The “Arab Spring” that is blossoming in the Middle East might have been inspired by the Iranian uprising of 2009, but Iranians have not been able to emulate the Arab model.
The Iranian religious autocracy possesses both the means and the will to mow down potential crowds of protesters to protect itself. As a result, the critique of religious government is slowly turning into the kind of anti-religious sentiment one could only find among eighteenth-century enlightenment philosophers, nineteenth-century Latin American positivists and twentieth century Marxist-Leninist countries like Cambodia and Albania.
Consider what happened just over a week ago. Abdolkarim Soroush, a renowned Islamic reformer who lives in exile, wrote a bitter letter to expose the Iranian security forces’ arrest and torture of his son-in-law.
Soroush quotes his son-in-law in the title of his letter: “There is no God, I swear by God, there is no God.” His letter also contains a counter-theodicy. Soroush is puzzled about an omnipotent God who allows injustice in his name but seems not to brook apostasy by the victims of the injustice that has been committed in his name.
Mahmoud Morad-khani, himself the son of a dissident clergyman, immediately published a response claiming that without denouncing Islam, root and branch, Soroush’s protest is meaningless. Morad-khani, like many others, argues that injustice in Iran is not the result of a revolutionary mutation of Iranian Islam but rather the direct consequence of delusional religious beliefs.
The discourse of Iranian “laic” elites uses the word religion in general but its frame of reference is limited to the politicized Shiite Islam of the last thirty years. Iranian philosophers’ discourse has been unable to offer comparative perspectives or place the experience of Iranian Islamism in its proper historical niche. Iranian intellectual discourse on religion has become a parochial soliloquy. It is a symptom of the theocratic rule rather than an analysis of it.
One of the popular tropes used in this discourse is a rationalist binary that relegates religious intellectuality to dogmatic subservience and claims that only by liberating oneself from religion can one join the dynamic flow of secular thought. Islam in Iran shed its quietist mantle within one generation and aggressively turned itself into a modern theocracy. It is curious that despite this and other paradigm shifts devised by religious thinkers, they are still labeled as subservient to tradition.
Let us take the career of Ayatollah Muntazeri (1922-2009), a lieutenant and heir apparent of Ayatollah Khomeini and one of the architects of the Islamic Republic. Muntazeri had departed from the tradition of Shiite jurists and opted for a revolutionary reconstruction of Shiite political philosophy. Then he parted ways with Khomeini, objecting to the mass executions of political prisoners in 1981.
Subsequently, the dissident Ayatollah was relieved of his position and put under virtual house arrest for the rest of his life. In this period he continued to support the Khomeinist theocracy but objected to its misuse by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenie. In the last year of his life, Muntazeri issued a subversive legal opinion to undergird the uprising of Iranians in 2009. This revolutionary fatwa spells out the conditions for the dissolution of not only the Islamic Republic but indeed any polity.
Muntazeri’s fatwa is a radical political theory for revolutions of all stripes. He likens the relationship of people and their government to that of a lawyer and his/her client where a simple suspension of trust by the client automatically dissolves the covenant. Here the burden of proof is on the lawyer (or the government) to prove its innocence and regain the trust of the client/people. In other words, Muntazeri ruled that the Islamic Republic was already dissolved as a legitimate entity given the dissolution of people’s trust.
Muntazeri, who was the Thomas Hobbes of the Iranian Revolution, lived to become its John Locke. Such a change of positions is unprecedented in the history of political philosophy. He used legal ratiocination to make a case for creating an Islamic government in absence of the saviour (Mahdi) who was charged with this grave task.
Thirty years later, he once again utilised the same legal skills to justify a revolt against that Islamic state. The point of this historical vignette is not praising Muntazeri as the grandfather of the Iranian uprising also known as the Green Movement. The point, rather, is that religion is not a stagnant pool of unreason and intellectual subservience.
Religion changes and mutates. Some of these religious mutations could be positively harmful to democracy, as indeed Khomeini/Muntazeri theory of “Mandate of the Jurist” was. But it is also true that other religious innovations could help religion accommodate itself to modernity. For our intents and purposes it does not matter whether a society has or does not have religion. What is important is what kind of religion or irreligion pervades in that society.
Ahmad Sadri and Mahmoud Sadri, 'Delegitimising the Islamic Republic of Iran with a Fatwa: the Significance of Ayatollah Montazeri’s Post-Election Legal Ruling of July 2009,' The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Strugge for Iran’s Future, eds. Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (Melvilhouse: New York, 2010).
(c) Ahmad Sadri is Professor of Sociology and James P. Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College, USA.
With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center  at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.