QOM – Twenty-three years after the victory of the Islamic revolution, the absolutely key question facing Iranian society at the present political, economic and social crossroads regards the role of the leader and guide – and consequently the crucial concept of velayat-e faqih (supreme religious jurisprudence).

Officially, the highest authority of the Islamic Republic is “the leader who as per the constitution should enjoy piety and fairness as well as proper political and social insight, prudence and academic qualifications for issuing decrees on various issues of fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence].”

One of Grand Ayatollah Saanei’s crucial fatwas (religious rulings – see Iran Diary, Part 2, link above) concerns exactly the concept of velayat-e faqih. The Qom religious eminence stated that “any comprehensively qualified mujtahid [jurisprudent] is competent to assume the position of velayat and as regards the people, and in serving the public interest in cases for which Islam has not decreed a specific ruling, the legitimacy for action derives solely from the people.” In the political structure of the Islamic Republic, 70 mujtahids – winners of a popular vote – constitute the experts assembly that elects the supreme leader.

Certainly there are democratic seeds planted in this garden. But actually the supreme leader – namely Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei – among other crucial tasks determines the guidelines of the system, holds the supreme command of the armed forces, and appoints and dismisses the six fiqs (Islamic canonists) appointed to the all-powerful Council of Guardians. He also controls the judiciary and the audiovisual media, while the Council of Guardians keeps parliament in check, vetoing any legislation considered to be “in contrast with Islam and the constitution” and vetting any unsuitable members.

The debate raging nowadays in Iran regards the possibility of the leader being converted into a kind of constitutional theocrat – so the elected President Mohammed Khatami may really govern and the 290-seat majlis (parliament) legislate with no constraints. Iranian democracy in this case would function smoothly – without any need to alter the constitution. At present, with the country governed by both secular and religious leaders and governing bodies, duties often overlap, although the religious leader holds sway.

But if the leader is to remain the bearer of the last word, it is proven that the religious order is above the political order – even if the leader himself is a product of the political order (after all, he was elected by jurisprudents elected by the people).

The conservatives in Iran are using any tricks in the book (or not in the book) to characterize the role of the leader as transcending even the conditions of his nomination. As the leader – a doctor of law – defends a system (fiqh) that is not open to a democratic debate, it is fair to assume that no real democracy is being practiced in Iran, as the so-called “third generation” of young Iranians – post- revolution – scream louder and louder.

The conservatives are also fighting an extra challenge coming from the proponents of a “religious civil society.” These people are not exactly secular, but they vigorously defend an “Islamic democracy” where the role of Islam would be ultimately determined by popular vote. To sum up, in the current circumstances the heirs of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution of 1979 are split between the partisans of a “religious democracy” and the partisans of the velayat-e faqih. Who is the real sovereign, the people or the leader?

The answer we get from the ayatollahs in conservative Qom – especially during the Friday prayers – is that the powers of the faqih are not limited by the constitution: this would mean that Khamenei enjoys the same powers as the Prophet Mohammed and the “immaculate imams.”

The debate is absolutely crucial because it clarifies how far the Islamic revolution has deviated from its original ideology – which proposed an absolute convergence of interests between Islam and the popular will. It is fair to define the conservatives in Iran today as a group of neo-fundamentalists no different from the wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. They are saying that Islam and democracy are incompatible because an Islamic state is defined by the primacy of fiqh – which is not to be subjected to popular debate. The whole evolution (or involution) is even more striking because this was not what Khomeini had in mind.

Fortunately, since Khomeini’s death an intellectual criticism of the velayat by clerics themselves has also been taking place – a criticism that ultimately “legitimizes parliamentary democracy in the name of Islam,” as enunciated by Farhad Khosrokhavar, an Iranian scholar at the prestigious Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He singles out a moammam (“turbaned,” current Persian term designating mullahs), Mohsen Kadivar, as a master in mixing methods of Islamic juridical analysis with critical analysis. Kadivar is one of those who tries to smash the concept of velayat by stressing its minority role in the complex web of Shi’ite canonical law, which governs Iran. And because of his exhaustive and precise knowledge he simply cannot be disqualified by the conservatives.

Kadivar has comprehensively demonstrated that Khomeini was never in favor of the velayat-e faqih, but of the nezarat-e faqih (surveillance). In his Paris conferences just before the revolution, and then in the first months of 1979, Khomeini advocated nothing else than a function of surveillance for the faqih.

But reality today is still being dictated by the faqih. While President Khatami preaches a “dialogue among civilizations” – a concept widely praised all over the world – Ayatollah Khamenei refuses any dialogue. The supreme leader has just rejected the idea of even talks with the US: “While the United States sets an official budget for anti-Iranian activities, it would be treason and stupidity to want to negotiate or talk to them.”

It is true that Washington’s attitude toward Tehran may involve marvels of stupidity – such as the recent State Department report accusing Iran of having been the most active terrorist state in 2001. A wonderful way to debunk this rubbish would be to apply 2,500 accumulated years of sophisticated Persian diplomacy on novices such as George W Bush and Colin Powell and Co. But Khatami’s “dialogue among civilizations” is not getting any mileage with the supreme leader and his entourage.

Internally, the abyss widens between Islamic legislation and the new Iranian society – modernized to a point that was never envisaged by the architects of the revolution. It is fair to say that the “third generation” is almost completely de-Islamicized. Segregated buses and the inevitable wearing of black chadors (veils) apart, the revolution has not managed to stop the social development of Iran dead in its tracks.

It may not be so obvious in conservative Qom, but among many of the 12 million inhabitants of Tehran – practically 20 percent of the whole country – the incredible thirst to swallow all about the world is intoxicating. There’s widespread Internet frenzy, everybody watches foreign films on compact disc, girls dress like those in New York or Tokyo under their customized and always supremely elegant chadors, and everybody and his neighbor wants to emigrate to Canada (the new Iranian dream is not the United States). The established Islamic power is far from controlling the whole of of society: in popular culture, in the wider economy, in ways of consuming, one finds all sorts of transgressions and even open opposition.

Iran is now an active part of the world culture. After 23 years digesting one of the most devastating social earthquakes in modern history, the time now is for intellectual debate, burying old ideologies and forging a new identity. It is never enough to remind that Iran holds the youngest demographics in the world. Its 35 million young people under the age of 25 – the children of the revolution – represent nothing less than 60 percent of the population of the whole country. If the defenders of the velayat-e faqih don’t listen to the young generation, they will soon be relegated to the cemetery of history – and not exactly as celebrated martyrs.


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