Answering only to God: Faith and freedom in twenty-first-century Iran
Geneive Abdo and Jonathan Lions
A John Macrae book, New York, 306 pp.
Having created the first theocracy of the modern age with the victory of the revolution, Iran seemed once again on the cutting edge of Islamic politics. President Khatami promised to carve out a civil society and implement the rule of law within an Islamic political system. Like Islamic reformers throughout history, he argued that the needs of Muslims in modern times could be met if reason and rationality were introduced into the practice of the faith. A former newspaper publisher, Khatami encouraged a free press, advocated political and religious tolerance, and called for increased public participation among women and minorities. The promised land of the modern Islamic movement, the creation of a true Islamic republic-both pious and democratic-suddenly appeared to be within reach. Iran's reformers vowed that they would be the ones to show the world that democracy could thrive within an Islamic state, defying Western critics and domestic opponents who insisted this was impossible.
The promise of Iran's reformers began to collapse before our very eyes, as reformist newspapers were shut down, leading editors and columnists were banned or jailed, and pro-Khatami student activists were locked away, some on death row. In August 2000, Khatami finally acknowledged what every Iranian new in his heart, admitting on national television that he lacked the authority as president to do his job. He would seek a second term in next year's elections, he declared, but only out of religious obligation not personal conviction. The Khatami thaw began to ice over and soon we, too, felt the arctic blasts of the hard-line backlash.
Among the exceptions was Seyyed Mohammad Kazem Shariat-Madari, a grand ayatollah whose religious authority equaled or exceeded that of Khomeini's. During the first years of the Islamic Republic, Shariat-Madari remained its staunchest critic from within the system. From his power base in the progressive city of Tabriz, in Azerbaijan province, he refused to participate in the government because he believed the clergy should play no direct role in politics. And he agreed with the secular and religious nationalists that a new constitution and political system should be created by a broad-based, elected constituent assembly in which clerics would not be involved. "The role of the clergy is a spiritual one…..I don't think we should involve ourselves in government," he told the British magazine The Middle East in an interview in September 1979. "The clergy should fight threads of any new tyranny."
Shariat-Madari was not alone among leading clerics in his opposition to the new centralization of religious power. Anther independent-minded cleric, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani, was among the most progressive in Iran's ulama before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He was also extremely popular, maintaining close ties to the students and religious nationalists who had spearheaded the rebellion against the Shah during Khomeini's long exile. Taleqani opposed the centralization of religious authority in a single, learned jurist, and he made a number of attempts to distance himself from the campaign to establish the velayat-e gaqih in the new Iranian constitution. More important in religious terms, Taleqani reminded his fellow clerics that Shi'ism was a religion in a constant state of reinterpretation, or ejtehad, making religious absolutism unthinkable. In a treatise he published in the 1960s, he argued that the realities of the modern world had become increasingly complex, well beyond the immediate experience of the theologians. Allowing individual jurists to determine Islamic law could lead to religious despotism. The solution he offered was a system of "consultation" in which the ulama would play the more traditional role of spiritual and moral guides." "Centralization in issuing fatwas and administering [religious affairs] has neither legal rational nor is it in the best interest of the religion or Muslim society," Taleqani concluded.
By politicizing the post of supreme leader, Khamenei has upset the uneasy balance between the two great propositions put forward at the creation of the Islamic Republic, that it was to be both an Islamic state ruled by clerics and a republic ruled by the people. As a result, the elected post that directly represents the people-the office of the president-has been completely overshadowed by that of the supreme clerical leader. The result is a holy war among the three distinct clerical factions: modernists who believe the Islamic republic has become too much of a theocracy and too little of a republic and this is no longer accountable to the people; traditionalists who advocate a quietist role for the clergy and believe any role for theologians in politics undermines the principles of Shi'ite Islam; and hard-liners, the "political mullahs" around Khamenei who today control state affairs and believe there is little or no real role for the people in governing the state. Although similar divisions within the ulama have existed in various forms for several hundred years, the clerical conflict has become more acute as the clergy tries to run the government.
Khomeini death left a void at the center of the Islamic Republic that he had created in his own image. Gone was the charismatic figure who could balance the competing clerical factions with a quite word, a well-timed speech, or just a wave of the hand. More important, his death left the Islamic constitutional system he had bequeathed Iran without the moderating influence of his own personality and acute political instincts. Not surprisingly, elements opposed to popular political participation took advantage of this opening. By the mid-1990s, the state could generally be equated with the hard-line wing of the clerical establishment. These clerics derived much of their power by aligning themselves with Khamenei and by working trough intricate networks that link the nation's mosques, prayer halls, and religious foundations into an almost seamless whole. They dominated the judiciary, the security apparatus, and the state broadcast monopoly, and they operated a sophisticated system of communications that allows them to speak with one voice.
…what distinguishes hard-liners like Hosseinian from the moderates such as Sanei is a thin line, not a great divide. Both sides believe in preserving the Islamic system, but it is the degree of flexibility and independence within that system that forms the basis of their disagreement. This is the reason the struggle is so intense, the differences so ambiguous, and the outcome so uncertain.
In the years since Khomeini's death, the gulf that has opened among the clerics has threatened both the essence of Shi'ite Islam and the viability of the Islamic Republic. Where Khomeini's high clerical standing and unchallenged political skills had allowed him to link almost seamlessly the two essential strands-religious rule and popular power-of revolutionary Iran, his successor has been forced to rely on brute force in politics and in the halls of the seminaries. Unlike the founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei intervenes daily in Iran's political life to crush dissent, strong-arm critics, and advance his own supporters. His pervasive security apparatus monitors every detail of Iranian life, feeding reports to his central office and even dispatching vigilante gangs to break up protest rallies or to silence opposition figures.
At the same time his apologists among the clergy, who now make up his key constituency, are numerous. Over a decade, they have formed a symbiotic relationship with the supreme leader: Lacking religious legitimacy, Khamenei was forced to rely on a coterie of hard-line clerics to serve as the basis of his support; and these same hard-liners needed his backing to make their religious rulings into law. They promulgated a radical reading of the faith that reserves for themselves the exclusive right to interpret the Islamic texts and direct society. This new tendency toward monopoly on religious interpretation contradicts the profound flexibility within Shi'ism that lies at the heart of its ability to survive and flourish for centuries as a minority faith within the Islamic world. It has also dashed the hopes of many Muslims worldwide that the Islamic revolution would allow Shi'ite Iran to resolve the apparent contradictions between faith and modernity that have long plagued the East, creating a society that was true to both at the same time. In this way, the Islamic Republic and its awkward and often contradictory constitution must be seen as a work in progress, a profound attempt to carve out of the postcolonial experience of the Islamic world a new kind of state that is simultaneously modern, democratic, religious-and non-Western.
For more than a century, Islamic intellectuals have been struggling to bridge the gap between what an Islamic society should be and what it has become, a process accelerated by the Muslim's world's encounter with Western expansion. Prominent thinkers such as Seyyed Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, an Iranian who has influenced both Sunni and Shi'ite Islam, and Mohammad Abduh, and Egyptian, were preoccupied with Islam's problem of deferent decay. Abduh saw an alarming division of society into two spheres. In one, which was contracting, the laws and moral principles of Islam ruled. In the other, which was growing, the principles derived from human reason and modern demands, not religious texts, predominated. Unlike other thinkers who contemplated whether devout Muslim could accept ideas of the modern world, Abduh turned the question on its head: Could someone who lived in the modern world still be a devout Muslim? Modernist clerics in Iran view the problem very much as Abduh did, while the hard-liners ask themselves whether modern institutions can ever be compatible with the faith. To Iran's conservative clerical establishment, the answer is a resounding no. As a result, they are locked in an intense struggle to stymie any kind of social or political reform. They believe such change would inevitably modernize institutions in ways contradictory to principles of Islam.
"I believe veiling should be voluntary for Muslim women," I replied. "And Christians like myself should not be required to be veiled in an Islamic country. In the United States, the government does not require Muslim women to remove their head scarves. Likewise, Christians should not be forced to conform to Islamic laws which have no relevance to their religion."
The young men were visibly annoyed.
For more than a century, reconciling the demands of an inclusive faith like Islam with the demands of republican rule has come to represent the perennial problem for modernist intellectuals throughout the Muslim world. At issue is the central question of ultimate authority under the faith, reflected in Iranian's theological proxy war between the elected office an president and the institution of supreme clerical leader. Yet there can be no doubt that for a time the authors of Iran's proposed new constitution had managed-at least on paper-to satisfy both their democratic and religious constituents. The liberal Islamists who produced the early drafts were able to retain their most cherished elements: the separation of powers; a strong executive presidency; and clearly defined but limited role for the Shi'ite clergy. By all accounts, Khomeini's immediate reaction was favorable…..Khomeini had requested only a few modest revisions clarifying the clergy's role in overseeing religious law…..
On June 14, 1979, the provisional government published its official preliminary draft constitution of the new Islamic Republic of Iran. Four days later, Khomeini used a gathering of the Revolutionary Guards to proclaim his backing for the document in both political and religious terms…..
But the young Islamic Republic never completed its journey to the promised land. ….The draft document and its promise pf an Islamic democracy was soon left behind by events on the ground-forlorn, outdated, and forgotten….
The result was a political system built upon the enormous concentration of power in the hands of the vali-ye faqih-literally the rulling religious jurist-as spelled out in Khomeini's earlier lectures before the bazaaris of Najaf. This new constitution defined the Islamic republic as a new kind of state, one ruled by qualified Islamic jurists until the missing Twelfth Imam makes his anticipated return to earth to usher in the age of perfect justice. The vali-yr faqih was given authority over the three branches of government, with specific rights and duties detailed in Article 110. These include: the right to appoint a Guardian Council, a body dominated by clerics to ensure parliament passes no laws or regulations in violation of the sharia; supreme command over the military and the security forces, with the power to declare war and make peace; and the authority to confirm or reject the election of the president. The Islamic constitution also created a series of interlocking clerical bodies, ultimately controlled by the vali-yr faqih, at the expense of popular sovereignty established in the proposed draft. In addition to the Guardian Council, which sits above the elected parliament and which has ultimate authority over both interpretation an the constitution and national elections, the new draft called for a clerical Assembly of Leadership Experts, designed to select the leader and then supervise his work. Finally, the revised document mandated that all five seats on the Supreme Court and the office of prosecutor general be filled by Islamic jurists, with the head of the court and the prosecutor both direct appointees of the leader.
This wholesale reworking of the published draft constitution by the Assembly of Experts, under the energetic leadership of Khomeini's star pupil, Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, bequeathed the world the first theocracy of the modern age.
How had things gone so wring, so quickly, for Bazargan and the coalition of Islamic liberals, secular nationalists, and intellectuals he represented? Asghar Schirazi, an expatriate scholar and a leading authority on the Iranian constitution, argues the militant clerics had intended from the very beginning to create a theocracy by stealth, pretending to back the original draft constitution but then packing the assembly of Experts and hijacking the constitution to enshrine the vali-yr faqih in the person of Khomeini. The ayatollah's declarations to the world's press in Paris and later to his political partners back in Iran that he had no interest in personal power and that the clergy would return to their classical role as society's moral guides were, says Schirazi, all part of an orchestrated campaign of misinformation and deceit. Other analysts blame the myopia and incompetence of the Bazargan government and the middle classes that supported him for their failure to recognize the true essence of the militant clergy.
Continuation of the war served both political aims and the religious ideals of Tehran's new clerical masters. The mobilization made it easy to muzzle dissent, and it allowed the radical mullahs to consolidate their power once and for all against other members of the revolutionary coalition, in particular the liberals of the Freedom Movement and the Leftists grouped around President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. In religious terms, Khomeini made it clear that the conflict represented the ultimate struggle between good and evil. "This is not a question of a fight between one government and another," he proclaimed, one month into the conflict. "This is a rebellion by blasphemy against Islam." Simply regaining lost territory would not suffice. The very aource of evil, the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, had to be annihilated. This meant taking the fight over the border and into Iraqi territory.
Such superheated rhetoric gave birth to the most evocative symbol of the was, the so-called human wave attacks, in which thousands of old men and adolescents of the basij charged through minefields to certain death….
"we did not criticize during the war, not because we were afraid but because we thought that those making the decisions back home were infallible. But the lack of victory in the war raised questions in people's minds about the feasibility of running a country on the basis of charismatic rule. During the war, the importance of democratic decision making first became apparent. We though if there were greater opportunity for criticism, if one could hear various opinions more easily, much of the hardship of the war could have been avoided."
Alavitabar and his fellow intellectual warriors returned home to confront a world that bore little resemblance to their revolutionary ideals. These men included future reformists newspaper editors Akbar Ganji, whose own fate would become intertwined with our own, and many other who emerged into public view after the Second of Khordad. "When the Islamic republic came into being, it was a system that ahd three different aspects. One was the charismatic aspect, which was manifested in the personality of Imam Khomeini. It had on oligarchic aspect, which was manifested in the abundant privileges and authority that were given to the clerics. It also had a democratic aspect, which was manifested in elections of the Majles and the elections for president," Alavitabar explained. With dissent and public debate stifled throughout the conflict and Khomeini now a broken, dying man, it was this "oligarchy" of conservative clerics which began to dominate postwar political and religious life.
"The commandments of the ruling jurist…are like the commandments of God," Ali Khamenei, then president of the republic, told the masses. "The vali-yr faqih is like the soul in the body of the regime. I will go further and say that the validity of the constitution….is due to its acceptance and confirmation by the ruling jurist…What right do the majority of the people have to ratify a constitution and make it binding on all the people? The person who has the right to establish the constitution for the society is the ruling jurist. Opposing this order then becomes forbidden as one of the cardinal sins, and combating the opponents of this order should become an incumbent religious duty."
To the chagrin of many clerical critics of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini and his allies had long resorted to maslahat whenever the practical needs or interests of the Iranian state clashed with the traditional teachings of Shi'ite Islam. This was as true for such fundamental issues as taxation and banking, on which religious laws places explicit, in inconvenient, restrictions, as it was for the prohibitions against music and chess, both of which were later waived in the face of social reality. In one notable ruling, it was decreed that soccer players and wrestlers, who enjoy enormous popular followings in Iran, were not in violation of religious law when they wore shorts or other immodest clothing required for their sport, nor was watching such events on television or in person a violation of the sharia.
Kadivar touched a particularly sensitive chord when he argued it was necessary for Muslims to distinguish between those rules in Islam that are universal and eternal and those that are relevant only to a specific time and place. He believes religion should offer general principles for living but that the practical affairs of man should be determined by human experience, not theological principles. Such ideas clearly constitute a serious threat to the hard-liners running the state in the name of absolute clerical rule. And they pose a thorny question many prefer to leave unanswered: Is the authority of the state divine, or is it derived from the will of the people and the will of the nation? Kadivar comes down decisively in favor of the latter view, challenging the right of individual clerics to claim absolute religious authority and then use that power to run the state.
In the republican state to which Iran aspires, Kadivar argues people are equal in the public sphere and should be considered competent to regulate their own affairs. The he notes that under the current practice of supreme clerical rule this is not the case: People are not on par with their leaders, and the supreme leader is assumed to recognize the common good more effectively than the people themselves. As a result, Kadivar believes it is impossible to have true democracy in Iran as long as the supreme leader maintains his immense powers. "These two types of governments [democracy and supreme cercal rule], if their principles are to apply in reality and not only in theory, are incompatible. They are contradictory. In other words, either we must believe in a religious guardianship of the faqih appointed by God in the capacity of absolute rule over people, or believe in the election of leadership as the representative of the people. These two regimes…cannot be reconciled."
To declare outright that democracy was impossible within the current government was to force the clerical establishment to come to terms with the mythology it uses on a daily basis to help retain power. Many clerics tried to convince us that democracy was thriving in the Islamic Republic. The supreme leader, they argued, was selected by the Assembly of Experts, which was, in turn, elected by people. They offered this explanation with one important caveat: This was Islamic-style democracy, not Western democracy. Of course, they glossed over the fact that elections to the Assembly of Experts, who in theory chose and oversaw the vali-yr faqih, were far from free and fair. Not just anyone could run for a seat in the assembly. Candidates were carefully chosen by other clerics on the Guardian Council who made it their business to ensure that like-minded conservatives would win the election. Moreover, the supreme leader himself controlled membership in the Guardian Council. This circular system provided no checks on the clerics and was designed to preserve the power of the conservative establishment.
….In a work that gained him notoriety among Western intellectuals, "The Theoretical Contraction and Expansion of religious Knowledge," Soroush rejects the traditional claim of the clerics that their interpretations are the essence of religious knowledge and thus the essence of religion itself. In this way, Soroush opens the way for challenging theological interpretations. The ruling of individual clerics, no matter how senior, should not be taken as law but rather should be included in the compendium of religious knowledge. This is how religious knowledge "expands" and "contracts."
The main aim of this theory is not to resolve the conflict between traditionalists and modernists or to modernize religion but to establish a framework for how religion is understood in society. Gaining better understanding of religious knowledge will also bring a greater understanding of what is unchanging in religion. Thus, Soroush asserts there is no class or group that can hold an official or exclusive understanding of the faith. When such a class does arise, as is the case in contemporary Iran, Soroush believes the development and evolution of religious knowledge is stymied. His belief that no understanding of religion is ever sacred or absolute means that no cleric can claim to have a true understanding of religion. This notion effectively dilutes the power of the clerical establishment, particularly the authority of the supreme leader who claims to have ultimate say in religious and political matters. In this regard, Soroush also believes that ideology based in religion is flawed for the same reasons: It purports to hold a monopoly on truth. Unlike other religious intellectuals, Soroush opposes Islamic ideology, which in Iran is the glue holding the system together.
The solution, according to Soroush, is a religious democratic government un which reason plays a role in defining justice and people's rights. Those rights include allowing citizens to practice their faith freely, without state coercion or interference….
It was no surprise when Soroush became the target of the hard-liner and conservative clerics and their foot soldiers, such as the extremists of the Ansar-e Hezbollah….One theologian….likened Soroush to Satan. "Soroush uses philosophical tricks and pollutes people's minds. He must be put in jail," the cleric said.
…Sourosh left quietly for the Unites States.
….The clerical regime has assiduously cultivated the concept of martyrdom, celebrated today as the ultimate in personal and religious sacrifice for the good of the nation and the faith, a means of conferring legitimacy on the Islamic system it oversees. Martyrs are lauded in huge public billboards, they are buried in special graveyards, and their memories are marked in frequent public commemorations. The surviving family members receive preferential social benefits, such as housing assistance, university places and stipends, and priority in job placement.
"This is one of the critical points of Islamist theory, and they do not have any way to solve this problem. They say we have to govern society with Islam, to extract our economic policy, our cultural policy, even political plans from Islam, but they have no way to agree on which version of Islam. We have all these factions saying, 'I am right; I am Islamist. I know the right way, so you are wrong and have to leave the scene.' From the first day of the revolution, we have had this problem. If you want to solve this problem, you have to believe in kind of pluralism, in religious pluralism, and after that in cultural pluralism and political pluralism. If you believe in pluralism, then you are not Islamist.
Tensions between the press and the mosque came to a head over the proposed revision of the constitution of 1906….The ulama were particularly unhappy with provisions that held all men equal before the law regardless of their religion; Armenian Christians, Jews, and Sunni Muslims were, at least in theory, to be on an equal footing with the majority Shi'ites.
But their strongest objection was to Article 20, which called for freedom of the press, and they successfully forced changes to the draft to exempt from such protection any material deemed harmful to Islam. This proved a significant victory on several counts: It institutionalized religious limits on the Western notion of free speech; it established the ulama as the arbiters of what was permissible in the printed word; and it undermined the intellectual's single most powerful weapon at a time of growing tension with the clerical establishment-the very points that would come back to haunt the pro-reform intellectuals of the late 1990s.
…Hard-line students, who believed they were on a mission to safeguard the principles of the revolution as they understood them, were becoming more prominent. The emphasis on religious admission standards and a new quota system reserving a specific number of slots for members of families who had lost martyrs in the war gave the campuses a decidedly hard-line flavor. Meanwhile, religious students of a more liberal bent began to conclude that the revolution had bend lost to the reactionaries. "Our view of Islam was modern view. We wanted to modernize society. We wanted a real parliament, political parties, and we designed something called the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately, conservative and traditional forces over the last twenty years have been expanding, and they don't have those goals we had then. They are after a caliphate," the former student leader Azgharzadeh told us.
At the end of Rafsanjani's presidency, the Daftar as an organization found itself adrift. Some members of the universities' Islamic associations blindly aligned themselves with the conservatives and mimicked their joyless lives. Most music was banned; socializing in mixed company in public places was forbidden; clapping was declared illegal, even at official speeches and gatherings. The long and gloomy war with Iraq had long passed, but the cult of the war lingered: the "victory" had become part of revolutionary rhetoric. Those who died in the war were elevated to the same level of martyrdom in the museums and cemeteries and on billboards lining Tehran's highways as those who were killed fighting the Shah's army during the revolution. The country was covered in darkness.
…a brave young, female journalist asked if Iranian women could wear pink chadors and yellow head scarves in public. "Why do we always have to be cloaked in black? It is so depressing," she said. Rafsanjani replied that there was no religious edict requiring women to wear black. Bright colors would be a welcome change, he added. I was intrigued by his response, but Iranian explained later the president's assurances were keeping with an entire tradition of telling people what they want to hear; everyone knew never to assume such comments would lead anywhere.
Popularly depicted as "mourning" ceremonies, the rituals use to commemorate Ashura-the self-flagellation, the carrying of the alam, the beating of the chest, the cutting of the scalp with knives until the blood flows-are better understood as acts of repentance and identification with the tribulations of the beloved imam. Hossein's suffering at Karbala has emerged among the Shi'ites as a source of salvation through emulation and internalization of the suffering of the community and through the role of the imam as intercessor. Ashura also marks the failure of the early Shi'ites to come to the aid of their doomed hero; it is this concrete "sin", not the inescapable "original sin" of the Christians, that must be expiated through trials of strength, pain, and even blood.
In military terms, Imam Hossein's expedition against the forces of the new Caliph, the political and religious leader of the Muslim world then based in Damascus, could be written off as little more than a footnote to the tumultuous history of the early community of believers. He had set off in 680 A.D. from Medina determined to raise a revolt against Yazid, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty and the first of the Caliphs not to have known the Prophet personally, and to secure the rightful succession for himself and his heirs. Emissaries from Iraqi city of Kufah, partisans of Hossein's father, Ali, the last spiritual and political leader to be recognized by the entire Muslim community, had appealed to Hossein to lead them against the Caliph, seen by many as a corrupt and illegitimate leader. But help from Kufah failed to materialize as Hossein and his loyal band of thirty-two horsemen and forty foot soldiers approached.
Early accounts tell us that by the second day of Moharram, Hossein and his men were trapped, their way to Kufah blocked and their access to the precious waters of the Euphrates cut off by the powerful loyalist forces. The promised revolt by the citizens of Kufah, forty miles away to the south, fizzled out in the face of harsh measures by the local authorities who remained true to the Caliph. The imam, whose exact tome and manner of death had been written even before the Creation, asked his followers for the name of the desolate expanse of desert where they had found themselves. Told it was called Karbala, Hossein surrendered to his fate: "O, God, in Thee do I take refuge from sorrow (karb) and calamity (bala). This is the place of sorrow and calamity. Dismount."
Eight days later, on the tenth of Moharram, Hossein's camp was overrun and his tiny band of rebels cut down, one by one. Hossein was the last to die, laced with arrows, cleaved by the sword, and finally dispatched by a blow to the front of the neck that took his head clean off. The women and surviving children were carried into captivity. According to Shi'ite tradition-eight of the nine recognized successors to Hossein-the infallible imams-were to die at the hands of the Caliphs or their agents; the twelfth, known as the mihdi, escaped into hiding. The dream of the Shi'ites-leterally the "partisans" of Ali-to restore the Caliphate to the rightful descendents of the Prophet Mohammad was in tatters.
But the seeds of renewal began to sprout almost at once, for the tragedy at Karbala in 680 A.D. soon gave birth to a powerful religious and political movement that was to split the Muslim world and fuel the rise of faith that has left no spect of Itan's culture, history, and society untouched. "There was no religious aspect to Shi'ism prior to 680…For Shi'ites, Karbala represents the central point in their belief, the climax of a divine plan of salvation, the promises of which are offered to all who take the side of the martyred imam," wrote Hainz Halm, a leading scholar of the Shi'ites and their world.
Hossein's failed revolt and martyrdom at "the place of sorrow and calamity" sparked the emergence of a true Shi'ite consciousness.
…Throughout these tableaux run common themes-sacrifice, martyrdom, suffering, blood, sweat, and tears-and one central, underlying message. Te relax, to drop one's revolutionary guard for an instant, is to be overwhelmed by a hostile, implacable outside world just waiting got its chance to destroy the faith of the Shi'ites and their Islamic Republic. This psychology is widespread, shared by virtually all of the leading political factions or groups.
…As the obstacles mounted and the defeats piled on, however, the president's message was progressively stripped of any real intellectual of political content.
This was bound to happen, given the political and social culture that evolved over many centuries. According to the Iranian scholar Mahmood Sariolghalam, profound reform would ultimately require Iran to abandon the cornerstones of a culture that supports established power over the rights of individuals, resorts to force and coercion to resolve differences, ignores individual creativity and talent to promote nepotism in running the state, and forbids the interchange of ideas. Sariolghalam, whose insights we came to value in the course of our stay, pointed out that Iran remained locked in a tribal tradition that serves as one of the primary obstacles to democracy and modernity. "The engine of Iranian political culture during a period of nearly three millennia has been that of governments with their political and social roots based in tribal identification. The reason for the continuation of this form of governance in different historical periods has been the change of power from one tribe to another and the result has led to sustained tribal rule."