On the State of Shia Civil Society

The Shia universe of discourse is now the site of the entire Muslim world’s most interesting and thorough debates about Islam’s relationship with democracy and economic growth, and indeed about Islam’s situation vis-à-vis modernity. In heavily Shia Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, popular political discourse and debate are far more concerned with modernity and democracy than is the case in Sunni-dominated countries.

The Shia, in other words, are both an objective and a subjective democratic force. Their rise in relative power is injecting a robust element of real pluralism into the too-often Sunni-dominated political life of the Muslim world, and many Shias are also fmding democracy appealing as an idea in itself, not merely as an episodically useful vehicle for their power and ambitions.

In Iran, the theocratic character of the Islamic Republic obscures the reality that electoral considerations play an important role in politics. Since the Shah’s fall in 1979, there have been nine presidential and seven parliamentary elections. Although the elections are open only to candidates approved by the clerical leadership, the campaigning and voting are taken seriously by the population. In 1997 a reformist cleric, Muhammad Khatami, won the election in a landslide after the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, openly endorsed Khatami’s conservative opponent. Iran is the only country in the Middle East where a former head of state has stepped down from power at the end of his constitutionally mandated term of office and continues to live peacefully in his own home. The undeniable and serious flaws in their country’s electoral process have not prevented Iranians from learning about democratic practices and internalizing democracy-friendly values. Indeed, the debate over democracy has been near the heart of Iranian politics for a decade now….

Also in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s 1980s “oracle,” Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, has over the past decade taken a more moderate tack. He has distanced himself from the Khomeini legacy and now argues that no Shia religious leader, not even Khomeini and definitely not his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, has a monopoly on the truth. Like all other believers, says Fadlallah, leaders are fallible and open to criticism. Fadlallah has also deviated from Hezbollah and Iran’s positions on a host of other social issues, including the role of women in society and politics. He first endorsed Sistani, rather than Khamenei, as the source of emulation for Shias in matters of religion, and then claimed that role for himself.

For the past decade Fadlallah has been holding meetings once a month at the mosque attached to the shrine of Zaynab in Damascus. Shias from Lebanon, Iraq, and especially Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—many with secular leanings—go to these sessions. Fadlallah combines progressive social views with anti-American rhetoric and criticism of Iranian and Hezbollah theocracy. Iran’s regime has bitterly denounced him, and some of the attacks emanating from Qom, Iran’s religious capital, have caustically questioned his religious credentials. Fadlallah’s case, along with those of Montazeri and his fellow Iranian reformists, highlights how much things have changed since Khomeini’s death and reveals how strongly the debate over ideology, politics, democracy, and reform has gripped the Shia world.

SOURCE: The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, by Vali Nasr (W. W. Norton, 2006), pp. 179-182

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