Religion as Political Tool in Iran

From the dawn of human history, religion has played a major role people’s life. Psychologists explain that the human need for religious beliefs springs from basic features of human cognition that assumes that agents cause events. our ancestors who assumed agency would have survived longer and had more offspring. Likewise, human psychology has evolved to seek out patterns because this was a useful survival strategy. During the dry season, for example, animals are likely to congregate by a water hole, so that’s where you should go hunting.

Again, it pays (biologically) for this system to be overactive. This potent combination of hypersensitive “agency” and “patternicity” has produced a human brain that is primed to see agency and purpose everywhere. And agency and purpose are two of religion’s most important features — particularly the idea of an omnipotent but invisible agent that makes things happen and gives meaning to otherwise random events. In this way, humans are naturally receptive to religious claims, and when humans first encounter them — typically as children — they are unquestioningly accepted. There is a “feeling of rightness” about them that originates deep in human cognitive architecture. This feeling (like other human feelings, like for example sexual feelings) can be restrained and controlled by engaging critical thought processes but can also be easily manipulated and engaged by others for their benefits. Educational advancement increases a person’s ability to engage critical thinking, and there is therefore a very strong correlation between the degree of religiosity and educational attainment. Political leaders (as well as business leaders) have long recognized this cognitive feature and leveraged it for political advantage – especially among ignorant, uneducated masses.

Iranians are no exception to this fundamental human cognitive architecture.

Iran as we know it today, originated as a collection of semi-nomadic tribes who raised sheep, goats and cattle on the Iranian plateau. Cyrus the Great—the leader of one such tribe—began to defeat nearby tribes (kingdoms), including Media, Lydia and Babylon, joining them under one rule. And thus, founded the first Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire in 550 B.C. It united under one government three important sites of early human civilization: Mesopotamia, Egypt’s Nile Valley and India’s Indus Valley. Tasked with managing the largest human kingdom ever, Cyrus like all politicians, engaged every tool available to him to manipulate and control what then (and even today) was (and is) a largely ‘uneducated’, ‘ignorant’ population.

During the Achaemenid period, the “Great Kings” of Iran established Zoroastrianism as the primary faith of their empire and declared their power to be protected “by the intercession of Ahuramazda,” the religion’s main god. Despite having a strong sense of faith, the Achaemenid kings did not suppress the practice of other religions in their diverse empire. The existence of Zoroastrianism as the main faith in Iran continued under the (next royal family) Sassanian period that began around 221 AD and ended with the rise of Islam in Iran in the 7th century. Thus, Zoroastrianism dominated Iran for over 1000 years.

There are several interesting examples of Achaemenid Kings leveraging religion to legitimize their rule. One example is the Behistun Inscription, in which he (Darius 1st) inscribes an ideological element including his “divine” kingship and “insisting especially on the privileged protection of Ahura Mazda (Zoroastrian religion’s reference to God).”  He claims that “By the grace of Ahuramazda I am king; Ahuramazda brought the kingdom to me.”  Interestingly, even during the waning days of the Persian empire, during the reign of Darius 111 (335–331 b.c.e.), according to writings from that period, Darius inspired his troops to battle by referencing “the Sun and Mithras, and the sacred and eternal fire.”

There is also a very famous inscription called the Cyrus Cylinder, found in Babylon, which contains a decree justifying his rule in the city of Babylon. In it Cyrus relates to how Marduk, the local god of Babylon and chief god of Babylonia, “appointed” him to be king over Babylon. Later in the text he commands that temples be rebuilt, and the various local cults be started up again. He then asks that these gods bless him. This text has a parallel in Ezra 1:1–4 in the Hebrew Bible. The portion of the text reads: “May all the gods whom I settled in their sacred centers ask daily of Bel that my days may be long, and may they intercede for my welfare. May they say to Marduk, my lord, ‘As for Cyrus, the king who reveres you, . . .’”

The idea, quite clearly, even then (2000 years ago) was for every King to assert themselves as agents, as ‘middle-men’ between the people they rule and the ‘ultimate’ ruler (God). This provided the King with legitimacy and the ‘power’ to govern.

From the 7th Century forward, the politics of Iran had to evolve around the Islamic faith to various degrees. Initially, during the ‘Arab’ invasion that brought a new religion to Iran with the tip of a sword, Iran had essentially become an ‘Arab colony’ with (religious leaders) from outside Iran governing the region. But, eventually, as the Islamic empire waned, Iranians began to assert their own leadership. And by in the 15th Century, the Safavid’s in Northern Iran, assumed the Iran’s Kingdom and had to exert their governance on a disparate nation.

To consolidate and differentiate their rule, the Safavids were able to exert ‘Shiism’ (a different version of the Islamic faith from the religion practiced by the Caliphs and Ottomans – who had conquered Iran). Thus religion (in the form of Shiism) became a means to unite Iranians and ward off the influence of their Arab (and Turkish) conquerors. The religion of the ‘court’ became the ‘religion’ of nation; and from that point forward Shiism became interwoven with politics in Iran.

Interestingly, the emergence of Sufism in Iran around 1000 AD influenced Persian culture and poetry more than their politics which gave room for the Safavids to come in and establish Shia Islam as the primary faith of the Iranian people and shape the politics around their faith.

Though the political systems under the Safavid and Qajar empires were formed by integration Shia Islam with Iran, there have been many instances especially in the past century, where modern European influenced forces of ‘enlightenment’ tried to create a less religiously dominated society only to be faced with a political backlash by ‘Iran’s’ more backward religious community. One example of this, is the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 where those with modern ideals were forced to reckon with conservative Islamic traditions, and due to what seemed at the time to be irreconcilable differences of both groups, Iranians have not been able to find a balance between their religion and modernity, forcing many to conform to a society that they do not fit into.

In the 20th Century, with the emergence of technology, Iranians have been increasingly exposed to events in Europe (and elsewhere) where after centuries of dominance by religious forces, many nations underwent religious reforms along with a general rise of more ‘enlightened’ leadership helping drive economic (and technological) advancement.

The argument that prevailed in Iran, was if Iran was to also advance (or at least reach parity with the Europeans) it should abandon religious conservatism. This process took form with the Pahlavi dynasty, where Reza Shah tried to mimic reforms that had been successfully implemented in Turkey (by Kamal Attaturk), with forcible removal of the ‘religious veil’ for women in public; with a massive back clash from Iran’s religious community. And it continued with Mohamad Reza Pahlavi where by the mid-seventies he had basically decided that Islam was a retarding force in ‘his drive’ for modernity and had ‘filled’ his cabinet with 22 ministers that were not Muslims (Bahaii’s).

And so, by the late 70’s this alienation of the religious community, and anti-Pahlavi forces outside Iran combined to thwart a large-scale, pro-democracy movement in Iran towards a revolution which eventually became known as Iran’s Islamic revolution, as Iran’s religious leadership once again exerted their authority on the nation. For a period, use of religion as a political tool in the region was useful for the West as ‘religion’ had become a counter force to ‘communism’ and ‘soviet influence. Iran’s religious leadership, along with uber-religious leadership in Pakistan (with support from Persian Gulf Arab states) funded and supported the Taliban and defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan, which in turn help completely undermine the Soviet Union.

However today, almost 40 years after the revolution, Iran has consolidated its theocratic government. And there is a Supreme (Religious, Ayatollah) Leader (along with his council of religious leaders) that has a ‘final say’ on all matters; and has exerted himself as “God’s Agent” for Iran’s masses in the same manner as the Achaemenian Kings.

There are historians who state, “Achaemenian Persia was by far the largest, wealthiest, most powerful empire of the ancient world,”[1] and one of the main reasons why they achieved such greatness is because of the way the way they were able to rule their people. Of the many defining characteristics in the way the Achaemenid Kings maintained control over their empire, the religious tolerance they employed allowed them to rule over such a diverse group of people unlike any other in their time. The practice of religious tolerance began under Cyrus I and was maintained by Darius I as he “[permitted] a plurality of gods to be worshiped as before,” showing the importance of this custom to the Achaemenids. Furthermore, in Axworthy’s  A History of Iran, he goes on to say, “The certainties of religion, the principle of sublime justice that they underpinned, and the magnificent prestige of kingship …  held together this otherwise diffuse constellation of people, languages, and cultures.” As seen in this quote, the importance of religious tolerance in ancient Iran was paramount to their success as a civilization and being able to maintain one’s personal culture allowed the people of Iran to feel included into an empire of greatness that did not oppress their ways of life. When comparing the ancient Persian tradition of political, social, and religious inclusion to modern day Iran, the failure of the Iranian people to create a functioning compromise between the strong religious sentiments of the clergy and the desire to live in a postmodern world has created a repressive society even by ancient standards.

Interestingly, as Iran’s neighbors are weakened by continuous cycles of civil war, foreign conquest (by Russia and ‘the West’) and absorption of more and more territory by Israel, with continuous presence of Western armies (and influence), Iran’s theocratic rulers have been able to advance their concept of “agency” to their neighboring ‘masses’ – offering stability and support to disparate, impoverished, isolated, oppressed and destroyed communities in their region. Messaging from Iran’s theocratic leadership has resonated with ‘Shiites’ from Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Syria, to Yemen, to Pakistan and Lebanon. Iran’s theocratic leadership have mastered the art of using religion as a political tool domestically and are now employing it to ‘expand’ their influence and dominance in the same lands that the Achaemenids once controlled. It appears that in the region at least, people are willing to trade religion for ‘food’ and ‘safety’ in their homes offered by Iran’s theocracy. Iranians are building clinics, supplying basic commodities and establishing almost a million strong ‘security’ (and religious) militias throughout the region and paying them (which puts food on their families’ table).

Not only has a compromise between strong religious sentiments of the clergy along with their desire for power versus their opponent’s push to modernize the country not been achieved in Iran’s political discourse these last 100 years; but more interestingly, Iran’s religious leadership appears to have ‘completely won the argument’ regionally. They point to endless wars, and the destructive forces unleashed in the region by ‘the west’ (code for US, Europe and Israel) and try by implication to suggest that these destructive ‘western’ forces are the product of modernity’. They point to the repressive (western backed) rulers in the region from Saddam Hussein to Kings, Sultans and Emirs in the Persian Gulf as symbols of “Western agency and modernity”.

And now their messaging can point to a new American administration that stole the election (making a mockery of America’s commitment to free and fair elections and therefore democracy) ,  and has an adulterous, American President who cannot be dealt with and trusted (reference Iran’s JCPOA deal) and is not only ‘tight’ with the region’s repressive rulers (that back modernism), but that are also peddling and providing vast volumes of arms – that are being used for regular bombing of ‘children’ in Yemen. Religion as a political tool is being amplified regionally beyond Iran.

There is a massive ‘world war’ at play, and no one knows it. It is not being fought with tanks, bombers and bullets. It is a war inside every single person’s ‘head’ inside and outside Iran! The war is expanding regionally. And the war found a new front in America on 9//11 and in Europe after a long series of bombings by Islamic fanatics.

Iran has now become the fulcrum between the past and the present. How human beings engage religion will in the end determine our planet’s future and how we balance the forces of darkness and enlightenment; and in the end how we advance as a human race.  The tragedy of our time, is that forces of enlightenment are playing their cards very poorly (largely because American leaders have been a bunch of immoral crooks) and have given religious forces the upper hand – in Iran at least. Where will this lead us all?

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