The most significant innovation—found in essays, sermons, books, and even fatwas—is the acceptance of the separation of mosque and state, the idea that religion must be limited to the private domain. Some of these thinkers refuse to afford any privileged position to the clergy’s reading and rendition of Shiism–a radical democratization of the faith. And others, like Akbar Ganji and Mostafa Malekian, have gone so far as to deny the divine origins of Koran, arguing that it is nothing but a historically specific and socially marked interpretation of a divine message by the prophet. The most daring are even opting for a historicized Muhammad, searching for the first time in Shia history for a real, not hagiographic, narrative of his life.
It seems to me that this drives home the political problem with a lot of the intellectual leaders aligned with the Green movement. Note how Milani describes these things. He refers to innovation and describes these moves as radical and daring, and almost seems to brag that these people are denying “the divine origins of Koran.” Even when we understand that this is not a denial of revelation, but rather a denial of the uncreated nature of the Qur’an, this is still a significant break with the religious teachings that most Twelver Iranians would accept. It is as if a group of liberation theologians tied to a movement of largely non-religious students were trying to appeal to a traditional Catholic population by rejecting papal authority and questioning the reality of the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth. This would probably not herald a transformation of Catholicism in that country, but would instead mark the beginning of the end of the movement in question.
Can you imagine anything less likely to appeal to most believers? Is there anything more useful to the regime than identifying leading thinkers of the Green movement with a highly liberalized form of Shi’ism? When a political protest movement has been able to tie its cause together with a people’s traditional religion, or at least when the movement does not appear to attack that religion openly, it tends to win far broader and deeper support. If it appears to challenge established claims of the religion as part of its “reform” project, it necessarily meets with stiffer resistance and wins less support. It opens itself up to charges of impiety and religious error, which the movement may not take seriously, but which a majority of the general population may be only too ready to believe. Instead of appropriating traditional religious language and ideas and turning them against the regime, these Green theological arguments distance the movement from the religion of the majority and they permit the regime to reclaim some of its lost authority.
If it is true that most adherents of the Green movement “are young Iranians with little or no religious motivation,” as Milani says*, the movement is probably far more culturally narrow than it needs to be to succeed. One of the greatest bulwarks against political change is the fear that traditional religion will be corrupted or lost as a result. Sometimes this fear is reasonable, and sometimes it is paranoid, but it is always a problem that political reformers have to contend with in societies that are still fairly religious. So long as the Green movement was appropriating the religious language and ideas of Shi’ism and the revolution, it had some small chance to undermine the government, but the more that it acquires the reputation of trying to transform Shi’ism the more limited it appeal will be. After all, these are not ideas that will unite diverse groups in common cause. They are quite obviously controversial and would likely divide political allies within the movement.
After all, why are clerics going to be inclined to support a movement when the latter’s intellectual spokesmen are making arguments that not only undermine the status of clerics, but also attack basic articles of faith? On this point, Dilip Haro’s recent article is relevant:
On the other hand, what the 1979 movement and the present one have in common is the idea of making political use of the Shi’ite religious days, the Islamic custom of commemorating a dead person on the 40th day of his or her demise, as well as of the martyr complex engrained among Shi’ites. It was Ayatollah Khomeini who pioneered such tactics. He consistently used the 40th day of mourning for the martyrs of the shah’s regime to draw ever bigger, ever more enthusiastic crowds in the streets, and used the holy month of Ramadan to charge the nation with revolutionary fervor.
The attempts of today’s opposition leaders to emulate Khomeini’s example have not succeeded, chiefly because their camp lacks a religious leader of his stature [bold mine-DL].
The “Greening” of Shi’ism Milani reports may be one of the worst developments that has happened in the last six months as far as the political success of the movement is concerned.
* It is worth noting here that if Milani’s statement were made by a skeptic of the Green movement, it would be written off as nothing more than arrogant dismissal.