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Bases of the Authority & Legitimacy of a Political System

This is a lecture deliverd in the "Green Path" Seminar in Washington University in Seattle on Oct 3rd, 2009


In the name of God, who bestowed upon us freedom and enlightenment.

My greetings and peace to all of you who love freedom and who, despite being away from home and living here in tranquility and peace, find your hearts and minds with your fellow countrymen in Iran who are living under oppression.

The bitterness of the violent aftermath of the Iranian presidential election was also accompanied by the sweetness of a national unity which has created a bond between the people, as if everyone belongs to one family. This bond is invaluable and more precious than the income we get from oil. Without the cement that glues the bricks together, you could pile thousands of bricks on top of each other, but they would fall apart. The tears shed for Neda were more valuable than diamonds; there is no price of those freedom fighters who give an identity to a nation.

The martyrs, injured, prisoners, and those who were freed gave us an identity, national and international recognition, and they gave us a gift that has a heavenly price.
Our nation has learned two important and invaluable lessons through this green path movement, and we want to declare them to the world:

1- National and political dimension
The vast majority of Iranians have nothing in common with this government and the current regime. They do not share its vision or outlook for the future and absolutely do not recognize this government as their legitimate representative.

2- Religious dimension
This government has nothing in common with or any relationship to Islam, despite its claim and effort to use religion to defend its legitimacy. The concept of “velayet-e faqih” (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists) introduced by Mr. Khomeini after 14 centuries is a heretical concept and in clear contradiction to the fundamental pillars of Islam. Additionally, many religious scholars and jurists have objected to the policies and tactics of this government, providing another proof of the illegitimacy of this regime.

There is really no need to prove these two dimensions since from the national dimension the silent protests and presence of millions of people on the streets of Iran attest to the people’s discontent. The fact that these protests have continued three months later, despite many arrests, tortures, crushing of silent protests, and killings only reinforces their distrust in the current government. And fro the religious dimension a regime that, for its survival, violates basic human ethics, basic human rights, and then resorts to shedding the blood of its own people – whose only crime was demanding their votes be counted – absolutely has no ethical or moral legitimacy. However, since some may remain unconvinced of the illegitimacy of this government, I was asked to speak about the fundamental legitimacy of a system or a government.

For those who do not believe in religion the legitimacy of a system is meaningless and the only way for a system to be legitimate is through a democratic system. However, since the government of Iran claims that its system is based upon the principle of Islam, I would like to elaborate for a few minutes on this topic.

The root of the problem of our society in Iran in general and the reason behind the recent issue related to the election in particular emanates from the fact that there are two different views about the basis of the legitimacy of a system. Those who believe in the Absolute Ruling of the Jurisprudents they link it to the person and the leader and those who believe in a government by the people they link it to the democratic system and the majority rules.

This is an issue that people have been dealing with for over a hundred years in Iran, since the constitutional movement: whether the government and politics are part of the religion or a social matter?

During the constitutional movement, intellectuals, informed people, as well as many religious scholars and famous jurists such as Akhund Khorasani, Allameh Naiini, Behbahani, Seyyed Mohammad Tabatabi, and Seyyed Hassan Ashtiani, believed and supported a type of system and government based on people's right of self-determination. On the other hand, there were other religious jurists such as Sheikh Fazlollah Noori and Seyyed Kazem Yazdi who supported the monarchist system of Gajar based on religious reasons.

Ultimately in the constitutional movement, those who believed and supported the democratic concepts and people's right to self-determination and a parliamentary system won, and they executed Sheikh Fazlollah Noori due to his support of the Qajar's totalitarian system that had killed many people. Can we hope that after 100 years, to support once again freedom and democracy over the rule dictators and a totalitarian regime?

The problem with Iran’s society and constitution today is an unbalanced and illogical mixture of theocracy and democracy. This mixture has caused contradictory approaches to various issues and regulations, and as a result it has created problems in international relations and stumbling blocks to people's religious beliefs.

The key question Iran needs to answer today is whether the government should be based on religion or on the people's democratic demands? Is it a heavenly matter or worldly matter? Should it be based on what God wants or based on the people’s will? The answer is very clear for those who believe religion should be separate from government and politics, but since political and social issues in the Islamic Republic are evaluated against religious rules and regulations, it is important to look at this question with the same balanced perspective.

Let's look at this question from three angles:

  • Quranic Aspect (as a foundation of Islam)

  • Prophet’s Tradition (as a practical approach)

  • Tradition of some political figures and elite (as a political approach)

Below we will discuss some examples from each category:

A) Quranic Aspect (as a foundation of Islam)

The acceptable and legitimate system of government recommended in the Quran is a system based on consultation. There is even a chapter in the Holy Book with this name. In this chapter, we read this verse: “The affairs be managed based on consultation and consensus.” The Holy Book of Quran, written 1400 years ago in the tribal system of Arabia (not in the ancient city of Athens) commands the Prophet Mohammed to consult with the people in their social affairs and issues. For their own benefit, the prophet had to consult with the people who were living in a tribal system and Bedouin life.

Chapter Women Verse 58 “All national budgets, wealth, posts and positions should be given to people who are the most qualified and the foundation of the system and government should be based on justice.”

In Chapter Naml (Ant), the Quran describes in positive terms a government led by a woman. The woman who worships the Sun and Quran approves her leadership through her consultation in the affairs of her kingdom. The Quran commends her wise and peaceful approach over the people and forces under her who had only known force and illogical approaches.

B) Prophet’s Tradition (as a practical approach)

The Prophet of Islam had two roles, religious and political. In his the religious role, the Prophet of Islam, like any other prophet, did not need to consult with people on moral and ethical guidelines. His duty was to announce God's commands and religious guidelines to the people and leave it to them to accept or reject the religion and be faithful or unfaithful to God. However in the social and political role as a leader of the society, he would ask people's opinion on public affairs such as wars or other social issues and then proceed based on the majority rule.

The Prophet of Islam had divided people’s affair into two categories:
Religious matters
Social matters
Each of these categories was independent of the other. Religious matters were only between the people and God, based on their full understanding and submission to God. On the other hand, social matters were among the people themselves and should be based on consultation and consensus.

In summary, the Prophet’s role in religious matters was like a transmitter, conveying the message of God to the people. In social matters he acted like a receiver, listening to the people’s feedback and bringing ideas together to come to a consensus based on the majority rule. He acted based on theocracy in religious issues and acted based on democracy in social issues. His prophetic mission was from God, but his leadership was based on what the people of Medina wanted.

C) Tradition of some political figures and elite (as a political approach)

The historical and political life and destiny of the Islamic nations followed a trend opposite the patterns of the Western world. The Western world has moved from theocracy toward democracy while Islamic societies and nations have moved from the democratic system started 1400 years ago toward a type of theocracy that is very superficial, shallow and largely contradictory to Islam.

Democracy in early Islamic society lasted for only forty years:

  • 10 years of the Prophet’s life in Medina

  • 25 years of his successors who were elected by the people of the time

  • 5 years of Imam Ali’s government that was based on consultation and public endorsements

After these 40 years, the political scene of the Islamic nation changed with the establishment of Bani Omayyeh dynasty for 83 years, Bani Abbas to up until the fourth century and then the Ottoman Empire until its demise.  Throughout these periods the rulers of the time tried to portray their system as Islamic and based on the Prophet’s tradition, yet their hypocrisy caused friction and harm both to the people and Islamic societies.