Saturday, 5 December 2009

The Persian Caliphate

From time to time, Medawar reads a blog or newspaper column to the effect that, in Iran, "The Revolutionary Guards are increasingly a parallel, separately funded, government."

They observe, but do not understand.

The situation in Iran today is very like that in the earliest stages of the Turkish Republic, where General Mustapha Kemal Attaturk had established a modern, democratic state, but the old Caliphate, which had recently led the Ottoman Empire into tyranny, genocide and disaster, was still levying what amounted to taxes and still passing decrees which were supposed to have the force of law. Parliamentary democracy, which Attaturk was trying to estbalish and stabilize, kept tripping over the remains of the Caliphate at every turn, until Attaturk effectively abolished the shadow government, not in the name of secularism, but with the words "the Caliphate requires Islam, Islam does not require the Caliphate!" In doing so, he not only secured Turkish democracy, but finally set the Arab world free from even theological Turkish rule. This is why, although the Arab league made various resolutions about re-establishing the Caliphate, they've never once been silly enough to actually do it.

But there are two crucial differences between Turkey in the 1920s and Iran in the 2000s -and the first is the direction of travel: Turkey had both a democratic government and a theocracy at the same time, because it was moving from a (awesomely corrupt and venal) theocracy, towards a modern democratic state. Iran has both a constitutional (and almost democratic) government and a theocracy, because it is moving from constitutional government towards an unchecked theocracy. Which leads us to the second difference:

Turkey was the centre of a Sunni Muslim Caliphacy, the Ottoman Empire, which had its cultural and scientific highs, as well as moral lows, such as brutal oppression of Arab nations and the attempted extermination of the Armenian nation: the prototype for Hitler's holocaust.

Iran's theocrats are Shia muslims*, and Caliphacy is, or has been until now, a Sunni Muslim form. The traditions of Sunni Islam and those of the Ottoman Caliphate had evolved together, and for most of the time, those traditions proved a check and a balance on the Caliphacy, which did not otherwise know any explicit limit on its power or freedom of action. Unless Shia Islam invents some appropriate traditions, very smartly, it will find itself with a power structure that it simply doesn't know how to live with -and from which, it simply cannot escape.

A Shia Caliphacy will be a new thing on Earth. Medawar waits to see what it will look like, but not with any sense of eager anticipation!

* Not all Iran's people are Muslims, and not all of the Muslims are Shias. Even if a Caliphacy were the right form of government for Shia muslims, about a third of Iran's population is something other than Shia: there are significant numbers of Sunnis -and a couple of smaller muslim sects and two non-muslim religions were founded in Iran and spread around the world from there. It is very hard to see how a Shia Caliphate can come into being in a country as religiously pluralistic as Iran, unless the pluralism is to go and there is to be genocide, of non-shia muslims as well as non-muslims. And since Hinduism is the offspring of one of the ancient Iranian religions, how far will the theological cleansing go?

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