why iran is an argument for secularism

June 23, 2009

Here’s a suggestion to those who want governments to obey their religious dogmas rather than draw on their accumulated legal traditions. Take a long, hard look at what’s going on in Iran today. Ahmadinejad’s dubious victory which required very unusual circumstances to be legitimate and was immediately endorsed by the man who actually runs the country, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, isn’t just a case of a corrupt, hardline government ignoring the voice of its people. It’s actually a very revealing glimpse into how a theocracy works in the the real world. Iran’s appointed councils not only dismiss the people’s real opinions and feel free to rig elections, but they believe they have divine right to impose their will on the public with legal machinations and an iron fist.

iran election

After decades of willful isolation from the public, the heads of the various appointed councils and committees which control the nation are deaf to the needs of the people. They don’t care what Iranians who disagree with them have to say. They never had to. By this point, they’re so far removed from the world around them, if reality knocked on their doors and delivered a kick to their groins after a running start, it would take them decades to figure out what happened. That’s the real nature of governments that serve their own goals and desires rather than the needs of people who have to live under them. And things get even worse when religion gets dragged into the equation because these self-serving governments simply wrap themselves in a divine legitimacy and justify their resentment of the public it rules by invoking a deity. If you question them, you question the wisdom of God. Or at least this is how they will twist any criticism and doubt in their abilities to govern.

This is why Ahmadinejad’s quote that Iranian elections were “real and free” should be added to the very large collection of his inane and ridiculous remarks. Rather than being actually picked by the people, candidates in the country’s elections are vetted by the Council of Guardians before they’re allowed to be on the ballot. Since half of the Council’s members are nominated by the supreme ruler and the other half come from people who were screened for their ideological adherence to Khamenei and his inner circle, a truly reform candidate able to bring about real change would get shot down before anyone could ever vote for him. Imagine if instead of a popular vote on candidates who had enough public support to get on the ballot, the Supreme Court of the U.S. randomly threw out candidates it didn’t think it could control and allowed people to vote on only those deemed pliant enough to be allowed even a modicum of power. How could that possibly be a fair election when it was rigged before it even started?

Every time you hear a Christian fundamentalist declare that the United States should make its laws based on his religious ideology or his interpretation of the Bible, what he’s really advocating is a government much like Iran’s. Rather than at least pretend to serve the public, our lawmakers would instead be serving whatever set of religious groups or committees would vet their actions. The voice of the people no longer has to be heard, sweeping elections wouldn’t be allowed to take place and all would obey the religious principles adopted by a staff of people who never have to deal with the consequences of their actions, isolated in ivory towers, living in total assurance that everything they do is right because they’re backed by God on every decision they make. In their world, they would not only be allowed to rig elections to strike down progressive candidates they hate so much, their actions would have to be seen as divine intervention. And this is why theocracy is so dangerous. It allows self-righteous ideologues to bend nations to their whims with impunity, even when people are dying in the streets to protest their terrible decisions.

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  • Jypson

    Since the beginning of quasi-organized religion, this has been Standard Operating Procedures. If I can’t thump them into submission, then I must scare them into submission by threatening them with the unseen and unverifiable.

  • Mary

    Pretty good post. I just found your blog and wanted to say

    that I’ve really liked browsing your blog posts. In any case

    I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  • I am beyond ready for all the religious zealots of the world to be put into a room or on an island, or better yet…..on a planet in a galaxy far, far away to “work out” their differences. Enough already.

    And I more than agree that church and state should be kept so far apart they never have the opportunity to see eachother’s faces.

    Peace All….

  • Thorne

    “The voice of the people no longer has to be heard … a staff of people who never have to deal with the consequences of their actions, isolated in ivory towers, living in total assurance that everything they do is right….”

    Bears a remarkable resemblance to the US Congress, doesn’t it?

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Now that Khamenei has declared legitimate a count that most Iranians, with very good reason, see as corrupt, he has done major damage to his own regime – and possibly to Islam itself, at least within Iran.

    It’s not that the believers will turn away from their indoctrinated cosmology due to this one faux pas, but that many will feel the “purity” of their faith has been contaminated by dirty politicking. The idea of mosque-state separation is too alien (and too American) to take root there from this one incident, no matter how it turns out, but at least a secular crack has been opened.

    The differences between Iran and the US include this major advantage on their side: Iranians remember their history.

  • Amadan

    I doubt that Iranians want a US style (or even European style) secular democracy. That type of system is what landed them with the unlamented Shah (who was, in LBJ’s eloquent phrase, ‘Our sonofabitch’). Shia Islam is (according to every Iranian I’ve spoken to about it) as central to their national identity as their language. The Islamic Revolution was genuinely popular, even among the urban middle classes. I get the impression that a lot of the ideology behind it still is, even though the practice has turned out pretty oppressive.

    I agree it’s logically impossible to reconcile democratic control of the state with a power that claims to speak in terms of absolute truth. But that’s a lesson the Iranians will have to learn for themselves. (If you ask me, they’re a lot closer to doing so than any of their Arab cousins). The fact that they have elections, that they can (with difficulty) protest, and that the world hears about it speaks volumes.