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The Danger of Giving Religious Leaders Power in Iran (and Israel)

December 27, 2013 11:01 am 10 comments

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. Photo: Wikipedia.

I have recently read “The Shah” by Abbas Milani, and certain significant parallels strike me as very relevant today.

As a senior army officer, Reza Shah Pahlavi ousted the old Qajar dynasty in 1925. He modelled himself on Kemal Ataturk and wanted to drag Iran out of the medieval grip of the Shia mullahs and transform Persia into a modern state called Iran. He banned the old religious dress imposed on women in public, and doubled the number of schools and universities. In particular, he wanted to limit the power of the reactionary mullahs. During the Second World War, Britain and Russia combined to force his abdication, because they thought he was soft on Germany. Ironically, he was particularly and effectively protective of his Jewish subjects, who were amongst the Pahlavis’ staunchest supporters.

Reza’s son, Mohammad Reza, replaced him in 1941, almost accidentally, because there was no alternative. Mohammad Reza had a tendency to vacillate and play one side off against the other. But unlike his father, he compromised with the religious leaders and returned much of their power. Concessions on one side were balanced by a highly repressive secret service. In the end, he even exasperated his allies who pulled the rug from under him, allowing him to fall in 1979. Everyone was blindsided by Ayatollah Khomeini, allowing him to return from exile, gain power, and turn Iran back to its fanatical Middle Ages.

During the post-war period, America and Britain were very busy jockeying for power in the Middle East (amongst other places, of course). It was not just a matter of controlling the oil supplies, important as that was. After all, the halt of Hitler’s campaign in Eastern Europe was to prevent him gaining control of the Baku oil fields. The Cold War saw Russia in Azerbaijan, on Iran’s border, and gaining control of the Caspian oil. Iran’s southern Gulf oilfields were very significant in the struggle, which in American eyes, was to prevent Russia taking over Iran at all costs.

This was one of the main reasons the CIA intervened in the Kim Roosevelt-led Operation Ajax to get rid of Mossadegh, Iran’s unpredictable prime minister in 1953. They feared he was soft on Moscow, and he had nationalized the oil industry. The Western powers feared the political as well as the financial consequences. This constant meddling in Iranian affairs is why there has always been a strain of paranoia in Iran against the Western powers.

In Iran itself, the communist Tudeh party was well entrenched, and there was a genuine fear that it would take the country over. Indeed I remember in 1978 a conversation with Chimen Abramsky, the brilliant neo-Marxist, mercurial, academic son of the great scholar Yehezkel Abramsky (and Head of the London Beth Din), in which he confidently predicted the Tudeh would displace the Shah and gain control.

A recent book, “America’s Great Game” by Hugh Wilford, documents the interventions of Kim (Kermit) Roosevelt, the archetypal Christian, anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist mandarin near the top of the CIA. In addition to his covert political role, he also managed to benefit personally from the Iranian oil industry. And these are the sort of people, of course, who complain about the influence of Jewish money.

Now I come to my main point. Mohammad Reza was so concerned to play sides against each other that, in contrast to his father, he courted the ayatollahs and restored a lot of their power. He mistakenly thought that he could ride the tiger. In the end, it was the tiger that turned rabid and destroyed him and most of what he had hoped to achieve for his country.

He seemed, not unlike Obama, to be unaware of the concept of Taghieh. This is a Shia Muslim theological principle that it is not only permissible, but even laudable to lie and deceive to achieve religious ends. The Shah was deceived. The West was deceived. The merchant and intellectual classes who wanted more of a say in running the country were deceived. They all miscalculated the true intentions of religious fascism.

How sad it is that religions, supposedly the standard bearers of honesty and purity, time and again end up being the poster boys of deviousness and deception.

Exactly the same thing happened in Egypt. Morsi and the Brotherhood presented themselves as a moderate religious alternative to Mubarak’s fascism. Instead they used the infant democratic process to blind the Army into giving then a free hand and the West into praising them for their “Moderate Islam.” By now we know what that means.

Israel made a similar mistake in supporting the Islamo-fascist Hamas as a counterbalance to the secular PLO. In 1987, the supposedly brilliant analysts argued that the way to Divide and Rule the Palestinians was to give tacit and underground encouragement to the religious militants in order to contain the secular PLO. It worked for a while. But then it too used the political process to get hold of Gaza and promptly destroyed what fragile democracy there was.

This is the fear in Syria. The fascism of Assad is challenged by extreme Muslims who, if they got power, would squash democracy in favor of a theocracy. Having displaced the moderate rebels, they are now courting Western opinion by claiming they will not be as fanatical as the West currently fears.

I love my religion. But I can see all too clearly how dangerous political religion is everywhere in the world. Vast hordes of unemployed youth are attracted to what appears to be a genuinely religious and social organization. But they are then easily turned into a murderous rent-a-mob. The siren music of moderation is a sham, a front to gain power, and then that power will be turned against freedom.

I fear for Israel. More and more politicians, industrialists, and wealthy nomenclatura are courting pseudo-mystical rabbis in search of money, blessings, and votes. The demographics favor the religious extreme. That is why it is so important not to allow religious fanaticism to infiltrate the mechanisms of power any more than they have so far. Sympathetic, holy rabbis soon turn into damning furies when their wishes are denied. Interestingly, the vote for religious parties in Israel is well below the number of potential voters in the Charedi community, and it has not risen in tandem with the birthrate. I take this to mean that many of the religious community are intentionally not voting for religious parties.

This is very hopeful. It means that they may be loyal to the religion and love it as much as I do, but they know the dangers of trusting religion in power. We should accord religious leaders respect, but fear the abuses. As the lovely Hebrew proverb goes, “Kabdeyhu, VeChashdeyhu.” Honor him, but be on your guard.


  • Mark Jay Mirsky

    This is an excellent article, Jeremy, clarifying the dangers of mixing religion and politics. One might add that the present intolerance of the rigid left (I consider myself a member of the flexible, sceptical left) in Scandinavia toward religious belief like male circumcision, or kosher slaughter is another ironic consequence of the State intruding on private belief, insisting that it is “my way or no way.” Many years ago I argued in “My Search for the Messiah” that one had to include religious leaders of both the Jewish and Islamic world, if there was to be any peace in the Land of Israel, because only they could speak to the deeply felt fears that religion alone addresses, and overcome the danger of the irrational speaking to hate rather than peace and hope. The truly inspiring moments in religion are when it speaks from its mystical core to human ethics, to what the Rav refered to as the mirror image of the Eighteen Benedictions beginning and end, “love and kindness.” To hear religious leaders speaking hatred, or condoning it, is to feel that religion has been betrayed. It is a community, however, that gives authority to its leaders. Therein lies the present dilemma in the Middle East.



  • Yeshayahu Hollander

    I, too, was raised believing that Separation of Church and State is the only viable and fair way to run a country. I still believe that mysticism is fine for philsophizing, but should be kept out of EVERY practical issue. BUT – in the 21st century, it is clear that religion CANNOT be kept out: while the citizens of the Jewish State of Israel have a record of judging critically the words of their leaders, including rabbis, as the essay indeed notes: “Interestingly, the vote for religious parties in Israel is well below the number of potential voters in the Charedi community, and it has not risen in tandem with the birthrate. I take this to mean that many of the religious community are intentionally not voting for religious parties.” However, the Muslim public accept every distortion of “The Religion of Peace” by their leaders, and call – very loudly – for the murder of every Jewish person, Man, Woman and Child, in the name of their religion, this cannot be ignored. The classic materialistic idea that economic interests will overcome this, which lies at the basis of the Oslo process and the “Two State Solution”, ignores religion, and thus can at best offer an insecure temporary, palliative, which only invites further attack when the Arabs feel they can conquer the Jewish State.
    Every religion functions as an organised activity of a community, and therefor the community in which the religion function plays an important part in the religion – and conversely, the religion plays and important part in influencing the activities of the community. Hence, in the past, many wars were waged between Christian Europe and Muslim North Africa and the Middle East.

    • Interesting post and I completely agree with both Tony Blair and the point you made about the Oslo failure due in part to a lack of consultation with religious leadership.
      But there is a difference between recognizing and respecting the importance of religion and religious leaders and party political power.
      In many countries such as Britain, religions are respected, religioius schools are State supported and religious instutions get charitable aid ithout there being specific religious parties.
      The USA is by far the most religious friendly Western State and Judaism thrives here, again without religious parties.

  • How anyone could compare Jewish leaders to violent Islamic leaders is beyond me.

    • When religious thugs start beating up old venerable rabbis becaue they disagree politically, you are already on a slippery slope. Theres no comparison of course to Muslim fanatics but if you dont halt it now you never know where it might end.

  • Of course religion should play a major role in any Jewish community but it should be in the form of individual influence rather than party politics.Power corrupts and religious power corrupts religiously.

  • Rabbi’s are not what’s need to save Israel. A strong, democratic, secular Jewish Israel with religious freedom for Jews, Muslims and Christians is what’s called for. The Jewish religious parties have their place, but not in power. The Israeli people will never vote them in. Israel needs to stay as secular as possible and well armed against its enemies and united as a nation.

  • Have I got this right? The Algermeiner is publishing an article that says both the Land (maybe even State) belongs to the Jewish People and that the Ultra-orthodox who do not accept a democratic Jewish State of Israel are a potential problem. Imagine that! Or it could simply be that Dovid drank and ate too much on Christmas and he forgot to edit out the bad stuff. Sometimes the truth of Ultra Orthodoxy (and the Hasidic) world and how they are anti-Zionist and seek to control power for their own purposes emerges in strange ways.

  • The last I saw the haredi population of Israel was something like 7% of the population and the traditional Mizrahi immigrants were rapidly assimilating into the broader Israeli sort-of-secular society. The yeshiva student exemption from military service has become a hot button issue in Israeli politics, and not to preserve or extend it. There is a lot to criticize in the outlook and policies of the religious parties; but their dominance of Israeli politics , except as guardians of some of their parochial programs appears unlikely.

  • I can’t help but wonder if the rabbi is confused by the Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It states that the medina will be a Jewish medina. A state with a majority of Jews determine their own fate..Can that really come to pass if Rabbis aren’t somehow involved..? Maybe the extent of involvement is the question. If they’re not somehow engaged you have a Hebrew speaking Portugal!

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