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Thanks Again, Andy. How’s This Sound?


As always, many thanks to Andy for his good thoughts. Just a few points: Andy thinks that we’ve dithered for such a long time that at least some military intervention is necessary “to stop the regime from acquiring nukes.” I’m an agnostic on that issue. I don’t think anyone knows. Moreover, as I see it, if Iran tests a nuke today, it adds urgency to the need to support the Iranian dissidents. 

Andy thinks that the shah was overthrown because of the Iranians’ long-standing embrace of Shi’ite theocracy. Two points of demurral: First, Khomeini was anything but a mainstream Shi’ite thinker, and men as authoritative as Sistani consider him heretical, precisely because of his doctrine that only a wise religious leader should lead civil society. Most historians of the Iranian Revolution suggest that the bulk of the anti-shah movement was tricked by Khomeini, including the Left, which was extremely important in organizing the movement. Second, I wouldn’t say that “Iran has tended to Shi’ite theocracy for centuries.” Lots of departed shahs would be deeply offended to hear that.

On “jihadis,” I hope I’ve been consistent in using it to describe people waging violent war against infidels and unbelievers. Andy wants to apply it to anyone who wants to impose sharia. I think that makes it harder to figure out who’s who, since there are so many different versions of sharia. Unlike, say, Roman Catholicism, Islam has no recognized central authority, no single infallible leader. Every Imam issues fatwas galore, expressing his own opinion. So there’s lots of debate and lots of wiggle room. For example, there are many authoritative voices on both sides of the question, “Is suicide terrorism okay?” The wife of Iranian dissident leader Mir Hossein Mousavi is a religious woman and wears a veil, but she says that it’s fine with her if other women don’t want to wear it; she thinks they should be free to do so. And you can find fatwas that support her view. In other words, I don’t think that saying “sharia” necessarily clarifies everything. In many cases it complicates our efforts at understanding.

Andy is quite right to say that the Shi’ite tradition of keeping the beturbaned crowd in the mosques and out of the chanceries doesn’t mean that politics is automatically secular. There are plenty of fanatics in double breasted suits. And, one might add, there are some guys with turbans who advocate separation of mosque and state, for example Ayatollah Montazeri.

The case of Montazeri is very important in this discussion, because he was one of Khomeini’s closest associates and was in fact the designated successor. But he came to believe that Khomeini’s theocracy was a mistake (here again, disagreements about the meaning of sharia), said so publicly, and has spent years under house arrest for his candor. He recently blasted the Islamic Republic, saying it was neither a republic nor “Islamic” (again, disagreements about the meaning of sharia). Mousavi himself was also one of Khomeini’s closest associates, and one of the architects of the Islamic Republic. He has changed. A lot.

And it’s that “change” that provides my closing thought. People change, and so do ideas, including religious doctrines. Not all of them, but many of them. We have a lot at stake right now in getting people to abandon jihadism, and the best way to do that is to defeat the jihadis. Nothing is more devastating to a messianic movement than defeat on the ground. Some years ago I wrote that if we successfully supported the overthrow of the Iranian mullahs, we could then address the “Muslim world” with something like this: “You’ve tried the radical versions of both Sunni and Shi’a. They declared war on us, and we defeated them. We defeated Sunni regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a Shi’ite regime in Iran, and Sunni and Shi’ite terrorists in Iraq. We defeated them primarily because the Muslim peoples of those countries did not like them. There is a better way. Abandon the doomed doctrines of the defeated forces, and join the victorious modern world.”

I still think that’s the message we want to deliver, and I think it would be a devastating blow to jihadism.