Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A very important point in my understanding of religion and its history

Over there at MEDIEV-L, we were discussing Islam, and someone mentioned Karen Armstrong, the prominent writer on religious issues. This clause was a side remark in a long argument:

...the question is not who armstrong thinks is a "real representative" of a religion that is not hers ...
And that impelled me to say this:
And for me that opens up another question: even if the religion is yours, do you get to say who is the real representative of that religion? You may think you are an X, and that all Xs believe such and such, and Y is the best representative that belief or practice, but somebody else somewhere in time and space has an equally strong contrary belief about what Xs say and do and believe, with plenty of evidence to back themselves up. If we are talking as historians and scholars, both persons' claims are ahistorical. What would be objectively verifiable is that there are certain tendencies and disagreements within religion X, and that any definition of religion X includes and excludes people who may or may not think of themselves as X.
Reader, if you care about what I have learned in decades of historical studies, this is one of the most important things.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rafsanjani's Friday sermon in Tehran: the flexibility of religion and ideology

Juan Cole published this morning a meaty analysis of Friday's sermon in Tehran by former Iranian president Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani in my view is a smart opportunist, not a radical, but the kind of guy who always survives the revolution and makes billions in the process (he is in fact now a billionaire). His position as successful profiteer and governmental insider puts him in a difficult position. Whatever may be the totality of his motivations may be, he certainly does not want the Islamic Republic to blow up. Thus he argues for an interpretation of the revolution of 1979 that will allow for compromise and unity between the angry reformists and the intransigent hardliners. Juan Cole explains the religious theories involved (the complete post is here):

The reform movement and its allies among pragmatic conservatives have developed a narrative about Khomeinist Iran. They allege that it is ultimately democratic, and that the will of the people is paramount. It is popular sovereignty that authorizes political change and greater political and cultural openness. Precisely because democracy and popular sovereignty are the key values for this movement, the alleged stealing of the June 12 presidential elections by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for his candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is intolerable. A crime has been committed, in their eyes. A social contract has been violated. The will of the people has been thwarted.

The hard liners hold a competing and incompatible view of the meaning of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. They discount the element of elections, democracy and popular sovereignty. They view these procedures and institutions as little more than window-dressing. True power and authority lies with the Supreme Leader... in this view ... a kind of philosopher-king, who can overrule the people at will. The hard liners do not believe that the election was stolen. But they probably cannot get very excited about the election in the first place. Khamenei and his power and his appointments and his ability to intervene to disqualify candidates, close newspapers, and overrule parliament are what is important. From a hard line point of view, the election is what Khamenei says it is and therefore cannot be stolen.

Rafsanjani desired in his sermon to lay a Khomeinist foundation for the more democratic view. He began by underlining his own role in the revolution and the establishment of the Republic, and his position as a witness to the values of Khomeini. He said Khomeini discouraged the anti-Shah activists of the 1960s and 1970s from terrorism. Instead, he urged a direct appeal to the people in their villages and mosques, and responsiveness to their desires. He represents Khomeini as saying, if the people are with us, we have everything.

Rafsanjani is saying that the 1978-79 revolution was not Leninist. It was not the work of a small vanguard of activists. It was broad and popular and therefore inevitably, he implies, had something of a democratic character.

The authoritarian view of governance in Shiite Islam is anchored by Misbah-Yazdi and his ilk in the theory of the Imamate. Shites believe that the Prophet Muhammad was both temporal ruler and divinely inspired prophet. After him, his relatives also exercised both functions. His son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, is held by Shiites to be the first Imam, the divinely-appointed vicar of the Prophet. But Rafsanjani quotes a Shiite text showing that the Prophet Muhammad said that even Ali could only rule the people with their consent, and without it he should not try. Rafsanjani is reimagining the Imamate not as infallible divine figures succeeding an infallible prophet, but rather as an institution depending on an interaction between God's appointee and the people he is intended to shepherd.

Another piece of evidence for the popular character of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani says, is Khomeini's own haste to establish lay, elected institutions and to implement a republican constitution. He maintains that Khomeini actually strengthened some of the popular institutions when he made suggestions for revision of the draft constitution. Even having a constitution is a bow to popular sovereignty, he implies, and he contrasts the haste with which revolutionary Iran established a rule of law and popular input into government with the slowness of these processes in countries such as Algeria.

... But Rafsanjani's point is that even the Supreme Leader, whom some see as a theocratic dictator, derives his position from the operation of popular sovereignty.
Note that Rafsanjani's theory of the Islamic Revolution, like that of many reformers, is democratic without being seculer. It is a theory that grows out of Islam and the Iranian Shi'ite tradition, or at least is being reconciled with that tradition. Ditto for the hardline position. Despite the sweeping innovations brought in by Khomenei, specifically clerical rule and the idea that there can be a Supreme religious Leader in the here-and-now, important foundation stones for the hardline view are identified by its followers with the oldest manifestations of Islam and the Shi'ite traditions of the leadership of the family of Ali (and of the Prophet).

If have not picked a side in this quarrel and adopted a religious, Islamic justification for your position, it is hard to say that either of these positions is "more authentic." Both positions have evolved over the last 30 years, and especially the past couple of months. It might be very hard for a learned Iranian Shi'ite of 200 years ago to recognize either as Shi'ism. Note what Juan Cole says about Rafsanjani's presentation, which he backed up with his authority as an eyewitness to the Revolution, the foundation of the Islamic Republic and the role of Khomeini in both:

So is what Rafsanjani is saying about Khomeini and Khomeinism true? Probably only partially. Khomeini is notorious for having rejected popular sovereignty as a principle. But he did put an elected president and parliament into the constitution, and he surely knew what would follow.
One might say that Rafsanjani, the Iranian Thermidorian, is making it up as he goes along. On the other hand, who knows what Khomeini might say today?

The whole situation reminds me of an insight I had nearly two decades ago, when I was reading a short history of world Buddhism. As I went through the book I realized that somewhere, sometime, just about any religious position you could imagine had been defined by somebody as "true Buddhism." I think this dawned on me when I found out that one influential Buddhist had said that true Buddhism meant that no one should be a monk and everyone should get married.

Thinking about this situation, I eventually came to the conclusion that the inherent variety of human experience and dispositions means that any religious tradition that has any degree of success in recruiting and maintaining itself over time has to contain contradictory elements, and be open to new interpretations. Otherwise it will become completely irrelevant and die out.

This further means that the kind of wild and careless generalizations that are often made about religion and culture and their consequences for today, -- e.g. what political structures will result from Confucian or Roman Catholic or Mormon traditions -- should be treated with the utmost suspicion. (Phil Paine has written about this recently.) A very particular instance is Iran today. A week's diligent reading will tell you quite a bit about what Iranian Shi'ites have valued in the past. Faced, however, with a live Iranian Shi'ite, you or I or Juan Cole will not know what she or he thinks, unless we ask. And even then, what that means for his or her future actions will remain to be seen. As Charles Kurzman might say, when life is no longer going along its routine groove, who knows what will happen next, what you will do next? You make it up as you go along, using existing materials in whatever way seems possible or necessary.

Image: Rafsanjani, photo from Wikipedia.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

The Dead Sea Scrolls come to Toronto


Next year -- specifically from June 27, 2009 until Jan. 3, 2010 -- the Royal Ontario Museum will have a spectacular exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For details see this CBC article.

Image: The Book of Isaiah on display in Jerusalem.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Religion and politics today


In the Ancient Civilizations this week we talked about the close relationship between religion and politics in the earliest records of the Middle East. Someone quite rightly pointed out that religion and politics often go together now. So of course for the next few days religion and politics met my eye every time I looked at the Web. Here are two recent news items and a slightly older one I hadn't got around to.

According to this BBC story, Pope Benedict has refused to receive US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in person because, among other things, she was the point person who publicly rejected Pope John Paul's concerns about US policy on Iraq in 2003. A few well-informed commentators recalled to mind an occasion when Joseph Stalin brushed off papal concerns with the scornful question, "How many divisions does he have?" The point being of course that Stalin and his Soviet Union are gone, while the papacy is still here.

Then there is the piece that a friend of mine alerted me to last month, about continuing Chinese efforts to suppress Tibetan identity. The Dalai Lama in exile is the heart and soul of Tibetan resistance so (according to Newsweek):

In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation." By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, whose soul, by tradition, is reborn as a new human to continue the work of relieving suffering.
"Absurd?" "Traditional" might be a better word. When you're talking about "absurd" and "history," you've got a lot to choose from -- especially when the subject is official reasons why you should shut up and do what you are told. The raising and toppling of monuments to former god-kings doesn't seem so far out by comparison, does it?

This last item, about the "House of Wisdom," gives me the creeps:

The U.S. military has introduced "religious enlightenment" and other education programs for Iraqi detainees, some of whom are as young as 11, Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, the commander of U.S. detention facilities in Iraq, said yesterday.

Stone said such efforts, aimed mainly at Iraqis who have been held for more than a year, are intended to "bend them back to our will" and are part of waging war in what he called "the battlefield of the mind." Most of the younger detainees are held in a facility that the military calls the "House of Wisdom."

The religious courses are led by Muslim clerics who "teach out of a moderate doctrine," Stone said, according to the transcript of a conference call he held from Baghdad with a group of defense bloggers. Such schooling "tears apart" the arguments of al-Qaeda, such as "Let's kill innocents," and helps to "bring some of the edge off" the detainees, he said.

Now normally I'd be happy to hear that Muslim moderates were engaging with young jihadis to talk some sense into them, and once upon a time the idea of a school for that purpose might have struck me as a positive development. That was before the setting up of the prison at Guantanamo and before the US military took over Saddam Hussein's torture chambers at Abu Ghraib. I have to be deeply suspicious of an institution meant to "bend them back to our will," (whose will, exactly?) and which has appropriated the name of a long-ago Baghdadi religious school to do so. What does this "battlefield of the mind" look like, anyway? What will we know about it in 20 years that we don't know now?

What do you think?

"We're busting them down, we're making whole moderate compounds that didn't exist before."

Stone described a sort of religious insurgency that occurred at one detention facility on Sept. 2. "We had a compound of moderates for the first time overtake . . . extremists. It's never happened before. Found them, identified them, threw them up against the fence and shaved their frickin' beards off of them. . . . I mean, that is historic."

Gotta love that "religious enlightenment."

Image: A poster for the movie 300. I feel an inexorable pressure to see this flick.

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