Friday, December 11, 2009

Pretext and Impiety in Iran

The torn poster of Ayatollah Khomeini shown on Iranian TV (Image from Iran opposition accused of insulting founder Khomeini, BBC News Online, Dec. 13, 2009).

The English word pretext is said to derive from the Latin word praetextum--to disguise. But pretextum is the neuter past participle of an action word--praetexere--a word suggesting a weaving as an act of disguise. Pretext thus embraces a notion of altering reality, of weaving a framework reality for a particular purpose. That objective serves both as cloak that covers another reality and also serves as its substitute. Pretext is history in action. It is the ultimate effort of humans to become the managers of their own history. And it is invariably a sloppy and badly managed affair. It is thus the ultimate hubris (ὕβρις)--both pathetic and inevitable among a certain group of people hurtling toward their own destiny. But that is a lesson that human social, political, ethnic and religious communities tend to believe is the fate of others,and not themselves. Each, in turn, weaves their own destiny (usually on the backs of their opponents) in the sure knowledge that they (unlike their predecessors) will "get it right."

But hubris also suggests an intimate connection between the managed disguising inherent in "pretext" and impiety. Where religious communities engage in pretext, it, and especially its leaders, engage in an arrogance that is also sin. There is a certain arrogance against the Divine order in pretext in this context. It serves as a manifestation of the idea that humans can substitute themselves for the Divine in the ordering of the affairs of the world. Pretext serves as a challenge to God, as understood in those communities, it is an acting out of a challenge to the Divine representation in those sects that screams: "I know better than God what is or shall be."

It is thus especially poignant when the leaders of religious communities manipulate the pious, in the name of their Divinity, through pretext to sin, to an insult to the community of believers and to the prophets whose words and lives they purport to uphold. The Iranian religious community had developed an interesting variation on constitutional government grounded in the religious principles of Shi'a Islam. See, Larry Catá Backer, Theocratic Constitutionalism: An Introduction to a New Global Legal Ordering, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2008; Islamic Law and Law of the Muslim World Paper No. 08-44.

But having spent three decades perfecting an alternative to the communal constitutionalism of the world community it is now in danger of losing power to factions of the religious and pious who owe the progeny of the founders no personal loyalty. That is the essence of democracy, even theocratic democracy. But it appears that this consequence of the constitutional state the religious elite created is now unacceptable to a portion of that very elite when deployed against its own grip on power. The result was an election the legitimacy of which remains highly contested, at least within Iran, that appeared to keep one faction in power. Paul Reynolds, Iran: Where Did All the Votes Come From?, BBC News Online, June 23, 2009. This has produced a crisis pitting factions within the ruling clerical community and their adherents outside of that community against each other. Iran Opposition Protesters Clash with Security Forces, BBC News Online, Dec. 7, 2009.

But having constructed a constitutional state that incorporates the religious values hich they purport to maintain, how to retain power without appearing to overturn the constitutional order on which the legitimacy of their political authority (and thus also to some extent their religious authority) rests? Pretext and impiety provides the answer.

Iran's Supreme Leader has accused the opposition of breaking the law by insulting the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged opposition leaders to identify "those behind the insult to Imam Khomeini". The remarks centre on an alleged incident last Monday during which a poster of Imam Khomeini was torn up. Opposition leaders say the alleged incident - shown on state television - has been doctored. The opposition has been refusing to endorse the result of the presidential election in June which returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power for a second term. They allege the poll was widely rigged. The election dispute is now radicalising both sides, says the BBC's Tehran correspondent, Jon Leyne. Iran opposition accused of insulting founder Khomeini, BBC News Online, Dec. 13, 2009.
The religious elite is set to use impiety against their political opponents. They would use a televised image of a ripped poster with the image of a man serve as the pretext for substantial misapplication of the constitutional structure they purported to create. They appear driven to rip the Constitutional fabric of the Islamic Republic in the same way they ripped the image of the late Ayatollah. They mean to preserve their earthly power even as they weaken the theological underpinning of the Republic created a generation ago. The Ayatollah Khamenei appears set to substitute the rule of individuals for the divine mandate he is purportedly charged with protecting. "In his remarks, broadcast on state TV on Sunday, Iran's Supreme Leader said: 'Some people created riots and encouraged people to stand against the system... paving the way for our hopeless enemies to undermine the Islamic revolution.' He urged opposition leaders to return to 'the right path'. His warning on the alleged insult to the republic's founder was echoed by a statement issued by the Revolutionary Guards." Id. He will tear the constitutional state in pieces to mirror the torn image of the late Ayatollah. There is irony here as well as impiety. This is captured nicely by Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, an opponent of the ruling religious clique, when he suggested that "The current decisions, which are being taken by the minority faction that is in power, are mainly against the interests of the country, and are not in keeping with Islamic principles and values" Edward Stourton, Ahmadinejad's Theological Foes, BBC News Online, October 19, 2009. But more importantly, it suggests that a legitimately constitutional theocratic state may not be possible, even on its own terms.

The torn image of the face of the late Ayatollah Khomeini suggests pretext, hubris, impiety and blasphemy. But whose? As the Iranian state appears ready to turn its apparatus against its own, it continues down a path that deepens the crisis of legitimacy of a 30 year old experiment in religiously based constitutional orders. And so the Iranian clerical class practices pretext, weaving together action and symbol, processed through law, to disguise a less worthy set of objectives behind a facade of lawfulness. With this praetextum, certain elements of the Iranian ruling caste have taken their destinies in their own hands. As the Greeks remind us, the hubris implicit in political pretext can only bad badly. Those who seek to control destiny through this weaving will find themselves woven into a greater design whose parameters are both beyond their control and in which their fates are in part determined by their pretexts.


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