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The Integralist Dystopia

By John Allen Gay

The nomenklatura of the later Soviet Union described their crumbling system as “real socialism.” They meant to stave off critics who highlighted the gap between Communism’s promises and Communism’s realities. The rhetorical defense had the opposite of its intended effect. Socialism had been tried, and was obviously failing.

Today’s advocates of a tighter institutional relationship between religion and the state—whether or not they embrace labels like integralism or Christian Nationalism—should recognize that their ideas are also being tried. The Islamic Republic of Iran is doing for Islam what they wish to do for Christianity.

Just like the Soviet Union, the reality of ideological politics discredits the ideal. The government’s corruption, repression, and ideological adventurism have blackened the name of Shia Islam to the point that Iran’s government has lost millennials for good and appears to be losing Gen Z. Power has corrupted the Iranian clergy in its practices and in its theology, and the regime carefully polices theologians. Iran is a cautionary tale for all who seek spiritual renewal through politics.

Yet, many in the West haven’t gotten the message. Like Communists of the past, they revel in utopian abstractions. Father Edmund O. Waldstein summarizes Catholic integralism as “a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.”

Similar ideas come in a Protestant version. Christian Nationalism, when the term is used to describe the branch of contemporary Reformed political theology, “is a set of governing principles rooted in Scripture’s teaching that Christ rules as supreme Lord and King of all creation, who has ordained civil magistrates with delegated authority to be under Him, over the people, to order their ordained jurisdiction by punishing evil and promoting good for His own glory and the common good of the nation.” In practice, it’s less clear what integralists and Christian Nationalists want—it could range from the repeal of laws that breach the natural law and a greater emphasis on public spirituality to, as one Christian Nationalist recently put it, a “Caesar” who “rules with an iron fist.”

But why look back to ancient Rome or early modern Europe? Iran’s Constitution is an integralist or religious nationalist document that’s actually in use today. It proclaims that Islamic government is “the crystallization of the political ideal of a people who bear a common faith and common outlook, taking an organized form in order to initiate the process of intellectual and ideological evolution towards the final goal, i.e., movement towards Allah. […] The mission of the Constitution is,” among other things, “to create conditions conducive to the development of man in accordance with the noble and universal values of Islam.” And the temporal power is legally subordinated to the spiritual power: a faqih (an Islamic jurist) stands at the pinnacle of the Iranian system to “prevent any deviation by the various organs of State from their essential Islamic duties.” This official, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, is to be a person known for scholarship, justice, piety, courage, and many other qualities.

To would-be theocrats in the West, this seems like a political model (if also a religious rival). But it isn’t working. The regime’s efforts to make Iran religious are instead secularizing it. In a recent viral video showing people eating, drinking, and smoking in public during Ramadan, an Egyptian traveler expressed his shock at how Iranians flouted the season’s strictures. Others report that mosques in Iran are empty compared to those in less theocratic states. Reliable polls are hard to get in Iran, yet one recent study by GAMAAN suggested that only one in three Iranians describe themselves as Shia Muslims, that six in ten Iranians do not pray, and about half of Iranians say they “went from being religious to non-religious” in their lifetimes. Only one in five Iranians believe in wearing hijab, and even among hijab supporters, one in four oppose making it mandatory. And these poll numbers predate the 2022 protests following the death of Mahsa Amini during a hijab-related arrest. The protests are widely understood to have driven a hard turn toward more libertarian cultural attitudes, especially among younger Iranians.

Indeed, an anti-religious current is becoming visible in Iranian opposition circles. Pooyan Tamimi Arab and Ammar Maleki of GAMAAN noted that their study found “illiberal secularist opinions regarding religious diversity: 43% said that no religions should have the right to proselytise in public.” Photos of public Islamic prayer at Western pro-Palestinian encampments drew negative reactions from some oppositionists. People have begun knocking clerics’ turbans off their heads as a gesture of defiance, to approval on social media. Protests have even been known to feature chants in favor of Reza Shah, Iran’s penultimate monarch. Reza Shah had a strong illiberal secularist streak, most famously banning women from wearing the veil in public.

Of course, any regime has opponents. Yet the story within the Islamic Republic’s social base is not much better, even more so among its clergy. Recent rounds of protests have notably featured segments of society that traditionally back the regime. Pictures of regime officials’ relatives living Western lifestyles abroad are common, suggesting that they do not practice what they preach—or are at least more tolerant in their private lives than in public affairs

The Iranian clergy has become a cesspool of corruption. One recent example: Tehran Friday prayer leader Kazem Sedighi and his family allegedly pocketed rent from a seminary-owned hotel, transferred seminary land to a family company, and sold seminary land for a cash payment he collected in person. Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, father-in-law to Iran’s president, allegedly receives a 10% cut of revenues from a large charity endowment as a salary without playing a meaningful role in the endowment’s decisions. Other religious endowments have become massive business empires with opaque, tax-exempt finances. Non-clerical religious figures are involved, too. In one infamous example, a Quran reciter close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has faced repeated allegations of sexual abuse against his students; twice, he has been cleared of charges after alleged political interventions. Last year, videos emerged of top morality enforcers in Iran’s northwestern Gilan province engaging in sexual impropriety.

Repression is not limited to secular-leaning protestors, either. The regime also represses currents within Shia Islam it does not like. It operates a Special Court of the Clergy—a secretive, extraconstitutional judicial system for clerics. This system tolerates the above corruption but, as one lawyer with experience in the court told IranWire, “punish[es] those clerics who are either critical of the government or [skeptical] about the Supreme Leader’s decision-making.” It has repeatedly jailed clerics who called for the separation of mosque and state, thus using the law to punish in-house theological disagreements. Even the regime’s most senior clerical figures aren’t exempt, with targets including former Deputy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, his son Ahmad, and former Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri. Sedigheh Vasmaghi, a female Islamic law expert jailed for criticizing the mandatory hijab policy, recently went blind after prison authorities denied her medical care.

The Islamic Republic is, in its critics’ eyes, warping Islamic law to its own ends. Top Islamic scholars in Iran’s Qom seminary criticized the regime’s charging certain protesters with “waging war against God,” a capital offense in Sharia law. The scholars argued that the regime applied the charge in ways that did not align with traditional definitions. Similarly, regime-aligned figures inflate their religious credentials to gain status and legitimacy; both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi have appropriated the title “ayatollah.” It is highly likely that the next Supreme Leader will be chosen not by the clerical body that nominally controls selection, but by back-room politicking between regime insiders, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps generals, and so forth.

None of this has been good for the regime’s legitimacy. The regime’s failings have prompted a narrowing of the elite and the forcible exclusion of regime-friendly currents from politics. The reformists, for example, emerged from some of the regime’s most enthusiastic early supporters who had grown disillusioned. Reformist political successes during the Mohammad Khatami presidency (1997-2005) prompted the regime to disqualify many sitting officials from running for reelection; it later banned the media from mentioning Khatami by name. It clipped the wings of his hardline successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose maverick maneuvers and cleric-skeptical but still religious populism came to be a threat. His successor Hassan Rouhani, a cleric like Khatami, pushed a moderate line despite his own deep ties to Iran’s security state; the regime has blocked him, too, from running for office. Even conservative figures have faced such bans. All this has created widespread disillusionment and falling electoral participation. Major waves of protest occur every few years, and opposition is becoming broader and more radical. (Recall that 2009’s Green Movement protests called for votes to be counted; 2022’s protests featured not just calls for “Woman, Life, Freedom” but for the removal of Khamenei and his regime.)  Although the authorities have retained control thus far, the regime’s long-term survival is in doubt. Who knows what will follow for Islam in Iran.

It is possible to acknowledge these conditions but deny that Iran is a useful analogy to Western countries. In the first place, the Islamic Republic aims to implement Islam, not Christianity. Islamic political theology and Christian political theology are distinct traditions. Perhaps a modern Christian state would face fewer internal tensions than a modern Islamic one.

Not all religiously-inspired politics are the same, moreover. Iran is practicing “hard integralism,” per Edward Feser’s useful distinction. In other words, it is pushing directly and coercively to promote an idealized Islamic society. A soft or moderate integralism could subtly redirect politics in non-tyrannical ways. President Biden could, for instance, direct the consecration of America to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, an action that would be extremely integralist but which would require no repression and invite no corruption. Somewhat more plausibly, courts could allow public schools to revive practices of classroom prayer. That would be somewhat coercive, but would hardly compare to Iranian methods.

Yet even granting these objections, the Islamic Republic is pursuing something that rhymes with what Christian Nationalists and harder integralists seek. We can presume that any confessional state established in the West would produce similar results—including a public turn against the established religion. But we don’t need to speculate to in order to reach this conclusions. Comparable enterprises in Ireland, Quebec, and Spain all produced similar results within living memory.

The Islamic Republic in Iran is also less alien to the West than it may seem. It rose from modernity’s cultural disruptions, led by theorists who had engaged heavily with Western intellectual life. The Islamic Revolution occurred at a time of massive social challenges, including rapid urbanization, that rhyme with Western experiences in the last two centuries. The political philosophy of the Islamic Republic is in dialogue with Western thought. Its most important thinker before the revolution engaged heavily with Marx and Fanon, seeking to draw on their ideas of imperialism, alienation, and exploitation while seeing traditional religion as not an opiate, but a powerful engine for social justice. A top philosopher drew on Heidegger for resources to oppose Westernization. Ali Larijani, a consummate regime insider, holds a PhD in Western philosophy and dissertated on Kant and written on Kripke.

Indeed, the best defense for modern integralists against treating the Islamic Republic as a troubling analog may be that the Islamic Republic is too modern or even postmodern, that it has drunk too deeply from Marx, Heidegger, and Fanon. Yet Iran’s social conditions today are more like the modern West—the world in which today’s integralists must act—than they are like pre-modern Christendom

The Islamic Republic of Iran—a decrepit, corrupt system pushing its society away from the faith it aims to instill—is thus inescapably a case of integralism gone wrong. Those seeking examples of moral, political, and spiritual should look elsewhere. Christianity must prevail in the souls of men, driven by God’s grace. Pursuing dominion by law would be a disaster.

John Allen Gay is executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society.


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