As I have noted many times, our increasingly authoritarian politically correct culture has thrust all sorts of mediocrities into the limelight — people who never would have garnered any public attention were it not for the fact that they mouth the accepted dogmas of the day. One of the foremost among these is the adolescent pseudo-scholar Reza Aslan, who has just written this encomium to Ahmadinejad in Foreign Policy.
Actually, I doubt that Reza Aslan wrote this piece himself, at least in its published form — it is too lucidly written and well-organized to come from a man who doesn’t know basic grammar or elementary facts about the Muslim world (he thinks Turkey is the second most populous Muslim country), and who behaves like an obnoxious, immature and sexually conflicted pre-teen. But whoever ghost-wrote it or cleaned it up for Aslan, it is probable that Aslan stands by it, and so I will discuss it as if it came from him.
And yet it would make more sense if someone else wrote it for the boy, as it raises some odd questions. Aslan here appears to oppose the mullahcracy in Iran, and yet he is a Board member of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). NIAC has been established in court as a front group for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Said Michael Rubin in February: “Jamal Abdi, NIAC”s policy director, now appears to push aside any pretense that NIAC is something other than Iran’s lobby. Speaking at the forthcoming ‘Expose AIPAC’ conference, Abdi is featured on the ‘Training: Constituent Lobbying for Iran’ panel. Oops.” According to Charles C. Johnson in the Daily Caller: “Iranian state-run media have referred toÂ the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) since at least 2006 as ‘Iran’s lobby’ in the U.S.” Iranian freedom activist Hassan Daioleslam “documented over a two-year period that NIAC is a front group lobbying on behalf of the Iranian regime.” NIAC had to pay him nearly $200,000 in legal fees after they sued him for defamation over his accusation that they were a front group for the mullahs, and lost.
Yet Aslan remains on their Board. He is therefore either abysmally stupid and thus cannot be expected to be consistent, or an active supporter of the Islamic regime that currently tyrannizes Iran. While the former option can’t be ruled out in light of his grammatical infelicities and manifest ignorance, the latter is much more likely, given the fact that NIAC’s status as a front group for the mullahs is almost certain to have come to his notice. So why does he sound in this piece as if he were an opponent of the Islamic Republic?
The first possibility, of course, is that he may simply be lying, so as to continue his lucrative and highly deceptive career as a “bridge-builder.” We know that Reza Aslan lies without any apparent pangs of conscience about people he hates, Israeli “atrocities,” the extent of Islamic supremacism in U.S. mosques, and about Muhammad’s career, and so there is no reason to assume that he is being truthful here. (Note also that there is no reason to take at face value any of his assertions about Ahmadinejad or Iran in this piece. My discussing them should not be taken as uncritical acceptance that they’re actually true at all.)
The other possibility is that he really wants to see change in Iran, but not as drastic a change as most of those who read his piece below will assume that he is calling for. And there are some hints of that in this piece.
“Comment: Iran – Missing Ahmadinejad,” by Reza Aslan for Foreign Policy via World News Australia, June 17:
What’s that saying? You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone? Well, after eight long years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, I’m willing to bet that even those of us who loathe the man are going to end up missing him — not just because of the comedy he provided with his bellicose rhetoric and his inane populism, but because he may have been the last, best hope of stripping the clerical regime of its “God-given” right to rule Iran.
Far from mocking Ahmadinejad as a comic figure, Aslan has previously praised him as a liberal reformer — as he does again in this piece. This is, of course, just the kind of thing that plays to his core audience: Western secular Leftists who get a thrill out of hearing that someone who has predicted the imminent demise of America and clearly relishes the prospect really isn’t all that bad. This kind of thing has been laying them in the aisles as far back as Walter Duranty’s puff pieces on Stalin’s Russia in the New York Times. Anyway, Aslan’s placing himself here among those who “loathe” Ahmadinejad forestalls the most obvious criticism of this piece: a listing of Ahmadinejad’s genocidal, anti-Semitic, pro-jihad, hate-filled, violent statements. But note that in almost the same breath, Aslan passes up an opportunity to place himself among those who oppose the Islamic Republic altogether: he refers to “those who oppose the clerical regime in Iran,” almost immediately after referring to “those of us who loathe the man”:
Back in 2011, I argued that those who oppose the clerical regime in Iran and who yearn for a more secular nation that looks for inspiration in the glories of its Persian past instead of its Islamist present may have an unexpected champion in their corner: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
I was not suggesting that Ahmadinejad is some sort of democracy icon or that he is even a good guy, let alone a competent president — though he is far more politically sophisticated than his critics generally assume. It is a Western fallacy that “more secular” necessarily means “more free.” But the fact remains that no president in the history of the Islamic Republic has so openly challenged the ruling religious hierarchy, and so brazenly tried to channel the government’s decision-making powers away from the unelected clerical bodies that hold sway in Iran.
“It is a Western fallacy that ‘more secular’ necessarily means ‘more free.'” This may be the most telling sentence in this entire windy piece. Aslan offers no examples, because he cannot: there is no historical evidence whatsoever of a state based on Islamic law that was free in any sense of the word. There have been and are decidely unfree secular states, but there is no example at all of what Reza Aslan is here implying the existence of: an Islamic religious state that is a free society.
And that’s the fundamental error of this entire piece: Ahmadinejad has repeatedly proclaimed his Muslim piety. While he may have opposed the style or structure of clerical rule in Iran, there is no indication whatsoever that he wanted Iran to become a secular state or envisioned it as being governed by anything other than Islamic law. Aslan is taking what is essentially an internal dispute about how the Islamic Republic should be run and portraying it as a threat to the regime itself. This would be like taking disagreements between Democrats and Republicans today as evidence that the foundations of our contemporary leviathan state itself were being questioned. They aren’t, and neither are the foundations of the Islamic Republic. And since Aslan hastens to remind us that “more secular” doesn’t equal “more free,” there is no indication that he has any interest in seeing Iran become more secular, either.
Under Ahmadinejad, the presidency has become a legitimate base of power in a way it never had been before. That may explain why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has lately been threatening to get rid of the office altogether.
At the time, I was skewered for the article by many in the Iranian-American community. My critics did not object to the content, they simply hated that I said something remotely positive about a man who had become the poster child for everything loathsome about the Iranian regime. I was equally taken to task by some American journalists, who seem incapable of viewing Ahmadinejad through any other lens save his absurd and odious views on Israel.
…which differ primarily only in tone from Aslan’s own — and not that much, either.
Today, Ahmadinejad’s unprecedented challenge to the unchecked powers of the supreme leader is something even those who can’t stand the man recognize and grudgingly admire. And now, as Ahmadinejad is about to be replaced by one of a claque of Ayatollah Khamenei’s fawning admirers, we may start to think a little more kindly of these last few years.
The mullahs’ conflict with Ahmadinejad goes to the very heart of what constitutes political legitimacy in the Islamic Republic. In Iran’s byzantine government, the elected president is supposed to represent the sovereignty of the people while the unelected supreme leader represents the sovereignty of God. In practice, however, nearly all levers of political power rest in the hands of the supreme leader, leaving the president with very little control over policy decisions.
That is just how the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wanted it. Khomeini’s religio-political concept of velayat-e faqih, or “guardianship of the jurist” argued that in the absence of the Muslim messiah (known as the Mahdi), the powers of government should rest with the messiah’s representatives on Earth — that is, the ayatollahs. After creating the position of supreme leader, Khomeini named himself to the office and began accumulating absolute religious, economic, and political authority, paving the way for complete clerical dominance.
This clerical dominance extended even into the elected branches of government. The clergy made up more than half of the representatives in Iran’s first two parliaments, though that number has gradually declined to less than a quarter today. With the exception of the Islamic Republic’s first and second presidents — who served a total of less than two years in office before being impeached and assassinated, respectively — every president elected in post-revolutionary Iran before 2005 had been a cleric.
Ahmadinejad broke that clerical precedent when he trounced his opponent, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, by painting him as a wealthy, corrupt, out-of-touch mullah with no appreciation for the common man’s concerns. In contrast to the fantastically wealthy Rafsanjani, whose speeches were peppered with Arabic words and Quranic recitations, Ahmadinejad dressed simply, spoke colloquial Persian, and clothed himself in a provincial religiosity deliberately stripped of clerical learning.
The strategy was so successful that Ahmadinejad won 62 percent of the vote in the run-off election against Rafsanjani, who mustered a mere 36 percent. Nor did Ahmadinejad back away from his controversial public persona after taking office — long before his sham reelection in 2009, he had begun distancing himself from the clerical elite and consolidating power in the presidency. Ironically, it was after the so-called Green Movement uprising was violently suppressed and his reelection staunchly supported by Khamenei that Ahmadinejad’s anti-clerical agenda became more pronounced.
In his second term, Ahmadinejad steadily chipped away at the clergy’s religious, economic, and political control. First, he started questioning the mullahs’ self-proclaimed status as the arbiters of Islamic morality — and especially its obsession with proper Islamic dress. He condemned the actions of the country’s dreaded morality police, saying, “it is an insult to ask a man and woman walking on the street about their relation to each other.” Ahmadinejad’s media advisor, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, was even arrested for printing articles criticizing the law forcing women to wear veils.
There is no indication that Ahmadinejad ever spoke out against the stoning of adulterers.
The president then began repeatedly criticizing the clergy for their enormous wealth, which stood in stark contrast to most Iranians’ economic suffering under international sanctions. In a surprise move, Ahmadinejad curtailed the amount of money that the government pays to religious institutions, which have ballooned over the past three decades into a source of tremendous personal enrichment for many in the clerical elite.
Ahmadinejad also took a number of bold steps to wrest political power away from the mullahs. He ceased attending meetings of the Expediency Council, one of Iran’s many Orwellian committees whose purpose is to protect the political interests of the clergy. When Iran’s oil minister stepped down, Ahmadinejad took over the ministry himself until a permanent replacement could be found, establishing an extremely significant presidential precedent in the process.
Even in those cases when his attempts to consolidate power were foiled by Khamenei and his allies, Ahmadinejad showed a brazen unwillingness to bend to the supreme leader’s whims. When Khamenei overruled the dismissal of his intelligence chief, Heider Moslehi, Ahmadinejad went on a week-long “strike,” refusing to attend cabinet meetings in protest. When Khamenei rejected the appointment of his close ally, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as first vice president, Ahmadinejad made him chief of staff instead — an arguably more influential position that did not require Khamenei’s approval. When Khamenei balked at Ahmadinejad’s habit of appointing “special envoys” — an attempt to sidestep the Foreign Ministry, which is under Khamenei’s control — Ahmadinejad simply changed the envoys into “advisors” and carried on.
But Ahmadinejad’s challenge to the clerical regime goes beyond any single skirmish with the supreme leader. Perhaps more important is his very public questioning of the foundation of the Islamic Republic’s political and religious authority. “Administering the country should not be left to the [supreme] leader, the religious scholars, and other [clerics],” the president said in 2011. Mashaei went further, flatly arguing that an Islamic government is not capable of running a vast and populous country like Iran.
This seems unlikely to have been more than an objection to the manner of Islamic government in Iran, not to Islamic government itself. After all, last September at the UN, Ahmadinejad delivered a speech that was heavy on Islamic proselytizing, asking: “Does anybody believe that continuation of the current order is capable of bringing happiness for human society?” The clear implication was that Sharia was the only viable alternative. He continued: “There is no doubt that the world is in need of a new order and a fresh way of thinking.” This would be “an order in which man is recognized as God’s Supreme Creature, enjoying material and spiritual qualities and possessing a pure and divine nature filled with a desire to seek justice and truth.” Consequently he called upon the nations to “place our trust in God Almighty and stand against the acquisitive minority” — in other words, to adopt Sharia and stand against Israel.
These are astounding statements for the president and his closest advisor to make. Indeed, they are downright seditious — it would be like the president of the United States questioning the viability of constitutional democracy. No one in the Iranian government — not even the most liberal reformists in parliament — has ever dared to overtly challenge the divine right of the supreme leader to run the country. But for Ahmadinejad, direct assaults on the velayat-e faqih have become a standard part of his rhetoric.
Consider, for example, Ahmadinejad’s much-maligned claims of being in direct communication with the Mahdi. Such statements are not the mad ravings of a religious fanatic — they are a public repudiation of the entire system upon which the Islamic Republic was built. After all, if a layperson like Ahmadinejad can directly consult with the Mahdi, then what use are the ayatollahs? And if the clerics are not the only ones with a direct line to the Mahdi, why have they been given political powers over the Mahdi’s government? As Mashaei put it, “Running a country is like a horse race, but the problem is that [the clerics] are not horse racers.”
Yes, “if a layperson like Ahmadinejad can directly consult with the Mahdi, then what use are the ayatollahs?” But this is not remotely the foundation for a secular regime — just possibly for a different kind of Islamic one.
Khamenei immediately grasped the challenge that Ahmadinejad and Mashaei’s statements represented for religious rule, issuing a fatwa announcing that he and only he represents the Mahdi. But despite the backlash from the clergy, Ahmadinejad has continued to use the president’s bully pulpit to push for a new ethos of “Persian nationalism” over Iran’s Islamic identity. He has called for an “Iranian Islam” that contrasts with the theocratic ideology pushed by the clerical regime — what some Iranians refer to derisively as “Arabism.”
It may contrast, but not in that it would not be theocratic itself. Aslan is trying to portray Ahmadinejad as some sort of clandestine secularist when he is clearly calling for what is just a different application of Islamic law.
Ahmadinejad has also broken a taboo among Iranian politicians by heaping praise on Cyrus the Great, the first and greatest king of the ancient Persian Empire. This nostalgia for Iran’s pre-Islamic past has led to strict warnings from Khamenei’s allies, with one conservative parliamentarian saying that the president “should be aware that he is obligated to promote Islam and not ancient Iran, and if he fails to fulfill his obligation, he will lose the support and trust of the Muslim nation of Iran.”
However, Ahmadinejad’s Persian nationalism has proven enormously popular in Iran. It has even led to a new political movement in the country, one which the clerical regime’s most fanatical supporters decry as a “deviant movement” and “a third pillar of sedition.” Ahmadinejad, for his part, has dismissed his critics as the kind of people who go “running to Qom [the religious capital of Iran] for every instruction.”
With this description, Ahmadinejad could be speaking of any of Iran’s presidential frontrunners. After all, the one thing that the top contenders to replace him have in common is their comical obeisance to the supreme leader. Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili recently argued that “those with the slightest disagreement with the supreme leader have no place in our discourse” and that “all our attention should be devoted to listening to what our leader wants.”
Such professions of mindless obedience seem to be the only way to secure the presidency in the coming election. Ali Akbar Velayati, another presidential frontrunner, has said that his greatest strength as president would be his willingness to unquestioningly obey whatever the supreme leader tells him to do: “I see this as a strong point…. I believe that having a person who has the last word and makes the final decision is in the country’s political interest.”
Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the brutish mayor of Tehran, has boasted about standing up for the supreme leader’s right to rule by personally bashing in the heads of student protesters who question it. “When it is necessary to come to the street and hit [the protesters] with batons I am there with a baton and I am proud of that,” he said.
In fact, none of the current presidential candidates, not even the moderate Hassan Rouhani, who, despite his brash criticisms of the “excesses” of the clerical regime is himself a mullah, seem too eager to carry Ahmadinejad’s mantle of anti-clericalism into their administrations.
Barring some major surprise, which Khamenei has done everything in his power to prevent, one of the three sycophants listed above will likely be the next president of Iran. That will also mark the end to Ahmadinejad’s unprecedented challenge to the guiding philosophy of the Islamic Republic. As clerical control over the Iranian government becomes more severe, those who blame the mullahs for everything wrong in Iran may one day come to miss the little man with the unkempt beard and rumpled jacket who dared defy the Mahdi’s representative on Earth.
His replacement will not be better than he was. But no, he will not be missed, except in Reza Aslan’s fascist little heart.