Despite their conservatism, Qom’s pilgrims seemed motivated not by passion for Ahmadinejad—I never heard anyone say his name, though the “Leader” Ali Khamenei was mentioned repeatedly over outdoor loudspeakers—but by a total denial of politics, and a preference for something much simpler. In Tehran the previous week, I’d heard many rumors about protests, violence, provocation. Here I saw no sign of disloyalty to the government (save one: on a campaign bumper sticker with a picture of Ahmadinejad next to the slogan Man of the People, someone had scraped out his eyes and cheeks). Instead, I felt the opposite of the idealistic flurries of this summer’s protests—the happy docility of a one-party state. ~Graeme Wood
This prompts Andrew to refer to “the real Islam” and to praise Qom’s inhabitants for their quietism:
Or rather, surely, the indifference to politics that true faith evokes.
I don’t think this is true. Faith may inspire an indifference, or even hostility, to personal aggrandizement and acquisition of power, but it is a fairly narrow definition of political life if we reduce it simply to matters concerning the government apparatus and its levers of control. Viewed most broadly, political life is the life of the community, and this typically includes the social practice of religion in a number of ways. Indeed, in an authoritarian state where conventional political participation is strictly controlled and limited, religious devotion is an important means of using public space, freely associating with others in an approved setting, and engaging in a parallel political life at least partly separate from and alongside the one acceptable to the regime. Because religion can appeal to higher authorities than the state, it can never be fully controlled. More than that, it imposes a limit on what the state can get away with doing even as it provides the state with justifications for its continued hold on power. Religious authorities and believers will often be strong supports for the government under normal circumstances, but when they determine that the government has lost legitimacy or violated religious principles (as they understand these principles) not even a centuries-long tradition of political quietism will protect the government from their attacks and opposition. In other words, whatever “indifference” there is to what the government is doing, it is conditional and can end suddenly.
Religious people who are political quietists will remain that way as long as their religion is not perceived to be under threat. What Andrew misses here is that the people he calls Christianists were political quietists for decades until they began to find the political and cultural changes going on around them seemed to threaten them and their religion. That is, they were “indifferent” to politics because they believed that the government and other major institutions largely left them to their own devices and did not bother them, which made withdrawal from the world seem like the right course of action. One reason why a self-consciously liberalizing “Green theology” would be such a disaster for the Green movement, as I have said before, is that it would provoke fierce resistance from all of these quietists who have so far effectively remained neutral in the internal political contest in Iran. They are unlikely to rally to the side of the protesters in any event, but they could very easily angrily turn against them if they appeared to threaten traditional religion.
When Wood describes the “total denial of politics,” he is describing detachment from the kind of political activity that seeks to control or change existing institutions. Quietists accept that they are not going to change or control existing institutions, and so they come to accept these institutions as they are. They are even more likely to accept these institutions if they remain convinced that the institutions are under the control of legitimate and religiously-guided authorities. It is only when they think that unbelievers and the impious have gained control of the state that such quietists are going to be stirred to direct engagement in conventional political activism.