Sunni Muslim state.

They've tried this in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and it is still the main goal of al-Qaeda. The inspiration provided by Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979 has been a guiding light to Islamist Sunnis around the world for 30 years.

The interesting question then arises: What will Islamist Sunnis around the world conclude about Iran's Islamic Revolution, now that the Revolution appears to be unraveling? Will they still try to follow the same path, or will they change tactics in some way, trying to learn from Iran's experience? Only time will tell, and this is something to be watched.

In fact, Sunni clerics in other countries are beginning to point to a possibly fatal flaw in Iran's system of government: the core belief that supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei should have the final say on all Iranian foreign and domestic policies.

What is happening in Iran at present, is "an explosion as a result of a deep existing contradiction in the political system in Iran, which has a religious base, and at the same time seeks to pass on authority through democratic means," according to Sunni scholar Khaled al Dakheel, a professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Basically, the question is how you can have a democracy of the people, when a single religious leader has the final say on everything? At its core, this is a political struggle over the question of separation of Mosque and State, a conflict that occurs, in one way or another, in almost every country.

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, the major trends have not changed. As I've said many times, it's my expectation that Iran will be the ally, not the enemy, of America, Israel and the West, in the Clash of Civilizations World War. In Asia, Iran will be allied with India, Russia and America against China and Sunni Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and the Arabs.

The theological debate and political chaos in Iran are part of the scenario that will take us in that direction.

(Comments: For reader comments, questions and discussion, see the Iran thread of the Generational Dynamics forum.) (9-Nov-2009) Permanent Link
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