Five Pillars of Political Islam
The enlightenment of Islamic Republicans

By Amir Khosrow Sheibany
Sept 30, 2001

We have all heard of the five pillars of Islamic faith. Listening to the reformist intellectuals like Soroush and Khatami, a sharp ear might hear the basis of 5 concepts that if allowed to flourish will constitute 5 pillars of the “new” reformed and enlightened (Islamic) Iran.

Cynics would say, that Souroush’s efforts are only to entrench his own sects “Islamic” and revolutionary interest in Iran for eternity. After all the Iranian regime, under the leadership of Soroush and Khatami, has driven out scholars who wouldn't toe the line, debauched admissions standards to favour pious mediocrities, and gutted curriculums to stuff them with Islamic theology that is about as useful to its students as endless readings from Marx and Engel’s were at Moscow University.

Pious and pragmatic Muslims would say Islam, as a political philosophy in the media age, could not (and should not) answer all the question facing a society that subscribes to it, and should stay in the private and spiritual realm. Else in the political sphere, an Islamic Republic becomes the poster child of a political philosophy that is intellectually bankrupt and damages Islam itself.

In any case, a comparison between the 5 pillars of the reformed and enlightened "Islamic" Iranians, as presented by Soroush, with the two other bankrupt political ideologies of the last century might give an insight into the inner most thought process of Islamic (Republic) reformers and intellectuals.

The first pillar is the enthronement of power in an executive with ultimately mystical justifications for its rule. Whether the executive is singular, as with the Nazis, or plural, as in the USSR after Stalin and Iran after Khomeini, is irrelevant. The justification for its rule is some set of propositions, be they Marxist theory, Nazi mythology, or Islamic theology, that are by their nature not subject to empirical verification or falsification. In contrast, a democratic leader claims to rule because he enjoys the support of the people, and a monarch because he is the heir of the dynasty, both verifiable facts that can potentially be disproved.

The second pillar is the invention of fundamental truth. The proclamation that the regime embodies the absolute good as such, and that its ideology is the only possible fundamental truth. The ideology is hermetic, and anyone who doesn't believe it, doesn't not simply because they are mistaken, but because they are a bad person: a non-Aryan, a bourgeois, an infidel. All totalitarian states claim their ideology is world-applicable and gives them the right to subdue others. Iran has tried to export its ideology to other Moslem countries, but with the exception of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, whose loyalty is bought with a gravy train of guns, it has failed. It has tried to weld together Moslem fundamentalists in other countries into a worldwide fundamentalist movement, but as Stalin found with Tito and Mao, totalitarian ideologies make weak glue. Iran does not even get along with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is the Sunni version of the same ideology and was attempting to establish the same "Ummah" through different means..

The third pillar is war and terror. War follows from the demand to export ideology. It provides the excuse to regiment society to the degree totalitarianism requires. It enables the regime to equate loyalty to the nation with obedience to the regime. It justifies the regime's inevitable failure to deliver on its promised domestic agenda. Iran did not start the Iran-Iraq war, but it, together with Saddam Hussein, endlessly prolonged it past several opportunities to disengage. Terror, another kind of war, has taken the form of what are called "chain assassinations" of dissident intellectuals and other opposition figures. Those who are not killed are jailed are exiled. Iran has a plethora of bodies exercising terror, including the Islamic Guard Corps, the Ministry of Information, and the Secret Police.

The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini articulated this more concisely in 1984: "If one allows the infidels to continue playing their role of corrupters on Earth, their eventual moral punishment will be all the stronger. Thus, if we kill the infidels in order to put a stop to their [corrupting] activities, we have indeed done them a service. For their eventual punishment will be less. To allow the infidels to stay alive, means to let them do more corrupting. [To kill them] is a surgical operation commanded by Allah the Creator... . Those who follow the rules of the Koran are aware that we have to apply the laws of qissas [retribution] and that we have to kill… . War is a blessing for the world and for every nation. It is Allah himself who commands men to wage war and to kill."

The fourth pillar is the attempt to milk democratic legitimacy without actually sharing any power. Naturally, this is impossible, but the totalitarian mind always believes that force can square the circle. Democracy is such a strong idea that even totalitarian states must somehow at least co-opt the democratic impulse. It is little known, but the Soviet Union had regular and meaningless elections. The entire Nazi state was legally based on the Enabling Law passed by the democratically-elected Reichstag in 1933. The mullahs have always allowed a certain amount of democracy, which they would like to be the sheep-like expression of agreement by a docile populace. Because the have not been able to actually abolish these elections (no emergency law passed yet), they end up getting the most liberal minded selected official being elected each time. And that being despite the fact that the elected official lacks sufficient power (and any will it seems) to make anything serious of his nominal position.

The fifth pillar is control of the economy. The Soviets were communist, the Nazis had private ownership with state control, and Iran has heavily interventionist crony capitalism, plus an odd grab-bag of specifically Islamic economic regulations, such as pertain to the employment of women and the charging of interest. Everyone who makes serious money there makes it because of a relationship with the state. Per-capita GNP is less than half what it was under the Shah, despite having had 23 years of OPEC oil income to grow (the Shah’s regime had OPEC oil income for only 4 years). A truly independent economic sector that can oppose and defy government power, as in the US, has not been permitted. Control of the economy also includes the pseudo-mobilization of the poor. The mullahs took power with vast promises to the poor of their country (such as free water & electricity), and in the first years of the revolution could use the mob as a battering ram against anything that stood in their way. They have, of course, never delivered on these promises. Hitler and Lenin did similar things, even if people forget the heavy proletarian emphasis of early Nazism.


Fundamentalist Iran, and those now known as intellectual reformers, have failed at the one fundamental task that any form of society must fulfil if it is to endure: it must produce a subsequent generation willing to continue it. Democracies usually do, benevolent dictatorships some times do also. The mullahs have not only been unable to secure the loyalty of Iranian youth to their ideals, a great many hate even the religion and choices of their grand parents which were innocent and benevolent.

Today's generation of young Iranians, myself included, will soon make up 75% of the Iranian population. What are our aspirations? Where do we want to go from here? The reformist seem to believe we, the Iranian people, exist to give them positions and titles in our society. I believe they only ever existed to secure our freedom. A national referendum under international observation will answer these questions and more. In the meantime a new battering ram is being born, literally and in real-time, to deal with anything that stands in our way.

Realist have repeatedly said that the clergy would never, ever, accept a national referendum that will put their regimes existence under question. That only two weeks after Mohammad Reza Shah declared intention of a move to a multiparty system in August 1978, mass demonstrations and strikes erupted and set a course for an irreversible downward phase for the secular regime. 

Indeed they may be correct. However polarization around a national referendum under international observation is a means to avoid the mistakes of the past. This platform permits dialogue between (secular) political foes and is thus a unifying force that can facilitate the clergy’s demise. It also sets the stage for the rules of engagement after the clergy are out of power, thus preventing a free for all grab for power, a repeat of 1979, that this time might lead to civil war and national disintegration. As for exactly how the referendum would come about, well short of the regime handing the reigns of power to the dissidents, we are going to have some sort of turmoil and we should do all in our power to prevent bloodshed in changing the regime. And just how is the change in regime supposed to come about?

Well the demise of every despotic regime is preceded by a state of general exhaustion and takes place against a background of unleashed aggressiveness that we are witnessing today. Authority cannot put up with a nation that gets on its nerves; the nation cannot tolerate an authority it has come to hate. Authority has squandered all its credibility and has empty hands (Khatami post 23rd celebrations of IRI), the nation has lost the final scrap of patience and makes a fist. A climate of tension and increasing oppressiveness prevails. We start to fall into a psychosis of terror. The discharge is coming. We feel it.

It is authority that provokes a revolutionary mind set. Certainly it does not do so consciously. Yet the style of life, it's good cop/bad cop way of ruling finally become a provocation. This occurs when a feeling of impunity takes root among the elite, be they conservative or reformers. We have a 70% mandate to do anything, we can do anything. This is a delusion, but it rests on a certain rational foundation. For a while it does indeed look as if the reformist can do whatever they want. Scandal after scandal and illegality after illegality go unpunished. The people remain silent, patient, wary. They are afraid and do not yet feel their own strength. At the same time they keep a detailed account of the wrongs, which at one particular moment are to be added up. That moment may well be a riddle of history. Why this day and not another? But the call for civility that was ignored, the call for a national referendum that accepts the reformers supremacy should they get the votes, will surely be the worst mistake, the final betrayal that could have been made.

Do our reformist friends think they can implement good deeds without the blessing of their own suffocating people? Do they think they can defer a national referendum, or re-direct it in their favour, by hiding behind the "Supreme" leaders rejection of it?

As with all dictatorships, when the power is removed, all that was forced on people, institutions, thoughts, fashions (current flag included) will collapse. As Hafez put it "In golden letters 'tis written in a crystalline sky: Good deeds will live, all else will die".


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