“They’ve put a knife in my hand, but it is a knife with only a handle; others are holding the blade.” – Mehdi Bazargan, interview with Oriana Fallaci, 1979

LI’s friend Mr. Craddick implied a bit of an objection to LI’s use of booboisie in yesterday’s post. Indeed, LI, recently, has tended towards the sarcastic – or, as our brother likes to say, ‘sour-castic.’

But it would tax a saint to read stories such as this one, by NYT’s fan of all things occupation, Dexter Filkins, without feeling the sullen throb of dark humors.


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Shiite Offers Secular Vision of Iraq Future

Published: February 10, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 9 - Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of the leading candidates to become the new Iraqi prime minister, recalled the day last year when he and other Iraqi leaders were summoned to the holy city of Najaf by the country's senior Shiite clerics.
The topic was the role of Islam in the new Iraqi state. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite leader, questioned whether Mr. Mahdi and the others, members of the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, had the legitimacy to draft an interim constitution.

"You were not elected," Ayatollah Sistani told the group.

Mr. Mahdi says he did not hesitate to answer.

"You were not elected," he told the ayatollah.

With that, Mr. Mahdi and the others returned to the capital and drafted an interim constitution intended to govern Iraqi for the next year, naming Islam as a source, but not the only source, of legislation.”

Uh, this story is so inane that it is hard to know where to start. It takes a man with a truly petrified sense of humor to praise the Governing Council for their independence. And to brag about bandying words with Sistani, without whom Mahdi's party would be plugging a distant fifth for dogcatcher in Kamchatka is hilarious, a bubble gum anecdote for the consumption of American reporters. However, it is perfectly tailored for the Narrative. This is what it will be, at least until events crumble it irretrievably.

Via Matt Yglesias’ site, yestersay, we went to Brad Plumer’s site. We liked the site. Plumer makes a nice series of comparisons between the constitutional order that emerged in Iran after 1979 and the order emerging in Iraq. Here is what Plumer has to say:

“First, some context. When we say Iran is ruled by clerics, let's not kid ourselves, this doesn't mean that a few middling clerics are placed in powerful positions and have access to key security forces. There's that, sure, but the government really is explicitly set up as a clerical-run affair from start to finish. Originally the Supreme Leader was to be a high-ranking cleric, but Khomeini downgraded this requirement when he could find no acceptable successor save for the poorly-qualified Ali Khamene'i, who is currently Supreme Leader. But it's clerics everywhere else.”

The contrast is, of course, with Sistani’s repeated statement that he doesn’t seek political office, and the submerging of the clerics in the United Iraqi Alliance. So far, so good. But since Plumer is interpreting the power to govern according to the ostensible rules about governance, his view, in our opinion, of the history of struggle that produces the power to govern is distorted. In other words, LI believes that an essential dialectical step is missing from Plumer’s account – and it is that missing step which distorts the reporting of Dexter Filkins as well. The rules, here, don’t precede the rulers. This is what is characteristic of a revolutionary moment.
If we make a comparison between Khomenei’s rhetoric, in 78 and 79, to the rhetoric emanating from the UIA, there is a rather eerie similarity.

We looked up an old article from Foreign Affairs by a French correspondent, Eric Rouleau, about “the peculiar sort of political blindness” that afflicted the West with regard to Iran during the revolution. Rouleau astutely points out that the power of the clerics in Shi’a culture seems to exist in direct proportion to the advances of foreign power upon that culture:

Thus by the beginning of the 19th century, Shi’ism emerged as a kind of early anti-imperialism movement. In 1826, the ulemas declaired a holy war against Russia. Three years later they had the members of the official delegation from St. Petersburg assassinated. They brought about the cancellation of the incredible monopoly for the exploitation of mines, forests, railroads, banks, customs and telegraphic communications granted to BARON Julius de Reuter in 1872. Their 1891 prohibition on tobacco consumption – largely observed by the population – led to the withdrawal of the tobacco monopoly accorded the previous year to a certain Mr. Talbot. Part of the clery actively participated in the 1906 revolution aimed at establishing a constitutional regime. They did so not in the name of democracy –a Western notion they abhorred even then – but to better control a Royal power which favored Euuropean penetration.”

If we look at Sistani’s role during the occupation, he seems to have been very much in this tradition, with the substituting of a constraint on American power for European penetration. This isn’t to say that what happened in Iran in 1979 is analogous to what is happening in Iraq, simply that there are some similar elements, and a similar rhetoric – in particular, the elevation of secular and Western acceptable political figures by the UIA is pretty close to the strategy of Khomeini, who explicitly said that clerics shouldn’t run for office, before he returned to Iran, and who set himself up as an advisor away from the capital city in the same way Sistani has set himself up as an advisor away from the capital city.
In Iran, there was a succession of secular figures who derived their support from factors independent of Khomeini. Bani-Sadr, before being elected president, had this to say about the division between the clerics and the state:

Bani-Sadr has clearly taken a stand for the separation of powers and the non-interferenceof the clergy in affairs of state, to the point of deriding “the Richelieus and Mazarins who crowd theIranian political scne.” Just after his election ot the presidency, he told the writer that he owed his “victory to the people,’ before adding that he thanked “the lower clergy for its support.” the higher clergy, for him, is that which supports the Islamic Republic Party of Ayatollah Beheshti, his bitter enemy.

On the morrow of his election, Bani-Sadr proclaimed Ayatollah Beheshti “politically dead.’ His optimism did not seem unfounded at the time. Ayatollah Beheshti had just suffered three important setbacks: he had wanted to be a candidate in the presidential elections, but Imam Khomeini had forbidden religious leaders to seek this office…”

Indeed, Mahdi seems to be setting himself up as a Bani-Sadr -- arrogance being the vice of secularism.

This history is cautionary, rather than predictive. However, there is no caution in the American press, and no room for any narrative but the one which puts American pre-suppositions at the center of history. If there is one thing LI takes for granted, it is that the I is not at the center of the Other’s history. In this, we are, perhaps, un-American.

We were reading George Santayana yesterday and came across a passage that describes, exactly, the waking life of the American “booboisie” upon which LI has, pettily, poured the vials of our sour-casm:

“… we may try aesthetic categoris and allow our reproductive imagination – by which memory is fed – to bring under the unity of apperception only what can fall within it harmoniously, completely, and delightfully. Such an understanding, impervious to anything but the beautiful, might be a fine thing in itself, but would not chronicle the fortunes of that organism to which it was attached. It would yield an experience – doubtless a highly interesting and elaborate experience – but one which could never serve as an index of successful action. It would totally fail to represent its conditions, and consequently would imply nothing about its continued existence. It would be an experience irrelevant to conduct, no part, therefore, of a Life of Reason, but a kind of vapid music or parasitic dream.”

Ah, what an exact description of the state of mind of the governing classes in the U.S.A., circa 2005.