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SUPERSTITION AS IDEOLOGY IN IRANIAN POLITICS

FROM MAJLESI TO AHMADINEJAD

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By Ali Rahnema

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The Montréal Review, December 2011

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 "Superstition as Ideology in Iranian Politics: From Majlesi to Ahmadinejad" by Ali Rahnema (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

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Available on Amazon US and Amazon Canada

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This is a two part book. The first part tells the story of a style of statesmanship and a mode of political expression and conduct anchored in a mystical and esoteric religious discourse. To familiarize the readers with the particulars of political superstition as a discourse, the words and acts of three Iranian rulers exemplifying this style of leadership are examined. The fact that some five hundred years separate the first ruler studied from the last, speaks to the endurance of a mode of leadership which claims to be informed by and function according to rules and laws pertaining to the hidden world and unknown to mortal human beings. Each of the three chapters in part one delves into a different account of the presumed "connectedness" of each particular ruler with the hidden world. It also seeks to demonstrate the use and objective of political superstition as a mode of governance. Such a discourse is argued not only to shore up the legitimacy of those who employ it in the eyes of their subjects, but also to create an aura of infallibility for those who claim connectedness to the Divine or the revered Imams of the Shi'i faith. Once rulers argue that their decisions and acts are guided by God and the hidden world, then any accountability to the ruled becomes superfluous and unnecessary. The question posed but not answered until part two of the book is why such an irrational and arbitrary political discourse should fall on receptive ears, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries. Political superstition employed by those who govern can only be effective if the governed share the superstitious core of their rulers' beliefs.

"Political superstition employed by those who govern can only be effective if the governed share the superstitious core of their rulers' beliefs..."

Chapter one of part one starts with an episode in the General Assembly of the U.N, where in 2005, President Ahmadinejad claimed to have had a supernatural experience. He was draped in a cone of mystical light that was deemed to have had spectacular effects on his mesmerised audience, the representatives of the world. The announcement of this so-called supernatural happening was meant to convince his compatriots that he was a divinely selected and supported politician. Thereafter, Ahmadinejad's discourse and those of his proponents consistently sent the message that he was the instrument of the hidden world and his policies thus divinely sanctioned, could but be just. His claim and growing reputation rendered those who questioned or opposed his policies adversaries of God's will and designs. The idea of Ahmadinejad as the direct representative of the hidden world eventually became a threat to the position of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameneh'i. Ahmadinejad was then cut down to size by the proponents of Ayatollah Khameneh'i who correctly felt that the Supreme Leader's religious position and credentials were being overshadowed.

To boost the dwindling popularity and credibility of Ayatollah Khameneh'i, his key clerical, military and lay proponents started claiming that Ayatollah Khameneh'i was a Divine gift, appointed by God, His successor on earth, and infallible. They propagated the myth that loving Ayatollah Khameneh'i was identical to loving God, moving the pious to accept that obedience to Ayatollah Khameneh'i was synonymous with submission to God. Once superstition as an ideology or the conduit for action is firmly established in the minds of a section of society, then changing or reversing political course comes easy as it does not have to be justified as rational. By gradually shifting the aura of connectedness created for Ahmadinejad to Khameneh'i, the religious experts and jurists implicitly claimed the power to identify those blessed with the "God-given fortune" of being driven by the hidden world. The political message was clear. Iranians were called on to succumb to religious superstition and accept the fact that their Supreme Leader was the representative of God on earth.

"Once superstition as an ideology or the conduit for action is firmly established in the minds of a section of society, then changing or reversing political course comes easy as it does not have to be justified as rational..."

Chapters two and three of part one go on to survey the political superstition of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and Shah Esma'il Safavi. In 1973, Oriana Fallaci interviewed Iran's King of Kings (Shahanshah), Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. In this interview, the western educated, self-proclaimed modernizer and pro-western Shah claimed that he was chosen and protected by God to accomplish a mission. He confirmed that his visions were miracles that saved the country and that he had prophetic dreams which would turn out to be true. Even though he was not very successful in convincing Oriana Fallaci of his supernatural status, Mohammad Reza maintained that God always stood by him and that he was connected to the hidden world. The comparison between the superstitious discourse of the 20th century Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and the 16th century Shah Esma'il Safavi is telling. Chapter three focuses on the superstitious claims of Shah Esma'il, the quintessentially occult Shi'i King. It demonstrates that Shah Esma'il believed himself to be in direct contact with the hidden world through different means such as dreams, voices and even correspondence. Shah Esma'il's devout soldiers were said to be convinced that the Shah was no other than Imam Ali. The Shah himself believed that he was chosen by the hidden world, supported by and protected by Shi'i imams and God to expedite the return of the Twelfth Shi'i Imam who has been in occultation since the 9th century.

Whereas part one narrates political superstition from the perspective of those who use it to rule, part two deals with the difficult issue of why a discourse and mode of government based on political superstition positively resonates with the beliefs of a section of society. That the rulers wish to stupefy the masses and maximize their tenure is understandable; why segments of the ruled voluntarily accept to resign their fate to the will of these rulers is more complex. Part two attempts to explain the role that Mohammad Baqir Majlesi, a towering 17th century cleric, played in forming a religious mind-set which in time became an influential part of Iranian popular Shi'i culture. It is argued that the Shi'i mind-set defined and fashioned by Majlesi was instrumental in securing the acceptance of the rulers' political superstition by the common folk. Majlesism as a religio-political ideology is based on two axial premises. First, that the human mind is defective and subsequently incapable of addressing and resolving everyday problems. Second, that in the absence of the common folk's ability to make correct and worthy decisions, society requires the leadership of a King and/or of a religious jurist with a connection to the hidden world. Majlesi compiled a body of superstitious information with an imputed religious lineage and passed it off as that which defined Shi'i piety. His teachings fogged the minds of believers and blunted their critical capacities, rendering them receptive to political resignation and accepting superstition as a constituent element of the faith. Majlesi's political as well as religious status at the time enabled him and his discourse, in the service of the Safavid Shahs, to quell and marginalize his equally pious critics and provide a monolithic reading of Shi'ism.

"Majlesism as a religio-political ideology is based on two axial premises. First, that the human mind is defective and subsequently incapable of addressing and resolving everyday problems. Second, that in the absence of the common folk's ability to make correct and worthy decisions, society requires the leadership of a King and/or of a religious jurist with a connection to the hidden world..."

In order for this study to hold its ground, a working definition of superstition had to be provided. Superstition means different things to different people, yet it somehow refers to the association of certain outcomes with unreasonably established or irrational causes. Superstition confuses or mistakes false-cause fallacies for acceptable rational explanations. However, cases such as the crossing of a black cat, breaking of a mirror or spilling of salt, irrespective of the arbitrary consequences attributed to each act, are "accidental" or "autonomous" superstition. Belief in sorcery, witchcraft and magic constitutes a different kind of superstition. In these cases, believers are convinced that someone can alter the laws of nature through the use of some sort of supernatural force. Belief in the power of magicians, witches and soothsayers to effectuate supernatural acts is human-driven superstition for personal or collective ends.

The superstitious beliefs that this book is concerned with are unreasonable explanations claimed to be based on some religious teaching or guidance. They are a sub-set of human-driven superstition, with a religious spin. Sometimes religious superstition involves belief in those irrational causal relations that are upheld by religiously justified explanations. Consider the following assertion made by Majlesi on the basis of what he claims to be a report from the imams: "if a person cuts his or her nails on Fridays, that person will become immune to insanity, blindness and skin diseases". If the person also trims his moustache on Fridays, economic fortune will come his way. Sometimes the religiously superstitious believe that certain rituals, people or objects claimed to be associated with the hidden world can intervene on their behalf in the natural order to effectuate their "particular wish". Majlesi argues that specific supplications and incantations can safeguard from brigands, pillage, poverty, disasters and even being caught under a collapsing roof. The religiously superstitious confound the two distinct worlds: the material world we live in and the natural laws that govern it and the hidden spiritual world, possibly with its own laws which we are not privy to.

As long as belief in the two worlds, their main agents, laws, problem-solving toolboxes, modes of operation and objectives does not include daily criss-crossing and slipping between them, superstition has no room to grow. How can politicians, clerical and lay capitalize on jumbling the two worlds for their own interests? Publicly claiming a privileged superhuman status or connectedness to God provides an effective springboard for the over-ambitious political and religious leader. By hinting at access to powers that are God's monopoly, a political claimant to "superhuman status" effectively expects the respect, obedience and even worship that are reserved for God. The believer who succumbs to religious superstition of the political kind effectively abandons his faith and reason by following a religio-political pied piper, who could gradually lead them into disbelief.

In sum, Majlesism systematized and propagated a Shi'i discourse based on criss-crossing and confusing the two worlds and thus articulated political superstition as an effective state ideology. He reinterpreted the faith and read into Shi'ism a conservative, complacent, irrational and obeisant creed. A key objective of this ideology was to demonstrate that Shi'ism was incompatible with a belief in the powers, promises and capacities of individuals. Majlesism wished to hide its own ideological incompatibility with and disdain for the common folks' sense of self-reliance and self respect by claiming that such tendencies were sacrilegious and heretical. An underpinning feature of Majlesism was its fear of the Shi'i liberated from its dominion, believing in both God and His creatures and their power to reason.

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Ali Rahnema is Professor of Economics and Director of the Master of Arts program in Middle East and Islamic Studies at The American University of Paris. His many publications include An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shariati (1998, 2000), Pioneers of Islamic Revival (1994, 2006), Islamic Economic Systems (with Farhad Nomani, 1994) and The Secular Miracle: Religion, Politics, and Economic Policy in Iran (with Farhad Nomani, 1990).

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