One author of an Iran history (possibly Armajani, but I’ve misplaced the volume) compares the Iranian historical concept of the “right to rule” to a dye that stains the ruler, almost but not quite indelibly. It’s a notion compatible with enduring class consciousness of modern Iran. That author gives a marvelously detailed account of how the clerics of the Safavid dynasty, whose political period spanned roughly 1500 to 1722, manipulated the legitimacy question in the popular mind, gaining power in the process.
This is hard to pick up from Elton Daniel’s very precise The History of Iran. Written in the traditional mode, it does not provide “Google Street View”. But about the Safavids, he writes (p92-93),
“This was also the period when the problem of excessive clerical influence became most severe. …In the case of Shah Abbas, such actions were probably intended only to cultivate the mojtaheds through the use of flattery and financial rewards…The notoriously timid and superstitious Shah Soltan Hosayn (1694-1722), for example, was thoroughly dominated by the ulama.”
The resemblance to the current situation, of a limited and easily intimidated secular government, is startling enough to keep handy. But while the concept of the Islamic jurist, the faqih, is very old, the tradition is of governance is very new. Before Khomeini’s innovation of velyat al faqih, if someone were determined by a legitimate faqih to be guilty of adultery, it would be up to others to carry out the prescribed penalty.
Some of the strangeness of the situation can be removed, so as to better concentrate on the remainder, with a comparison to the history of the West. Between the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., and 1870, when the Papal States were dissolved, the West encompassed varying degrees of theocracy, religious/secular symbiosis, and competition at intensities up to the level of warfare, with some periods and geographies of oppression more extreme than modern Iran. In the Middle Ages of the West, freedom of expression was not even a debatable subject. In contrast, most Iranians are not religious. Fewer Iranians worship at mosques than Americans go to church. And unlike the Middle Ages, Iranians have satellite TV, the bootleg variety, so they can watch what they want.
But the extremes of Iran catch our eyes: the executions of “heretics” and dissidents, even children; the morality police who until recently roamed the streets, and a theocratic element that with increasing desperation adheres to practices claimed to be divinely inspired, and therefore exempt from the corrosion of time. It is the living embodiment of a Plato’s Republic, incongruously set against a secular majority that pretty much does what they please — in private. The dichotomy is so severe as to seem institutionalized hypocrisy.
How did two separate societies get to be in the same place at the same time? Next: goats and donkeys.