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The Faltering Islamic Leviathan


22 Oct 2009 22:5314 Comments

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.

Allah-o akbar!

Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American blogger and law student at the Northeastern University School of Law.

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And the Iranian people will Succeeed !!

Liliyan / October 22, 2009 11:43 PM

Great article

Hossein Z / October 22, 2009 11:45 PM

It reminds of ali shariati's theory that the real struggle is not between religions but within religion. In Shia Islam he described the struggle as being between Safavid Shi'ism (supporting the status quo) and that of Alid Shi'ism (as represented by Imam Ali in both his piety and stance against injustice and the deformation of Islam by the early caliphs and in particular by Muawiya).

However in the case of the IRI, complications arise as the people in charge also speak in the name of the justice seeking spirit of Imam Ali (pbwh). It will be interesting to see how things turn out once the nuclear dispute is resolved. God is Great and will remain so but his greatness is exhibited by humans using their God given intelligence and powers to solve disputes in a fair and humane manner and to bring about change that benefits both the oppressor and the oppressed as the Koran puts it 'Return the evil done with goodness'. That remains the real challenge. Iran could do with a 'Mandela'!

rezvan / October 23, 2009 5:32 AM

If only it were so one-dimensional.

There is a Basij force of well over a million. They are all volunteers. And realize, for every one of that million, there represents a related family and extended family.

During the height of the Tehran protests, these young men worked confrontational security details lasting in excess of 16 straight hours a day, every day. That requires an immense amount of dedication.

It's fine for Tehran Bureau to publish these anti-establishment pieces from exiles living a life of comparative comfort. But honestly, admit it: we are receiving only a select impression of what's really going on in Iran.

Now I'm not siding with Iran's political establishment. But what I am interested in is getting a more complete picture.

For once, I''d like to hear testimony from those dedicated young Basij, who obviously believe wholeheartedly in their country, for which it stands, and its religious cause.

Pirouz / October 23, 2009 7:50 AM

Islam religion of ignorance. Basij force are mainly from the most uneducated part of Iran. And there where Islam finds its followers.
However, once the regime stops feeding them they will turn against the regime.

gooya / October 23, 2009 6:17 PM

Basiji, Iran's SA/SS, have been Ahmadinejad's supporters in the election. Sahimi et al., who are living in the US and elsewhere, have not been in Iran for years. Basiji may be well over ten millions! I have seen, before the election, paramilitary groups and two-legged cockroaches (female basiji) in terrifying deployments in, for instance, Esfahan's Naqsh-e Jahan. For me it was always one hundred percent certain that Ahmadinejad and his hordes will win the election. There was most probably no ballot-rigging even necessary.
In any country with a huge gap between the very rich and the very poor populists with antisemitic claims will eventually prevail, sad to say. Iran is, by the way, no longer a mullah dictatorship but rather a police state.


Fahad / October 23, 2009 7:34 PM

"During the height of the Tehran protests, these young men worked confrontational security details lasting in excess of 16 straight hours a day, every day. That requires an immense amount of dedication."

Oh yes, vandalizing, beating, raping, torturing, and killing is all hard work. Those poor basijis couldn't even get a lunch break. Their dedication is truly admirable.

Down with IRI / October 23, 2009 7:55 PM


Excellent analogy. I applaud your imaginative mind. Let's remember that Leviathan's greatest power is in the domain of MIND. Once the mind is liberated, the existence of Leviathan is doomed. Then it can only extend his life by brute force.

Very well done.

Ali JAVAHERIAN / October 24, 2009 3:01 AM


This is a good article by Mr. Sohrab Ahmari, with interesting metaphoric comparisons.

In my response here I will also try to clarify the connected issues because I have no doubt that religion and faith are undermined and misrepresented in all clerical states including Iran.

We should be very careful when we use terms such as “Islam” or “Islamic” or Islamist. Islam is a religion, and similar to all other religions it is about a special kind of relationship between a faithful and God.

I have no doubt that Islam is a good religion that stands for love of God and love of mankind. It is a religion of peace and progress, and not a doctrine that we are forced to accept.

Islam has nothing to do with terrorism and fanaticism that nowadays we can witness in many places.

In contrast, when we use the word Islamic or Islamist we describe an ideological model for a government, regime, or state with politicized misinterpretation of Islam which is imposed on the entire society.

The Holy Books and especially Koran are TOTALLY against imposing religion on individual and society.

In a model of politicized religion, everything goes wrong because according to the Holy Books – and especially Koran – no one can create an ideal society except God, and God’s angels or messengers.

This is why all those who volunteer themselves for the heaven-building tasks end up working with evil and his co-workers.

Humans are biocultural organisms i.e. talking animals, and therefore despite their geographical differences such as genotypic-phenotypic variations their main psychosomatic features and socio-economic conditions are universal.

This is mainly because the epigenetic rules governing and regulating the psychosomatic development are the same for all human populations.

In other words, disregarding the cultural differences between different human social groups, human experiences have universal implications for all mankind no matter what the ethnicity and faith may be for such human groups.

The modern concept of democracy is inseparable from secularism, which is the most elementary component necessary for formation of modern democracy in the first place.

In this commentary, the debate is not about how "democratic" human societies were during the time of the leading grand Prophets (according to Islam: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad.

If such ancient societies were truly happy and democratic they were so for their own time – and not for our time in 21st century.

The Holy Books don't deny the reality of spacetime universe and the laws of nature such as gravity, relativity, quantum, and Darwinian evolution.

All those who are aganist science and evolution are TOTALLY incapable to understand the Holy Books. There is nothing against evolution in the Bible and Koran. The problems are the inconsistencies of our minds to read and understand the scriptures without distortions.

This is why clericalism, which is nothing more than distortion of the scriptures, and all clerical socio-political models are totally obsolete and vestigial for our time.

In all religions clerics want to believe that they are special group with divine connections. The history of world religions –including Islam -- tells us different reality.

Connection with God cannot be materialized through lies, inhumanity, injustice, murder, rape, dictatorships, greed, power, politics, and all other attributes of material life. All those who preach such evil thoughts have nothing to do with God whatsoever.

My point is that those with divine connections can reflect nothing less than love, forgiveness, freedom, justice, equality, happiness and joy, and foremost TOTAL break from power-politics which is the POISON for all faiths.

Those who grab power and then assume that God has chosen them to do so, forget the fact that according to the Holy Books evil has been granted the power to help and PROMOTE his evil kinds as well.

If so, WHO is WHO in the endless battles between good and evil? Were Stalin and Hitler connected to God or evil? There are also many Stalin and Hitler types for our time, and we all know were their powers come from.

This is why the real message of the Holy Books – and especially Koran -- for all faithful is secularism, democracy, the Human Rights, and love of God and humanity. Those who misrepresent Islam and set up clerical states betray both man and God.

Dr. Kazem Zarrabi,
Copenhagen, Denmark.

In this video-link Dr. Dawkins interviews Father Dr. George Coyne on Darwinian Evolution.

Dr. Kazem Zarrabi / October 26, 2009 5:44 AM

Dear Mr. Sohrab Ahmari,

Thank you for posting my response to your thoughtful article: "The Faltering Islamic Leviathan."

In my response, I have forgotten to type the closing parenthesis in line 23 i.e. when I mention the prophets. Can you please insert it just before the period. You do not have to post this message.

Very truly yours,
Dr. Kazem Zarrabi

Dr. Kazem Zarrabi / October 26, 2009 5:07 PM

Dr. Zarrabi,

I would contact TB directly if you are really concerned about this.

But if I were you, I wouldn't worry too much about it -- folks understand that small typos like this happen when you are commenting on a blog post.

Sohrab Ahmari / October 27, 2009 12:45 AM

Interesting article.

My only comment is with regards to this: "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..."

The way I see it, it wasn't a moment of panic that caused his backing of Ahmadinejad; it was most likely a cold, callous, and casual disregard of the of the real results of the elections.

K_Ahangar / October 27, 2009 2:41 AM

I wonder...Could the Bush/Cheney administration have been described as Leviathonic? The Levaiathon sleeps everywhere and I think it would be satisfied by Cheney's voiced opinion that Bush should not have given into the demands of voters near the end of their term...

Mental Mike / October 30, 2009 6:26 AM

Pseudo-scholars and new converts in the camp of Muslim soldiery, especially those who thrive upon the privileges of the West are busy smoking the reality of “operation” Global Jihad. Can their arguments from the Qur'an and history convince their “believing” brothers – to stop terrorising in the name of Islam? Why do the Jihadis who have killed Anwar Sadat and Benazir Bhutto, link their jihad back to the earliest days of Islam’s struggles? What is the secret behind the durability of Jihadi terrorism? Does the Qur'an oblige Muslims to wage violent war on those who do not share their beliefs? Is Islam inherently intolerant? This torrent of absolutely essential questions is almost never answered with fresh thinking and honest appreciation of the testaments of History.

In every war it bodes only too well to understand one’s enemy and be well-armed. The most effective weapon in our armoury now is “valid” information. We have an obligation to humanity to try to understand the reason behind the murderous hatred in the eyes of our enemies.

Numerous experts and journalists are there to tell you what Islamism is. In Jihad and Terrorism I have shown what Islamism is not. Much to the bewilderment of popular experts, whatever Islamism is, it certainly is not a reaction to Western power and influence. Islamism is the inherent determination of Muslim supremacists to create one world order they interpret as Islamic. And to achieve this end, they must islamize dar al-harb – the non-Muslim world. To reinstate the lost glory of Muslim imperialist power, Islamists preach that Muslims are committed to redeem the cardinal call of their creed – to expand the domain of Muslim authority through conquests followed by conversion/control. Islamism advocates that Muslims are obligated to get the infidels under the yoke of the shariah. To attain this, they are permitted to use daawa (invitation to convert); expertly exploit the laws of the land they live in for furthering their ambition and last but never the least, Muslims are welcome to strike terror into the hearts of the infidels. Terrorism in the “Way of Islamization” is hosted beneath the “Dome of the Jihad”. Terrorism is the holy grail of Islamism.

agha jafri / August 4, 2010 2:02 AM