Thursday, August 14, 2008

Iranian Islamism

The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Rezi Shah Pahlavi was put into power in Iran by the CIA during the Cold War. Although it isn’t utterly clear what the Shah was thinking, he seems to have been disheartened by Jimmy Carter’s policies which were not in sympathy with some of the actions of the CIA. The Shah began liberalizing his government and this turned out to be a serious mistake. He opened the door for opposition from the Ayatollah Khomeini and in 1979 the Shah fled Iran and Khomeini move in. Khomeini instituted a government based upon Islamist principles and thus Iran became the only successful Islamist state. At the time we thought that Khomeini was much more frightening than Saddam Hussein. This is why Reagan subsequently supported Saddam during the Iraq/Iran war. Saddam is just a thug, the thinking went, but Khomeini has the ability to inspire a great Islamist attack against the West.

Khomeini did not long survive the end of the Iraq/Iran war. He died of prostate cancer in 1989, the same year that Osama bin Laden (the Sunni Islamist) believed he was defeating the USSR in Afghanistan. Khomeini left Iran an Islamist state, but subsequent leaders did not take the militant stance that Khomeini did; so they didn’t export terrorism in the same manner as Al Quaeda. Also, there is a sizeable population in Iran that misses the days of the Shah. There is a suggestion that many diplomats still hope that this group will be able to eventually oust the clerics that have the final say in Iranian affairs.

Iran is a Shiite nation and it is also, thanks to Khomeini an Islamist nation. Next door to Iran is Iraq where 60% of the population is also Shiite. The Iraqi Shiites fought with Saddam against the Iranian Shiites during the Iraq/Iran war, and today the bulk of them think of themselves as Iraqi and not inclined to be influenced by Iranian Shiites. Since the Iraqi Shiites were brutally suppressed during Saddam’s regime, it was feared that in an ostensible democratic election they might wish to take control and get revenge, so those overseeing the setting up of the Iraqi constitution were concerned about incorporating safeguards. If the Sunni’s who benefited under Saddam had no hope in a future Shiite controlled government then why shouldn’t they fight to the death now – and that Sunni insurgency took a long time to die down. Better to die now with courage than be put to death by Shiites later on they thought. However, the majority of Iraqi Shiites do seem to be supporting a democratic government which will continue to guarantee equal rights to Sunni and Kurd Muslims.

Shiite and Sunni Islamism is roughly the same in regard to the West. Since Shiism emphasizes a Mahdi who will come in the last days to “restore all things,” their Islamist emphasis is slightly different in regard to eschatology. Sunnis see a sort of Post-Millennial success for Islamism as all infidels are eventually conquered and the word of Mohammad covers the face of the earth. Shiism on the other hand doesn’t feel that there will be any marked success until the Mahdi appears; then he will lead the faithful to the success that the Sunnis Islamists hope to achieve by their own efforts. Thus we can better tolerate the Iranian Islamists waiting for the Mahdi than we can the Sunni Islamists who aren’t waiting for anything.

Lawrence Helm

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