Reuel Marc Gerecht: "The Koran and the Ballot Box"
Reuel Marc Gerecht, whose columns I recall reading shortly after 9/11, is an intelligent and informed hardliner on Iran and the Middle East. Around that time, I believe, he was with the Neo-Conservative Project for the New American Century, working as director of its Middle East Initiative. Earlier, he had served in the CIA as a specialist on the Middle East, with a particular focus on Iran, it seems, for he wrote Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey Into Revolutionary Iran (1997), which -- despite the title -- was an ex-spy's journey into Iran (albeit written under the pseudonym Edward G. Shirley). He now works for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies as a senior fellow. I think that I should note, perhaps not just in passing, that he has defended "physically coercive techniques" used to extract crucial information on imminent terrorist actions, a defense that you can read about in his exchange on this point with Andrew Sullivan.
Make of him what you will (and opinions will no doubt differ), Gerecht has written a very interesting article, "The Koran and the Ballot Box," for the New York Times (June 20, 2009). He argues that we are seeing " the unraveling of the religious idea that has shaped the growth of modern Islamic fundamentalism since the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928," or more precisely, two incompatible ideas combined in Iran: "that God's law . . . would rule, and that the people of Iran had the right to elect representatives who would advance and protect their interests." As a new generation grew up and got educated, a systemic contradiction developed, for "God's will and the people's wants were no longer compatible."
Gerecht therefore believes that we are currently "witnessing not just the end of the first stage of the Iranian democratic experiment, but the collapse of the structural underpinnings of the entire Islamic approach to modern political self-rule," as "Islam's categorical imperative for both traditional and fundamentalist Muslims --'commanding right and forbidding wrong' -- is being transformed." Gerecht notes that this imperative was, historically, "understood as a check on the corrupting, restive and libidinous side of the human soul," but that "modern Islamic militants," also known as Islamists, have used it as "a war cry" and as "a justification of the morals police in Saudi Arabia and Iran, of the young men who harass 'improperly' attired Muslim women from Cairo to Copenhagen." The implications are thus far-reaching and wide-ranging, and therefore clarify why "Ayatollah Khamenei will try to stop a democratic triumph in his country, since real democracy would allow men, not God and his faithful guardians, the mullahs, to determine right and wrong." Even if the Ayatollah stops Iran's democratic movement, the world can see the significance, says Gerecht:
Westerners would do well to understand the magnitude of what is transpiring in the Islamic Republic. Iran's revolution shook the Islamic world. It was the first attempt by militant Muslims to prove that "Islam has all the answers" -- or at least enough of them to run a modern state and make its citizenry more moral children of God. But the experiment has failed.Gerecht acknowledges that we cannot be certain what the opposition leader "Mr. Moussavi thinks about democracy," but he believes that Moussavi is "willing to entrust the people with more power than was [a previous opposition leader] Mr. Khatami," a reformer who "could neither really break with his ruling clerical brethren, nor free himself from the age-old Islamic belief that the faithful need clerical supervision."
Previously, the Islamic Republic of Iran has managed to depict itself "as a virtuous state with a workable level of democracy -- just enough to give the regime legitimacy and stability," but Gerecht holds that "the clerical regime can no longer make this argument," for "Iranians have come to know theocracy intimately," and "secularism has become increasingly attractive." Indeed, Gerecht states that "Iran now produces brilliant clerics who argue in favor of the separation of church and state as a means of saving the faith from corrupting power." In effect, the "Iranians are on the threshold of turning the Koran's ethical injunction into a democratic commandment: nothing good can be commanded without a vote of the people."
Moreover, though Iran is a Shi'ite Persian state, Gerecht thinks that Sunni Arab fundamentalists will "will surely see the awesome power of democracy" and "will probably conclude . . . that God cannot be the sole legislator of the laws and ethics that good Muslims want to live by."
Well, this all sounds enormously positive, and I hope that Gerecht is right, but we'll just have to see how this plays itself out in Iran. Repression might work for a long time. The Soviet Union lasted 70 years, long enough to destroy a great deal and thereby wreak enormous damage upon the peoples whom it ruled, and the great difficult labor of repair will continue for a long time. Even if the current demonstrations overturn the Shi'ite Islamist system in Iran, would the Sunni Islamists truly learn a lesson about the necessity for democracy? Why would the 'orthodox' learn from the deviations of the 'heretical'? We can hope that Gerecht is correct and that history will limp to the right . . . but only time will tell.
Meanwhile, here's a good site for updates on Iran: Radio Free Europe.