Monday, June 22, 2009

The Religious Left in Iran

Andrew Koppelman

One aspect of the uprising in Iran that has gotten too little attention is that it is the latest manifestation of the religious left.

The religious left is a powerful force in American politics, one that Democratic elites (but not President Obama) have tended to neglect. It is as numerous as the religious right, but because Democratic activists have tended to be secular, they have had trouble understanding who their friends are.

A major strength of the resistance in Iran is the way that it has identified itself with Islam. Iranians are constructing a story in which Islam demands democracy and liberalization. The naïve identification of religion with political reaction has taken another hit.

No good data exist about the composition of the huge number of protestors in Tehran, but it is a statistical certainty that the overwhelming majority of them are religious Muslims. According to a study carried out by the World Values Survey in 2000-01, 97% of Iranians identify themselves as Muslim. 82% describe themselves as “a religious person,” exactly the same proportion as in the United States. 94% believe in God, life after death, and the existence of the soul, heaven, and hell. 79% say that religion is important in their lives. 61% say that their identities as Muslim are more important to them than their identities as Iranian. 71% think that it is important for children to be taught about religion. 59% trust their mosque, compared with 10% who trust the press and 22% who trust the government. 47% think that religious authorities have adequately responded to their country’s problems. 26% attend religious services once a week or more.

"We are not against the Islamic system and its laws [but] against the deviations and lies, and we want to reform them; a reformation that returns us to the pure principles of the Islamic revolution," Mir Hussein Mousavi, the presidential candidate from whom the election may well have been stolen, said in a statement on Saturday. "If the high volume of cheating and vote manipulation" were to stand, "the republicanism of the regime will be slaughtered and the idea of incompatibility of Islam and [democracy] would be practically proven."

The idea that religion entails an authoritarian politics doesn’t just belong to militant atheists such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. It is also endorsed by religious authoritarians like Pat Robertson and Ayatollah Khamenei. Like it or not, this view gives aid and comfort to Khamenei and his thugs.

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