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Islam and Sectarianism ( 8 Sept 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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A Shia Theocracy with a Democratic Façade



By Aziz-ud-Din Ahmad

September 06, 2013

Though some may be misled by a parliament and president, both elected in polls with around 80 pc voter turnout to mistakenly consider it a democracy, Iran remains a Shia theocracy. The facade of the elections and the trappings of a democratic system are in fact not a jot more than authoritarian window dressing. The entire political system is based on Khomeini’s concept of Velayat e Faqih. It is maintained that during the absence of the Imam, the faqih or the religious jurist is the most qualified person to rule.

The political system in Iran denigrates the common man who is supposed to be unfit to take decisions about the country’s pressing issues through his representatives in parliament. The voters are not free to elect candidates of their choice but can only vote for one of those approved by the unelected but supreme Guardian Council.

In Pakistan 162 parties were registered with the Election Commission before the recent general elections though only 18 could make it to the National Assembly. Only banned terrorist networks are barred from contesting polls. Iran however allows only those political parties which are willing to work within the theocratic system of Velayat e Faqih. There is no space for dissidents or those who challenge the power of the clergy.

Political groups and candidates usually operate in loose alignments within two main coalitions, the conservative and the reformist. Since 2009, only conservatives have been allowed to participate while prominent reformist parties have been banned and their members jailed. The recent election provided the voters a choice between moderate conservatives and hard-line conservatives. Hassan Rouhani, the newly elected president, represented the former.

Political repression is widely practiced in Iran. The Iranian authorities clamped down on those who protested against rigging by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Two leading reformist parties that had supported opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi were subsequently banned on charges of “undermining national security”. Thousands of opposition supporters were rounded up after mass street protests; scores continue to languish in prisons while Mousavi is still under house arrest.

The Iranian system works under the domination of the clerics. The unelected Council of Guardians plays a key role in the working of the system. The Council consists of six theologians appointed by the supreme leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by the parliament. Its functions include vetting the members of parliament and presidential candidates. In 2009 elections, the Guardian Council debarred 450 candidates, allowing only four to contest the elections. In presidential polls held in June this year out of 680 registered candidates only eight were declared fit to run. The system has been devised to ensure that none challenging the status quo manages to sneak in.

Before the arrival of the 2008 parliamentary elections, more than 70 per cent of reformist candidates had been rejected by electoral screening committees. In 2012, out of over 5,000 candidates who registered, more than one third stood disqualified.

The Iranian president is answerable to the supreme leader. This is in violation of the practice in democracies where the chief executive is answerable to parliament. The supreme leader functions as the country’s head of state. Unlike chief executives in other countries, the president of Iran does not have full control over Iran’s foreign policy, the armed forces, or nuclear policy, as these are under the control of the supreme leader.

The parliament works under the shadow of the Guardian Council. It doesn’t have the power to investigate unelected institutions such as the Guardian Council. The investigation of any institution under the control of the Supreme Leader, such as the state-controlled media, requires his approval. The constitution also limits parliament’s power by requiring the Guardian Council to confirm the constitutionality and Islamic nature of any bill in the parliament.

The parliament has faced other obstacles also. The supreme leader’s office often intervenes in the legislative process. A most controversial intervention was made by Ali Khamenei in mid-2000, when he ordered a bill proposing to reform Iran’s repressive press laws to be removed from the list of bills to be debated. At times the National Security Council has acted in opposition to explicit legislative mandate or pushed parliamentarians to pass resolutions supportive of its view particularly its negotiating positions on nuclear issues.

The supreme leader is legally the “absolute” ruler with the final say on all state matters, He appoints the heads of some of the most powerful authorities in Iran. These include: the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, the head of state TV and radio, the head of the judiciary, and the heads of numerous semi-official and wealthy religious foundations. According to Ayatollah Yazdi, a member of the assembly of experts that elects the supreme leader, the office holder is “semi-infallible”.

Democracy cannot function without a free and independent judiciary. A transparent system is therefore evolved for the appointment of judges. In Iran, the judiciary is largely controlled by the supreme leader, who appoints the head of the judiciary, who in turn appoints the head of the Supreme Court and the chief public prosecutor.

The media is in shackles, as is the norm under autocratic regimes. The country has the distinction of keeping the second largest number of journalists in prison. A statement by the Reporters without Borders on the aftermath of 2009 protests underlines the level of repression. “The year began badly with the death of blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi in Tehran’s Evin prison followed by the arrest of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi. More than 100 journalists were arrested and around 50 driven into exile following the June election. Twelve newspapers were suspended and thousands of web pages blocked.”

The Association of Iranian Journalists (AoIJ), which for years was the only independent press organisation in Iran, was banned during the 2009 protests. Three members of the AoIJ’s board, Mofidi Badrossadat, Shamsolvaezin Mashaallah and Mohamad Reza Moghise, were put behind the bars. Presently about 30 journalists and bloggers are in prison. Two of the prisoners have been labelled “mohareb,” or enemies of God, a heresy charge punishable by death under the Iranian law. Another journalist is on death row. Hopes have been expressed that things will change under president Rouhani. There are no positive signs yet.

Women have to fight hard for their rights in the male dominated Islamic Republic. Despite restrictions imposed by the clergy, women make up to 65 percent of all university students. More women are employed in private enterprises, government jobs or are self employed than in any other Muslim country. They are required by law to wear the head scarf. The laws discriminate against women. In court, the testimony of two women equals that of one man; a man’s son inherits twice as much as his daughter; compensation for the accidental death of a man is twice that for a woman. A woman convicted of adultery is liable to be stoned to death. She can get a divorce only under extreme conditions while a man can divorce a wife without cause. Women face problems at the workplace, in custody of their children and the right to travel. They have to get permission from their husband if they want to work or go abroad.

Women face restrictions on education. Recently girl students have been debarred from studying over 70 university courses. Consequently 36 universities have announced that 77 Bachelor of Arts (BA) and Bachelor of Science (BSc) courses would not be offered to women in the coming academic year. Women undergraduates will be excluded from courses in English literature, English translation, hotel management, archaeology, nuclear physics, computer science, electrical engineering, industrial engineering and business management. Exiled Iranian human rights campaigner and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi maintains that the “decision aims at returning women to the private domain inside the home as the government cannot tolerate their passionate presence in the public arena.”

The fight of the women for rights has come at a high cost. Narges Mohamadi lost her health in prison; Nasrin Sotoudeh is serving an eleven-year sentence, and has been banned from practicing law for 20 years; Shiva Nazarahari, Jila Baniyaghoub and Bahareh Hedayat have also been given long sentences.

As is the case with countries where rulers subscribe to political Islam, the Iranian state denies some of the basic human rights to its citizens.

Aziz-ud-Din Ahmad is a political analyst and a former academic.