December 21, 2012

A Message to the Leaders of Egypt: Let us learn from the bitter experience of the Islamic Republic of Iran

At the outset, we would like to applaud the great victory of the people of Egypt in their struggle to establish a democratic system of governance in order to realize the objectives of the rule of law, freedom, social justice, and moral as well as religious values.
The pivotal place of the ancient nation of Egypt among Muslim nations, and the crucial role of Egypt in the region has persuaded us, the authors of this letter — who are Islamic scholars with a modicum of knowledge of politics – to share with you some of the experiences of the Iranian nation in the wake of the Islamic revolution of 1979. The Quranic injunction: “Verily the believers are brothers” encourages us to communicate with you, in the spirit of fraternity among the community of believers. We hope that these experiences will help you avoid the pitfalls to which our nation has stumbled, jeopardizing its felicity here, and its salvation in the hereafter.
Iran has been struggling to abolish political and religious tyranny and economic and colonial dependency for more than a century. It has experimented with reforming its political structure in the course of three mass-based and progressive revolutions over the last 112 years. As you are aware, Iran, by prevailing in the last of these revolutions, has overcome the tyranny of the ancient Imperial system of governance and has established an Islamic Republic, confident in the belief that Islam will suffice to defend the rights of the oppressed and oppose oppression. Iranians overwhelmingly voted “Yes” to this new political regime in a referendum that was conducted immediately after the revolution. That vote was cast based on the popular confidence in the promise of the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, that the clergy will not enter politics and will return to their religious seminaries after the revolution. This vote was, in essence, a vote to abolish tyranny and establish the principles of liberty, social justice, and ethical as well as religious values. However, neither the people, nor the leadership of the revolution had any conception concerning the contours of the future Islamic regime and knew nothing beyond the bare outlines of an Islamic society aspiring to the example set by the just rule of Imam Ali.
In the chaos of the rapid dissolution of the institutions of the old regime and in the absence of independent political institutions and parties, a section of the Shi’a clergy that has escaped utter destruction during the rule of the previous regime and had retained its traditional structure, was able to gain ascendency through the manipulation of people’s religious beliefs and sentiments and by gradual elimination of rival interpretations of Islam, clerical or otherwise. The result was the establishment of the tyrannical doctrine of the “absolute mandate of the jurisprudent” within a few years after the revolution.
Thus it was that the official institutions of religion (Mosques, the clergy, and part of the seminaries) that had enjoyed communal respect and reverence for centuries became indistinguishable with the politics of the state. Accordingly, the behavior of the politically powerful clerics who abused religion in order to justify their despotic policies was interpreted as dictates of religion. In reality, however, what passes as religion under the Islamic regime of Iran is based neither on the Islamic principles of “The Quran, Tradition, Consensus, and Reason”, nor on the historical experience of humanity, collective wisdom of the nation, Islamic concerns, and national interests of Iran. On the contrary, what has prevailed has been little more than the untested conjectures of a few narrow-minded jurisprudents. No wonder that these policies have resulted in bigotry, enmity, and violation of the most fundamental rights of the people by the ruling cabal and their fanatical followers.
Unfortunately, the greatest victims of these policies have been Islam and people’s religious beliefs. Great hopes of a nation withered as those who had arrogated to themselves the mantle of religious and political leadership blundered into a relentless descent into the quagmire of superstition and intransigence.
You are aware that “realpolitik” has requirements that are often in opposition, and inferior, to the ideals of religiosity that aims to guide humanity to the zenith of morality and spirituality. Safeguarding such a pursuit requires neutrality in commonplace affairs and vigilance against the institutions of power that are susceptible to corruption and violation of the people’s rights.
Mixing the institutions of religion (Mosques, the clergy, and seminaries) with political power situates the religion and the clerics in positions of power and in opposition to the people. It is obvious that the sanctity of the guardians of religion is safeguarded among the people only when they embark upon their duties without the envy of power and expectation of material rewards and cultural prestige. Departure from this ideal may start from a negligible angle of deviation and may even carry the people’s approval. However, the distance increases with every step and, in so doing, damages the validity of religion. One can easily replace political regimes and rulers, but the lost prestige of religion cannot be easily restored.
Our aim is not the separation of religion and politics. We are aware that Islamic teachings encompass both the societal and the religious arenas. Without doubt, the religious constituents have the right, nay the responsibility to participate in politics, like every other citizen and, if they have a majority, they have a duty to take power (like they did in Turkey). However, conflating the institutions of politics and religion and reserving a ‘special right’ for the representatives of religion (in the form of giving certain votes special weight over the popular vote (whether in the form of ‘mandate of the jurisprudent’ or the primacy of the vote of the council of jurisprudents that amounts to a veto power) is alien to the regime of majority rule and national sovereignty; it is, also, contrary to the very foundation of the religion of Islam and the standards established by the Qur’an and Sunnah.

The bitter experience of our nation is now in front of you as an open book. Do not take the path, already taken. In your draft of the new constitution, you have placed the grand sheikh of Al-Adhar and his clerical staff in a position similar to that which the Iranian constitution placed the jurisprudents (Fugha’ha) of the “Guardian Council” who are selected by the supreme leader. This provision that has established a material link between the institution of religion and the institution of the state has yielded disastrous results for Iran.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, this alliance of the two institutions has reached such extremes that the two, if not actively colluding in committing flagrant acts of injustice, are both complicit in them. The religious institutions have no other resort but to be silent or to justify the injustice of the powerful politicians. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the constitution itself sanctifies this primacy of a retrograde and narrow-minded interpretation of Islam, and recognizes it as the only possible reading of Islam’s holy texts. Based on this false claim, every voice of opposition is cast as a voice against Islam itself and brutally silenced.

Such a catastrophic eventuality awaits any other political system that privileges the institution of religion in the actual conduct of politics. Those who truly love freedom and care about religion are wary of this destructive and historically condemned potentiality, and consider this unfortunate alliance as a recipe for the corruption of both institutions.

As lovers of Islam and admirers of the great nation and government of Egypt, we hope that the great University of Al Adhar will respect the independence of the institution of religion from politics and will safeguard the exalted standing of religion by keeping it from the mingling with the sphere of politics. Al Adhar will, with such a historical decision teach a great moral and historical lesson to the extremist organizations such as Al Qaida, Al Shabab, Buku Haram and the like, who have caused Islam, this religion of mercy and humanity great harm by their acts of violence, bigotry, murder, and violation of human rights of Muslims and non Muslims alike.

December 21, 2012 / Safar 7, 1434

Abdolali Bazargan, Mohsen Kadivar, Mahmoud Sadri, Sedigheh Vasmaghi, Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari