On Christopher Hitchens, Vilaayat-e-Faqih, Iran, Bahrain, Israel and Islamophobia

This post is a development of a discussion I had on the Facebook page ONEMANKIND regarding a video in which the late “anti-theist” Christopher Hitchens discusses Iran, I’m posting a version of it on my blog because:

(a) it provides a timely opportunity to state my position on the Islamic Republic of Iran outside of the current shrill debate about nuclear weapons, and;

(b) it introduces to my blog discussion of theism, atheism, neo-atheism and anti-theism.

With regard to point (b) I should clarify that I am a theist who worships in the liberal Anglo-Catholic tradition, of partly Jewish ancestry, with a lifetime’s professional and academic engagement with the Arabic-speaking and Islamic worlds.

Although I describe myself as a “theist” my theism is of the apophatic variety, and I am accordingly deeply suspicious of dogmatic approaches to religion. I thus welcome informed debate with atheists, agnostics and anti-theists so long as such discussion makes a serious attempt to reach out beyond the rather sterile theist-atheist “debate” we find in the mass media.

I am also reasonably well-read in the mystical traditions of Christianity (the Medieval West, Orthodoxy), Judaism (particularly bin Lauria) and Islam (Sufism, Shia mysticism), and see honest, informed and open trialogue as an important aspect of building open, civil societies in a transforming Middle East, and enhancing and protecting open, civil society in the West.

Anyway, regarding my FB discussion on Iran-Hitchens, ONEMANKIND describes itself as:

“…a forum devoted to discussion of issues of politics, religion, economics and anything else, that are of concern to all humans…”


The Hitchens video is here:

Firstly, for a figure who was lauded as a major public intellectual, it strikes me how poor Hitchens’ knowledge is on subjects on which spoke with an aura of expertise.

One of the things I disliked about Hitchens was the ways in which he used discussion of theism, atheism and “anti-theism” as a Trojan horse to try to persuade liberal and left-ish audiences of the merits of neo-conish, interventionist policies, particularly in the Middle East. This video provides a good example of this.

Likewise, although Hitchens was consistently “anti-theist” on all religions and did indeed take on the vociferous fundamentalists of the Christian populist hard-right in the USA, he seemed remarkably dumb, or uncaring, about the social consequences of some of his arguments.

This is particularly true of the UK, where many of his “anti-theist” arguments concerning Islam and Muslims were recycled in Islamophobic discourse, which in turn fed into hate-speak.

Hitchens of course contested the validity of the concept of “Islamophobia”. While I do no agree with him on this, I welcome informed discussion of the grounds on which the concept of Islamophobia stands. (My personal position is that it and anti-Semitism are different manifestations of one underlying kind of hatred.) What disturbed me about Hitchens, however, was how frequently would come close to crossing the line between open intellectual debate and the peddling of stereotypes.

Turning to Hitchens on Iran, I’ll not waste time nit-picking the video word by word, but will offer a couple of examples about ways in which he would offer opinion as fact, and recycle stereotype as objective opinion.

In his discussion of “vilaayat-e-faqih” Hitchens claims that “vilaayat” means “paternal authority”, and that the concept of vilaayat-e-fiqih was adopted from legal discourse about the guardianship of “children and the mentally ill”, and extended to apply to the whole of Iranian society in a paternal and patronizing way as if Iranians were regarded as moral incompetents who would be lost without the guardianship of religious scholars (“the mullahs”) for which they should be grateful.

In fact, the Arabic word “wilaayat” and its Persianate form “vilaayat” has, in the context of politics, the meaning “sovereignty” or “governance” and this usage has been established for several hundred years.

True, “wilaayat” can in other contexts refer to “paternal authority” and associated concepts, but its use in politics was well attested long before Khomeini was born.

We see something similar in English, where a “bill” can be (a) the draft of a law proposed for discussion in Parliament, (b) a banknote”, (c) a bill of sale, or (d) an invoice. At the level of deep etymology, the four concepts are related, but in day-to-day use the four different meanings are context dependent.

Hitchens presents a distorted etymology for “vilaayat-e-faqih” in order to dress up political point-scoring and present it as learned discussion. Intellectually, this is dishonest.

In fact, the concept of “vilaayat-e-faqih” predates the Iranian revolution by 900-odd years, originating with the Shia scholar Al Mufid (948-1022). The concept was extended in Khomeini’s eponymous 1970 book which became the ideological foundation for the current governing structure in Iran, but the extension concerned the competence of Islamic jurists to legislate over matters of state, whereas traditionally, their competence was limited to areas such as family law, inheritance and ritual.

This is an extension of the concept, but not an extension from the care “of children and the mentally ill” to the whole of government, as Hitchens claims.

I make this point not because I am a supporter of “vilaayat-e-faqih” or of the current regime in Iran. I am a secularist in the sense that I advocate a separation between the religious and the political realms, therefore I support neither.

Rather, I make this point because I believe that if we are to talk about serious subjects that affect people’s lives (and may even be used as justifications for war and invasions) we have a moral and intellectual duty to use terms and concepts as accurately as possible. This wouldn’t matter so much if Hitchens was regarded simply as a polemicist. But (wrongly in my view) he was promoted consistently as a major public intellectual. If this is the case, his pronouncements should be subject to academic standards of accuracy.

Likewise, Hitchens puts great weight on his assertion that Iran’s demographic bulge with nearly 50% of the population under 25 is a result of “the mullahs'” promotion of financial incentives to breed to make up the population lost during the Iran-Iraq war, which Hitchens puts at 1,000,000. For this would be true he would need to:

* establish the Iranian death-toll from that war was that high
* cite specific information on the incentives he mentions
* establish that these incentives were effective
* demonstrate there are no other demographic factors involved

Of course, he does none of this. In fact, the population imbalance in which 40-50% of a country is under 25 is region-wide phenomenon occurring across the MENA region from Morocco to Afghanistan, and is due to a highly set of complex causes that still require investigation. It is a serious development issue, and cheapening discussion of it so that it is presented simply as some sort of evil plot of “the mullahs” in Iran helps nobody, and only serves to feed stereotypes and prejudices.

Hitchens’ comment on Bahrain at 8′:50″ is deeply misinformed, and his claim that Iran would invade the “Sunni state” of Bahrain as Iraq invaded Kuwait is historically and politically illiterate. In fact serves to enable the kinds of human rights abuses in Bahrain that Hitchens complains about in Iran. In fact, Bahrain is a Shia-majority island ruled by an autocratic Sunni ruling family. Bahrain has a deep crisis of political legitimacy: political parties are banned, and Bahrain’s unelected Prime Minister is the uncle of the King and has been in power since the British granted Bahrain “independence” in 1971.

Iran’s claim over Bahrain dates from 1953 on the basis that Bahrain was for several centuries part of the Persian Safavid Empire, but was dropped in 1970 when it was recognized that the vast majority of Bahrainis did not want union with Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran has not renewed the claim over Bahrain, although the matter is occasionally brought up by individual Iranian politicians. Unlike Iraq and Kuwait, Iran does not have a land border with Bahrain, and lacks the capacity to launch a military invasion across the Gulf, even if it wanted to.

Again, the issues are serious, and Hitchens’ peddling of stereotypes helps nobody. In fact, all he does is add credence to the Bahrain regime’s assertion that the Bahrain uprising was an Iranian-backed coup against the monarchy. The regime has never presented any evidence for this, but uses it as an excuse to crush Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement.

As for Iran, I most certainly do not support the current regime in Iran, or valaayet-e-faqih. In fact, I agree with Hitchens that Iran’s hardliners probably only represent about 10-15% of the population of Iran and have done much to alienate the young. As a supporter of democratization and open, civil society across the MENA region I believe Iran should have an effective opposition so that Iranians have a real choice in elections. I see a democratic Bahrain as a threat both to the other Gulf autocracies AND to the current regime in Iran.

I cannot therefore be classed as a supporter of either Ahmadinajad or Khamena’i, but then neither do I support opportunist war-mongering, we’ve been there before with Iraq. Hitchens frequently comes close to arguing for some sort of intervention in Iran.

I’d like to see Iran develop as France did. The French Revolution changed the country forever, there was never going to be any going back to the ancient regime. The secular French Revolution and its values continues to have a deep and formative influence of French national identity, long after the specific institutions of the French Revolution disappeared, France remains a republic that came into being through a violent revolution that overthrew the French monarchy.

The French revolution very soon degenerated into revolutionary chaos, a reign of terror, bloody dictatorship and aggressive and defensive wars with its neighbours that lasted 26 years. But long after these finished, France emerged as a liberal democracy fundamentally shaped by the politics and ethics of the Revolution, to the extent that France today is a quite different country to Britain or the USA.

I’d hope something similar happens with Iran. That it will remain a republic, even an “Islamic Republic”, but that what that means mellows and matures over the coming decades, surviving even the eventual abolition of the specific institutions established in the 1978-1979 revolution, leaving behind it the state terror, semi-dictatorship, extremism and wars of the late C20th and early C21st.

The key difference is of course that France’s revolution was militantly secular, where as Iran’s revolution ended becoming militantly Islamic. This point of contrast makes the comparison more interesting, however: France’s revolution marked the arrival of Enlightenment secularism and militant atheism as world-shaping in politics, Iran’s revolution marked the arrival on the world political stage of the late-C20th revival of religion.

Both the French and the Iranian revolutions in their own ways show that both secularism and revived religion have a more-or-less equal capacity for terror, terrorism, dictatorship and war. Both illustrate the pitfalls of violent revolution, yet both provide examples of revolution’s capacity to overthrow the established political norms of their times.

But for that to happen, Iran has to change on its own terms, and the rest of the world has to accept that whatever sort of regime ruled in Tehran, religious or secular, left-wing or right-wing, monarchy or republic, pro-Western or anti-Western, Iran is likely to emerge in the course of the C21st as a major power in the MENA region and a second-order power geo-politically.

Precisely the sort of power, indeed, that one might reasonably expect would develop a nuclear power programme as the C21st progresses, and perhaps or even probably nuclear weapons. Short of wiping Iran off the map, there’s nothing can be done to stop that, whoever is in power in Iran. Iranian power can however be contained, and in this regard Israel has the right to maintain a nuclear arsenal so long as no real and lasting peace agreement is in place between Israel and other countries in the region. Israel’s formidable arsenal of 200-300 nuclear weapons and accurate, reliable delivery systems ought to be more than enough to deter a nuclear armed Iran.

Hitchens’ thinly veiled call of an Iraq-style intervention in Iran at best makes internal reform in Iran less likely, at worse encourages those who would want to see an open-ended war of conquest against Iran.

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