Religious backlash loosens clerics’ grip on legacy of 1979 Iranian Revolution


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The 1979 Iranian revolution wasn’t purely Islamic but the clerics, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, made it so to consolidate their power.
BockoPix/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Naser Ghobadzadeh, Australian Catholic University

This article is part of the Revolutions and Counter Revolutions series, curated by Democracy Futures as a joint global initiative between the Sydney Democracy Network and The Conversation. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


With Iran’s ruling clergy already preparing to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it may be too late to question whether or not the revolution was in fact Islamic. What we can do, at least, is explore the revolution’s degree of Islamicness.

In Iran, like elsewhere in the world, often competing utopian political visions shaped the political landscape of the previous century. Marxism, nationalism and liberalism all played important roles in the 1979 revolution. Yet it was later branded “Islamic” with such insistence that this eventually became its sole adjective.

Most Iranians were religious, which positioned the clergy far ahead of any other political group in being able to mobilise the masses. The clergy benefited enormously from their highly effective religious network, which was both far reaching and fully under their control. By that time, the Pahlavi regime had severely weakened the organising capacities of Iran’s other political groups.

The consolidation of power

After telling reporters and other revolutionary leaders ‘the religious dignitaries do not want to rule’ in 1978, Ayatollah Khomeini ensured the clerics’ rule was unchallenged once in power.
Wikipedia

After claiming a dominant post-revolution position, the clergy under then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini exploited their irreproachable reputation and religious bond with the masses to eliminate their rivals and consolidate their power. They converted Iran’s religious networks into permanent political platforms.

Mosques and other religious spaces and occasions were at the forefront of their propaganda machinery. Mosques were also – and still are – used as polling stations during elections.

The ruling clergy coupled the term “Islamic” with the revolution, calling it a “regime of truth”, to use Foucault’s terminology. More importantly, they impeded the emergence of a non-religious alternative to their peculiar political system. Over the past 39 years, no secular political group has been able to mount a formidable challenge to the Islamic Republic.

Instead, other religious forces have challenged the ruling clergy. They have done so both on the level of practical politics and by way of introducing viable alternatives to the ideal of the Islamic state.

The impetus for Iran’s most significant periods of political unrest in recent decades can be traced to the Islamic reformists. Examples include the reformist movement from 1997 until 2005, and the Green Movement, which emerged after the disputed 2009 elections.

The Green Movement brought the regime to the brink of collapse, and its religious ties were undeniable. Its leaders, Mir Hussin Mousavi and Mehdi Karubi – who are still under house arrest – are both religious figures who have always aligned with the Islamists. The colour green is a religious symbol, hence the name of the movement.

The leaders of the Green Movement, whose supporters are pictured at rally in June 2009, are still under house arrest.
Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

A new politico-religious discourse is emerging that offers a viable alternative to the Islamic Republic. The Green Movement must still be understood within the broader “Islamist” school of thought, as it promotes a political role for religion. It is, however, unique in that it envisions this role as part of a democratic polity.

Islam lacks a blueprint for government

The reformist movement amounts to a direct backlash against the ideal of the Islamic state. It targets the foundational pillars of the Shiʿi model of the state, which is based upon Khomeini’s doctrine of wilāyat-i faqīh.

The reformists intend to strip away the ruling clergy’s proclaimed religious legitimacy. They maintain that Islam does not specify a blueprint for political matters and explicitly avoids providing economic, political, or policy prescriptions. The Qurʾān and many Ḥadīths support the notion that humans have the capacity to determine appropriate solutions for their worldly problems.

A sign at a June 2009 rally in Paris, France, bears the motto used in the Green Movement protests in Iran.
Hugo/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Thus, reformists argue that Islam should be actualised in politics through the political contributions of believers rather than the political leadership of the clergy.

Islam does not stipulate a model political system. This makes it impossible to extract the notion of democratic government from Islamic teachings.

However, one could argue that democracy is an appropriate political system for the Muslim world, based on human reasoning. For example, Mohsen Kadivar asserts:

Democracy is the least erroneous approach to the politics of the world. (Please note that least erroneous does not mean perfect, or even error free.) Democracy is a product of reason, and the fact that it has first been put to use in the West does not preclude its utility in other cultures – reason extends beyond the geographical boundaries. One must adopt a correct approach, regardless of who came up with the idea.

Divine sovereignty and Sharīʿa

The religious backlash has been particularly focused on refuting two interconnected claims that form the existential grounding of the Islamic state. These are the claims of divine sovereignty and the necessity of implementing Sharīʿa, or Islamic law.

Iran’s ruling clergy argue that the divine right to political leadership rests not only with the Prophet Mohammad and Shiʿi’s Infallible Imāms, but also with Islamic jurists in today’s world. According to Khomeini:

God has conferred upon government in the present age the same powers and authority that were held by the Most Noble Messenger and the Imāms, with respect to equipping and mobilising armies, appointing governors and officials, and levying taxes and expending them for the welfare of the Muslims. Now, however, it is no longer a question of a particular person; government devolves instead upon one who possesses the qualities of knowledge and justice.

This assertion could be questioned on various levels. First and foremost, it offers a problematic reading of Islamic history. It ignores the reality that the Prophet Mohammad’s governance was a historical occurrence as opposed to a part of his divine mission.

In the same vein, many Iranian religious reformists repudiate the divine source of political authority, not only in the present, but also for the Prophet and Infallible Imāms. These interpretations of the revolution reject the possibility of claiming any sort of divinity in the political realm. This empowers believers to manage their political lives based on their collective rational reasoning.

The second major claim is that Islam is a political religion because Sharīʿa law encompasses important socio-political dimensions. Its proponents maintain that Sharīʿa ought to be implemented to its full extent, thus requiring political leadership by the clergy.

Once in government, Khomenei himself rationalised giving priority to political interests over religious considerations.
Wikimedia

This was a founding maxim of Khomeini’s doctrine of wilāyat-i faqīh. But he revised this when he began running a modern state.

Soon after the revolution, Khomeini realised that implementing the many components of Sharīʿa would interfere with the basic tasks of government. In other words, he concluded that full compliance with Sharīʿa law would make it impossible for a state to effectively carry out its core functions and responsibilities.

His response to this predicament was to prioritise political interests over religious considerations. He went so far as to declare Sharīʿa as secondary to governing:

A government in the form of the God-given, absolute mandate was the most important of the divine commandments and has priority over all derivative divine commandments … [it is] one of the primary commandments of Islam and has priority over all derivative commandments, even over prayer, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca.

This was conceptualised as a Shiʿi jurisprudential principle called Fiqh al-maṣlaḥa (expediency-based jurisprudence). It establishes that a state is regarded as Islamic if the head of state is a jurist, a walī-yi faqīh, regardless of whether the state enforces Sharīʿa and Islamic precepts.

Open to the charge of exploiting Islam

Expediency-based jurisprudence leaves the fate of Sharīʿa ordinances, and by extension the entire religion of Islam, to the “personal” understanding of the ruling jurist. Unsurprisingly, it has been challenged for exploiting religion.

Critics say that decisions based on a rational assessment of the circumstances should not be tagged as “Islamic”. Attaching a religious tag to decisions made by the absolute authority of one person, who is not immune to mistakes and failures, will render religion responsible for policy mistakes and failures.

Ultimately, the lived experience of the government born out of the 1979 revolution proved detrimental to Islam. It led to the disillusionment of some Islamists who wished to emancipate religion from the state. As such, reformist discourse failed to propose a tangible alternative to the model of the Islamic state. This, in turn, could partially explain the resilience of the Islamic state in Iran.

Nevertheless, we should not overlook the powerful role of religious backlash in disarming the ruling clergy and delegitimising the theological foundation of the Islamic state. It remains the most formidable challenge to Iran’s ruling clergy to date.

The ConversationStill, the possibility of a major shift in the country’s political landscape is more complicated and depends on factors far beyond religion-state relations.

Naser Ghobadzadeh, Senior lecturer, National School of Arts, Australian Catholic University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Stumbling into the future: living with the legacy of the great infrastructure sell-off


Phillip O’Neill, Western Sydney University

This is the fourth article in our series Making Cities Work. It considers the problems of providing critical infrastructure and how we might produce the innovations and reforms needed to meet 21st-century needs and challenges. The Conversation


The privatisation of urban infrastructure in Australia is an ironic story. The vehicles of urban infrastructure – the utilities and the state-owned enterprises – were so central to the life of cities that they became perfect entities for private sell-off. We now live with the consequences of the sell-off.

The utilities flourished in Australia as a nation-building exercise following the second world war. The Bretton Woods agreements entrenched Keynesian fiscal behaviours across the Western world.

The utilities thrived on the willingness of governments to raise capital for public works. They were also central to the development of state capacity and the assembly of a career-based professional public service. As part of the social compact, the public accepted reasonable user pricing for the availability of water, energy, public transport and telecommunications services.

Hence, the utilities and the state-owned enterprises led the roll-out of urban infrastructure in the second half of the 20th century. This roll-out shaped the nature of Australian urban life, its format and flows.

But then fiscal crisis of the state descended in the 1970s and 1980s. The sell-off of public assets was seen worldwide as a solution to state indebtedness. Arguments that private enterprise could deliver infrastructure services more efficiently added impetus.

A wholesale transformation

Few governments resisted the sell-off urge. Australian governments, state and federal, participated in the sell-off, though in a stuttering manner. Through time, however, the change has been substantial.

Abbott and Cohen calculate that the output of state-owned enterprises in Australia in 1989-90 accounted for 7% of GDP, 9% of total employment, and 14% of gross fixed capital expenditure.

By 2011-12, the output of state-owned enterprises had fallen to 1.3% of GDP. Their gross fixed capital expenditure contributed only 1.8% of the nation’s total. The authors estimate that proceeds from privatisations in Australia since 1987 total around A$194 billion (in constant year 2000 dollars).

The sell-off commercialised and privatised a raft of assets: electricity generation and transmission, gas distribution, airports, ports and telecommunication. New assets went straight to private hands: motorways, public transport, renewable energy generation, and freight handling.

The shedding of public responsibility for infrastructure meant public investment in Australia as a share of GDP fell from more than 5% in the mid-1980s to well below 3% by the end of the 1990s.

What’s in it for investors?

There is much to understand about the sell-off. Here I focus only on why private investors are willing to pay extraordinary prices to acquire urban infrastructure assets.

The attraction of investing in an urban infrastructure asset comes from the infrastructure services being embedded in the daily flows of people, water, energy and information throughout a city. The flows of a city are remarkably ordered in terms of volume, direction and timing.

How a city operates is dependent on the co-existence of decisions by infrastructure operators and users. The operators decide how and when services will be available. Households and firms decide what they will be doing across a 24-hour day and therefore how and when they will use the infrastructure services on offer.

Thus, the efficiency of infrastructure provision comes from the predictability of the flows of a city. These in turn come from a historical patterning and sequencing of behaviours by householders and firms as they read off and conform to each other’s movements.

An example is the relatively sympathetic structuring and sequencing of work hours and school hours. This ensures that public transport facilities are utilised more efficiently in peak hours, while the hours that parents and children spend together are made more convenient.

The embeddedness of infrastructure into city life means that revenue streams from user fees for infrastructure services are highly predictable and stable. And because transport, water and energy supply is usually monopolised, the householder has little choice but to continue as a consumer of an infrastructure service.

The books of a utility or state-owned enterprise, then, represent a discrete set of households well trained to pay their monthly bills. This is precisely the type of revenue stream that pension, insurance and sovereign wealth funds seek when faced with the peculiar problem of having surplus cash to lock away for at least the next two decades.

What did we lose in the sell-off?

Perhaps it was clever to have solved a government debt problem in Australia back in the day through a sell-off of assets to a new class of long-term investor. But as a consequence we have lost other things.

Infrastructure as a planning tool to shape our cities is one. Revenue streams to subsidise needy customers or supply to remote locations is another.

And, critically, we have lost the opportunity for the state to revamp energy, water and transport systems to allow for innovative supply and demand formats – such as distributed electricity supply networks – that are more appropriate to a climate-threatened planet.

Long-term privatisation contracts, most of them closed to scrutiny, lock urban infrastructure provision into 20th-century formats.

The difficult task now will be their unlocking.


This article draws on a research paper by the author in a new special issue of the international journal, Urban Policy and Research, on critical urban infrastructure. You can read other published articles in our series here.

Phillip O’Neill, Director, Centre for Western Sydney, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Westboro Baptist Church: Fred Phelps is Dead


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the death of Fred Phelps and his twisted legacy.

For more visit:
http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/03/21/fred-phelps-and-the-anti-gospel-of-hate-a-necessary-word/

Chinese pastor, wife slain at church served by Lottie Moon


A Chinese pastor and his wife were slain Aug. 31 at Penglai Christian Church, where Lottie Moon, an icon of Southern Baptist mission work, served in the early 1900s in Penglai, China, reports Baptist Press.

Pastor Qin Jia Ye and his wife Hong En He, both in their 80s, were killed in the church’s office on Wednesday.

The suspect — a 40-year-old former church member — was arrested within an hour of the early morning incident.

The couple’s violent death is a shock to many, both in China and the United States. The church was closed for 49 years after communists came to power at the end of World War II, reopening in 1988 with only 20 people.

Qin reported 300 baptisms several years in a row. Today, there are 3,600 members.

Chinese newspaper accounts state that the suspect entered the church office carrying an axe and struck the pastor and his wife, killing them both.

The church eventually outgrew Moon’s original structure and built a modern 1,500-seat sanctuary next to it with the help of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.

"From the moment I met Pastor Qin, I could sense a Christ-like spirit," said Bryant Wright, Johnson Ferry senior pastor and current Southern Baptist Convention president. "We are incredibly saddened by this tragic event, but we know one of the Lord’s faithful servants is with Him forever in Heaven."

Qin graciously acted as tour guide for a large number of Southern Baptist leaders passing through Penglai who wanted to connect with the community where Moon served.

Wanda S. Lee, executive director-treasurer of Woman’s Missionary Union, visited the church during a 1997 China tour. In spite of numerous church responsibilities, Qin and his wife welcomed the group warmly, Lee said, and it was obvious they were well-loved and respected.

"We are deeply grieved at the news of [the] death" of Qin and his wife, Lee said. "It is a great loss to the Christian community."

Candace McIntosh, executive director of Alabama WMU, took seven college students to China in 2008 to experience firsthand the history and work of Southern Baptists. Penglai Christian Church was a stop on the tour.

McIntosh remembers admiring Qin’s humble and quiet strength as he prepared for worship, as well as his ability to state the message clearly for all to understand. After the service, Qin spent a great deal of time talking with the team of young women about Moon’s legacy.

"He was so encouraged that younger women were there, learning about the history of Lottie Moon and the Chinese church," McIntosh recalled. "I know the legacy of Lottie Moon will live on, but one of its greatest communicators is no longer with us. I know Qin’s legacy will live on, too."

Report from the Christian Telegraph