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Ecclesiastics and Power (Part One)

By Mohsen Kadivar
Source: Jameh Madani

Q: Ecclesiastics today have a determining and influential role in the government and political power equations. How do you evaluate this role and influence in general?

A: We can talk about this subject from three different perspectives that include: 1) historical, 2) legal and juridical, 3) public opinion and 4) political sociology.

From the historical perspective, ecclesiastics both as the religious authority of imitation and the body of clergy, i.e. preachers, prelates and so on have had a very influential political role during the past hundred years. The influence of clergy have been particularly great in respect to independence of the country and the fights and struggles with the foreigners. The episode of "Reji" during the reign of Naseredinshah was quite important. Then the revolt of Mirza Kouchak Khan and the rebel of Sheikh Mohamad Khiabani were notable. During the oil nationalization movement again the clergy had an important role and the primary positions of Ayatolah Kashani are positive and notable. Then in Khordad 15th movement and the role played by Imam Khomeini's and finally his role in the victory of Islamic Revolution are generally evaluated fundamental and positive.

From this historical perspective, ecclesiastic had another role, too and that is its anti-despotism. Whether during the reign of Ghajars and Pahlavi, the function of ecclesiastic, whether traditional or modernist and reformist, has been quite brilliant. Although we did have some clergymen that cooperated with both regimes, but in general the body of ecclesiastic remained healthy and it has been regarded as an anti-despotic institution in Iran.

After the victory of Islamic Revolution and from the time they came to power, the conditions changed. Before the victory of Revolution, the management system of the country was not in their hands and it always acted as the social critic. But today we have entered a new phase and the clergymen are sharing the management system, therefore playing the role of the social critic is no longer possible. So after the Revolution of 1978, they have been responsible for both the right and wrong policies of the government and their role as the critic lessened in relation with their increasing involvement in the problems of ruling the country. As the result, their social influence has changed in such a way that the role of the clergymen has strengthened is some respects and weakened from other aspects.

The second perspective is their legal and juridical position in the political equations of the society. After the victory of Revolution, a special role was anticipated for the clergymen in the constitution. Here we can discuss whether this were one of the aims of Revolution or not. We will look at this in its own place. But disregarding such questions, their role is quite prominent in our constitution and our social acts based on this law. What I mean by this advantageous right is the great political power that depends on this right and the problem of Velayat Faghih (religious leadership) and then the absolute Velayat Faghih anticipated in the constitutional law of 1979 and then again in the revision of this law in 1988.

In the draft of the constitutional law of 1978 no institution as such had been anticipated. Only a supervising organ similar to that of the previous constitutional law, but in a more advanced form with the name of Guardian Council (Shora Negahban) was thought of. This council with some clergymen and religious professionals as its members had two duties: supervising the law approved by the parliament to check whether they are in conformity with the religious decrees and the second duty was legal supervision of elections. After the establishment of the Assembly of Khobregan (Elite), this draft was ignored for some reasons and in the law approved by this Assembly, a good part of the powers presumed for the president in the aforementioned draft was given to Vali Faghih (religious leader). Also according to the article 110 of the constitution, an extensive spectrum of powers was given to Vali Faghi. In addition, other institutes were anticipated in the constitution such as Guardian Council with half of its members consisting of clergymen and religious jurists, and Assembly of the Discernment of the good of the regime (Majma Tashkhis Maslehat Nezam) that although the members should not necessarily be clergymen, but in practice the majority turn to be high priests. In the juridical power of the country, due to the principle of religious jurisprudence, whether at the level of the head of this power or the Supreme Court, or the ordinary positions, the higher ranks are all in the hands of clergymen. According to a bill approved by the parliament the minister of information (secret service) should also belong to the clergy. In addition, there are organizations called the political ideological organizations of armed forces that play a very important role in the complex of armed forces of the country, all of which are run by clergymen. These are some examples of the major role of the ecclesiastics in the political power of the country. There are some other positions that are also usually occupied by the clergymen. The presidency, except the first and second terms has always been in their hands. The ministers of Ministry of Justice and Ministry of State (except during the first period) too have always been high priests.

Well, these are the most important governing positions of the country (to me more than %80) that have always been in the hand of ecclesiastics. Therefore, if it is said that Islamic Republic is the rule of ecclesiastics is no exaggeration. This does not mean that all ecclesiastics are sharing this power. It is quite possible that this amount of power allocated to the clergymen comes out of the experience of Constitutional Revolution in order to guarantee the maintenance of political power of the ecclesiastic in the structure of government.

But the third sociological perspective is the most important part of our discussion and that is the extent of their influence on the society and public opinion. It is not true that the higher is the legal power of an institution, the higher will be its political sovereignty. This is a grave mistake that to me some of our dear clergymen are making.

The truth is that the ecclesiastic before the Revolution enjoyed political and spiritual authority, the latter being significantly even more. In other words, their influence was so extensive that people would change and correct their direction accordingly and always heeded their order. People believed in chastity and wisdom of this class and considered it loftier than every day currents and considered a great spiritual authority particularly for the higher ranks of the clergy. That is why you see that in the election of the Assembly of Khobregan (Elite) in early days of Revolution, candidates did not have to be among the clergymen, but the people in the majority of provinces voted for them in a natural and genuine way. People trusted them in most things and believed in their spiritual authority.

After the victory of Revolution, a part of this authority remained intact, but a significant part was lost at the expense of gaining political power. Imam was surely an exception, and maintained his sovereignty to the end. No doubt a part of this lowered authority was bound to happen as the ecclesiastics had no ruling power in the government and therefore had made any mistakes. One who does not write a dictation, would not write anything wrong. Some of the mistakes made by them after the victory of Revolution is due to this fact and some due to their inexperience in the political management. This does not mean that all the shortcomings and mistakes are due to inexperience, a part is also due mis-management and mis-deeds of some clergymen.

Is it possible to classify this layer of population according to the level of their sovereignty? In other words, does the lowering of this sovereignty include all or only a part?

If we wish to classify the ecclesiastics, we can differentiate them into three layers. One layer is the part participating in the government. The second layer includes the traditional clergymen that usually do not participate in politics and continue their traditional role. It is possible that the latter are still enjoying more influence than the former.

Another group belongs to the third layer that can be called modernist and reformist. They could subtly evade the damages of practical political battlefield and at the same time follow their disciplines and social religious orders. It seems that this layer has still maintained its social influence. Election of Mr. Khatami is the evidence.

Briefly, the entry of the ecclesiastics into the scene of politics and their participation in the political equations, has perhaps caused their authority to lower in some cases, but on the other hand, their role as an active layer beside the other social layers in the current affairs of the society and different events is quite determining and significant. This is true for both the ecclesiastics that play a role in the government and those outside the power working as a part of reformist forces.

-- Translated for by Roya Monajem

The Persian Empire (World History Series)

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