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Islam at war with itself in Iran

by Brad A. Greenberg

June 17, 2009 | 3:57 am

I haven’t touched the Iranian election story—I’m sure you’ve read and seen plenty of reports about it at this point—but Karmel Melamed, an Iranian American Jew living in Los Angeles, has been all over it, interviewing Q&A with activist Frank Nikbakht and writing this piece about the local reverberations.

But what I wanted to draw attention to were the reflections of Bill Keller—yes, the editor of The New York Times—who made a surprising trip to Iran to report from the streets of Tehran. In a co-bylined article, Keller wrote:

The jokes among Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s detractors are legion. In one, he looks in the mirror and says, “Male lice to the right, female lice to the left.” In the West, one American tabloid rarely misses a chance to refer to him as “Evil Madman” and in the days before his re-election here he was taunted as a “monkey” and as a “midget.”

But the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was announced winner of a second four-year term this week is no cartoon character.

Whether his 63 percent victory is truly the will of the people or the result of fraud, it demonstrated that Mr. Ahmadinejad is the shrewd and ruthless front man for a clerical, military and political elite that is more unified and emboldened than at any time since the 1979 revolution.

As president, Mr. Ahmadinejad is subordinate to the country’s true authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who commands final say over all matters of state and faith. With this election, Mr. Khamenei and his protégé appear to have neutralized for now the reform forces that they saw as a threat to their power, political analysts said.

“This will change the face of the Islamic Republic forever,” said one well-connected Iranian, who like most of those interviewed declined to be named in the current tense climate. “Ahmadinejad will claim an absolute mandate, meaning he has no need to compromise.”

This is, of course, a scary thing, what with Ahmadinejad being an anti-Semitic, anti-Western loon. But what does it say about the future of Islam in the Islamic Republic? Reading Keller’s analysis and another story filled with man-on-the-street reactions, TMatt at GetReligion sees a familiar phenomenon. TMatt writes:

Clearly, people in Iran are divided. Clearly, no matter how the votes were counted, there is a serious division between the urban elites — the kinds of people who are willing to talk to reporters — and people who live out in what you might call the flyover zones of rural Iran. When you read Keller, you have to feel his pain as he wrestles with these multiple forms of Islam. How could the “moderates” lose? How could our sources have been wrong?

Read between the lines, as Keller describes what is at stake:

Far off, President Obama and other Western leaders who had seen a better relationship with Iran as potentially helpful in resolving the problems of Afghanistan, Iraq and nuclear proliferation faced the prospect of doing business with a man who, in addition to being a Holocaust-denying hard-liner, now stands suspected in a sham election.

There were some important constituencies that took satisfaction from the outcome. Domestically, Mr. Ahmadinejad appealed to the fears of the more pious and poor who had found change unsettling. This included those alarmed by the days of political street carnival preceding the election and those (not just men) put off by Mr. Moussavi’s attention to the traditional, second-class role of women in this paternalistic quasi-theocracy.

Honestly, try to feel this man’s pain:

Among downcast Iranian journalists and academics, the chatter focused on why the interlocking leadership of clerics, military officers and politicians, without whose acquiescence little of importance happens, decided to stick with Mr. Ahmadinejad. Did they panic at the unexpected passion for change that arose in the closing weeks of the Moussavi campaign? Did Mr. Moussavi go too far in his promises of women’s rights, civil freedom and a more conciliatory approach to the West? Or was the surge an illusion after all, the product of wishful thinking?

So the “pious and poor” united — in ballots and in corruption — to hang on to their “paternalistic quasi-theocracy.”

Please understand: My feelings are very similar to those of Keller, as I watch the drama unfolding in Tehran. Yet one also has to ask whether Tehran equals Iran. Journalist have to ask, at some point, if urban university faculty members are the best sources, when it comes to determining what is happening in modern Islam. After all, there is no one Islam. The question is this: Which Islam is growing? Which is in decline? Who represents the future of this complex faith, in Iran and elsewhere?

Hopefully, not Ahmadinejad.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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