The Role of Shia Theology in The Revolt
It seems clear that the protesters have shrewdly as well as sincerely adopted mass peaceful protests are their core weapon, and are coopting the slogans of the original revolution – “Allah O Akbar!” – to make inroads.
I’m not suggesting this was Andrew’s intent, but the co-opting part of that sentence could at the least be misunderstood. I don’t think it’s wrong to call it co-opting so long as that is not (mis)understood rather cynically. As if they were just using the phrase for rhetorical purposes but didn’t actually believe it. [Again I don’t think that’s what Andrew meant–just that it could be taken that way].
The phrase Allahu Akbar means “God is great.” Or more properly “God is Greater.” It is basically another way of stating the first half of the Islamic confession: There is no god but GOD. Al-lah simply means “the God”. There is no god but THE GOD. All other gods are idols.
In this sense, Muslim theology has a radically political edge (or can anyway)*. It can say that the rulers of this earth who crush people underfoot are not in fact the Sovereign of the Universe. God is greater even than tyranny. This is the trust (the hope) of the people. It is a smart co-opting yes, it also is a deeply held belief by many, and they also realize that the government can not stop the people from confessing Islam. It’s a very powerful statement as a result. It question the legitimacy of the ruling powers on their own terms–on their own self-definition as an Islamic government.
This line of thought has deep roots in Shia theology. It traces back to the martyrdom of Husayn, grandson of the Prophet (son of Ali). [Ed: See Update I Below] Ashura, the great festival of Shia faith, remembering Husayn’s murder, was a major rallying point during the 1979 Revolution. It was a common theme of Khomeni’s sermson–that the Shah was the evil oppressor Yazid come alive again re-murdering the Husayns who stood against him.
So in terms of co-opting, the irony is now that the same religio-political charge is being labeled against the Supreme Leader that was once brought against the Shah.
When the people shout God is Greater, they mean it. And they aim directly at those who claim (like Khamenei) in the place of God but who do not imparrt justice.
For more, another post Andrew put up–a religious ruling from Grand Ayatollah Montazeri (read the whole thing) which reads in part:
4- I ask the police and army personals not to “sell their religion”, and beware that receiving orders will not excuse them before god. Recognize the protesting youth as your children. Today censor and cutting telecommunication lines can not hide the truth.
This theo-logic is the same one Archbishop Romero used in his famous plea to the El Salvadorean police and military–hopefully it will be more headed this time in Iran.
* By this I don’t mean that Islam is inherently a political agenda only. That’s Islamism–turning a religion into a political ideology masking as a religion. Much less that there is some united worldwide Islamic struggle against the West and modernity.
Islamism is a modern, not traditional, form of Islam. The classical form of Islam recognizes a differentiation/distinction between the religious role and the political role. That was the core of Shia Islam in particular from basically its beginnings only until Khomeni radically re-interpreted Shia Islam (I would say misinterpreted but that’s another argument for another day). In the end, Khomeni’s vision can’t but eventually lead to the mass secularization of Iranian society and politics. Because as James Madison pointed out having a religious-government equation is not only bad for the government it’s very bad for the religion. The religion gets saddled with all the horrible choices made by government. When someone dissents against the government, they automatically become heretics and will eventually push for a more personal form of religious understanding. See G.A. Montazeri’s edict wherein he states he is worried that by the continued oppression, the government will sully the name of Islam.
Update I: Looks like I’m onto something. (h/t Sullivan):
Older people compared the demonstration of today with the Ashura Demonstration of 1979 which marks the downfall of the Shah regime and even said that it outnumbered that event.