Mullahs come in different shapes and sizes and not all of them are bearded but nowhere in the recent past have they been as successful as in Iran. The Iranian mullahs are once again gracing the global headlines, this time because of an innocent decree. “Wrap them strands of dead cells and don’t unveil the prefrontal cortex”, is that too much to ask for?
Hijab is an interesting piece of cloth. In some places women protest to wear it, in others not to. The scenes from Iran are telling but not entirely unforeseen for those following the bigger picture. In Pakistan, Iran’s eastern neighbor, the slogan “My body, my choice” has become a rallying cry of an indigenous women’s movement. Afghanistan, neighbor to Iran and Pakistan, too has been a witness to several sporadic women protests, and so is the case in the petro-stricken lands to the west of Iran. One thing that all these places share is the chokehold that mullahs exercise on the socio-political ecosystem, but Iran’s situation is unique and nuanced. The tendency to lump Iran with other authoritarian regimes continues, an approach born out of intellectual laziness. The Iranian mullah establishment’s modus operandi is far more sophisticated and profound than most of its parallel entities. While we all continue to protest in our own way against the death of Mahsa Amini, it is imperative that we catch the frequency at which the Mullah ideology operates. A good starting point is the recent comments of Iran’s supreme leader which are quite revealing and warrant a deeper look.
Paranoia to Power
The Iranian president has once again blamed US and Israel for the protests as if the moral police were acting on their behalf. But there’s a method to the madness. The mullah ideology preys on the deep-rooted social paranoia which is not unique to Iran. This sort of paranoia must not be underestimated; it is a Machiavellian circular dependency. It says that all are against me because I am great, and I am great because all are against me. It is narcissism on one hand, inferiority complex on the other. It is a fantastic way to harmonize the antithetical material reality and self-concept. It says that life is a divine trial and pain a sacred gift. The mullah ideology is neither a straightforward denial nor a wholehearted acceptance of the source (adversary) and the effect (harm) it creates. It is not even the acceptance of the source and the denial of the effect, that is an ascetic’s ideology. Instead, it accepts the effect and denies the external source, replacing it with one within itself. It is savvy to an extent that it completely denies any status to its adversary while enhancing its own stature. Blaming a regional power and a global one feeds strength to this ideology, deftly deflecting power to itself via the adversaries.
An Ethical Proposition
The revolution of 1979 was an authentic people’s movement, even the fiercest critic of the regime would find it hard to deny this. But it was not socialism’s triumph or democracy’s coup. From the very beginning, ethics was a major thrust, if not fundamental, of Khomeini’s movement. Millions of people across ideological, class, and ethnic divisions marched for a mullah. When the current supreme leader says, “some come to make streets insecure, burn Qurans, take hijab off covered women…”, he’s not making a mere political statement. Anyone who has grown up in Muslim society would know that hijab is considered more than a piece of cloth. The word does not even appear in Quran. In one sense, it means a veil; in the other, it means modesty. The supreme leader uses it in the latter sense, he is too well aware of what strings to pluck. One may ask why is the mullah establishment obsessed with hijab, why have moral police after all? The answer lies in the ethical underpinnings of the revolution. Every veiled woman reminds society of what the revolution stands for; it stands for modesty, for purity, for virtue. The mullah ideology is a socio-ethical construct first and then a socio-economic one.
It is important to note that the current breed of theologians throughout the Muslim world is starkly different than that of the “glorious past” when theologians had a genuine appreciation for science and were obsessed with Aristotle. In fact, Aristotle was reintroduced to the West in the Middle Ages courtesy of Muslim scholars. The theologians of this age are no match for the days gone by but by no means are they delusional or facile. There exists in them an acute self-awareness of intellectual incompetence and the inability to construct even a marginally complex notion of society. What they have done in response is create a hodgepodge of simplistic precepts that they throw at society. It is a deliberate attempt to tackle one problem while creating several more. These precepts don’t even need to stick, people catch what they want to. This serves two primary purposes; it keeps society confused and disunited. The result is a system that is antifragile; it feeds on chaos. Chaos that helps in venting the frustration in society well before reaching a threshold where the frustration can be potentially creative and visionary.
Developing Counter Narrative
What is most visible in society is also the most vulnerable. The best governing entity is the one that people are hardly aware of, says Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching. The mullah ideology is a great disservice to Islam, to the idea of religion, and to any socio-ethical construct. It is deeply insecure and hence the desire to be always prevalent in society’s consciousness which helps it with self-realization. A timid problematic self that recognizes its shortcomings and yearns to be dismantled. It says that I am here but why am I here? It creates an opponent to justify itself and that’s where we the people fall for the trap. We end up being a part of the script where we, the protagonists, must die in the last scene. The wound is still fresh, and this is an opportunity for Iranians to harness their frustration. People must raise new questions instead of answering those posed by the oppressors; they must write their own script. The present protests can end in two ways, as a storm in a teacup or an impetus for an alternative ideology. In any case, we all continue to wait for the winds that will surely blow, when and from where, that we don’t know.
*Shiraz Gulraiz is an author, freelance writer, and engineer by profession. He holds a Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.