The Faltering Islamic Leviathan
by SOHRAB AHMARI
22 Oct 2009 22:53
The faltering Islamic leviathan and the rebirth of the private cult in Iran.
[ comment ] Despite the apparent success of the Iranian regime's initial crackdown against the post-election uprising, thousands of Iranians are continuing to take to their rooftops in the darkness of night to insist that "Allah-o akbar!" -- God is great. The expression, otherwise so commonplace in the daily lives of Muslims, has been infused by Iranians with radical political meanings which question the very legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. To proclaim, as the Iranians do, that God is indeed great is to proclaim that there is an authority higher than the state, higher even than the Supreme Leader, with whom the people are in direct communion. Simply put, the Iranian leviathan's carefully-built monopoly on matters of faith is broken, and it is faltering.
The Nazi constitutional lawyer and political theorist Carl Schmitt, who spent a long career developing juridical frameworks for the advancement of total states, was obsessed with the mythological image of leviathan, that great Biblical sea monster which Hobbes used to represent modern state sovereignty. Schmitt described Hobbes's leviathan as "a combination of god and man, animal and machine" and as "the moral god who brings to man peace and security." Drawing his powers from individuals banding together to escape the state of nature, the leviathan's domain is immanently secular. As such, "there exists no right to resist him, neither by invoking a higher law nor a different right, nor by invoking religious reasons and arguments." Auctoritas, non veritas, facit legem -- authority, not truth, makes the law.
Schmitt viewed the leviathan's regulation of belief as central to his capacity to exercise almost limitless authority over individual subjects. Since the leviathan operates strictly on the basis of public law, "[he] alone ... determines what subjects of the state have to believe to be a miracle." In other words, the sovereign determines what is to be publicly held as sacred by regulating the public cult.
But how does the leviathan deal with the private cult? Schmitt was convinced that the inability to control private expressions of faith created a "barely visible crack" in the otherwise impenetrable armor of the leviathan. The fact that the sovereign can only regulate public belief and not private faith, Schmitt argued, means that door is left open for civil society to limit state authority: The leviathan, all too satisfied to concede the individual right to worship as one pleases in return for adherence to the public cult, could eventually find himself chained down by insidious notions like civil rights.
Recent events in Iran confirm Schmitt's prophecy. For the past thirty years, the Islamic Republic has drawn its legitimacy from the supreme authority of the faqih [jurisconsult] who governs the Shia in the absence of the Hidden Imam (or the "Imam of Time"), due to re-emerge from a state of occultation to herald the Apocalypse. And the regime has expended a great deal of effort to eliminate threats to its public cult. Under the pretext of development, for example, the Islamic Republic of Iran has tried to liquidate ancient Persia's priceless architectural heritage since, presumably, it stands as a reminder of another public cult, long gone, but still potent. It has also suppressed those theologians and sources of emulation -- most notably the Grand Ayatollahs Montazeri and Boroujerdi -- who would dare question the grotesque politicization of Islam since the Revolution.
But, like the early modern leviathan, the Islamic regime has never fully succeeded in regulating the inner lives of the faithful. Even before the post-election uprising, ordinary Iranians of faith had been seeking alternatives to the oppressive public cult. Some had turned, for example, to the Zoroastrianism of their forefathers. Others had sought transcendence in the mysticism of Sufi Islam. Still others had found refuge away from the cult of the mullahs in Pentecostal Christianity! For most Iranians however, the private cult amounted to merely a more tolerant version of Shiism capable of sharing existence with modernity and with their deeply cherished pre-Islamic traditions.
For a long time, these competing private cults were just that -- private. That is, they had yet to find collective expression. It was not until Ayatollah Khamenei, in a moment of panic, made the sovereign decision to throw the weight of his sacred authority behind one candidate in a disputed presidential election that the people collectively reprised the Allah-o akbar! that had once forced an Emperor of Emperors to abdicate his peacock throne. And while the Iranian leviathan today benefits from a security apparatus far more ruthless and efficient than the one which served the Shah, there is no denying that the Iranian people have shown their readiness to push the barely visible crack wide open.
Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American blogger and law student at the Northeastern University School of Law.