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Reza Pahlavi and the Question of Religion


By Reza Bayegan, Paris

Reza Pahlavi has by and large been reticent on the issue of religion. He mainly mentions it in order to reiterate his belief in an Iran where the separation of Mosque and state are absolute. In a part of the Middle East where religion runs deep roots within the collective consciousness of the population, playing the religious card seems to be a powerful temptation for a leader who wishes to unite the masses under his flag. Nevertheless Mr Pahlavi during his long and arduous campaign has consistently refused to give in to any such temptation.

There are political experts who argue that if the Iranian prince would have sprinkled his speeches with Islamic catchwords or would have sent messages on the occasions sacred to the Shiites, he would have done marvels to arouse the pious-minded masses of his nation. Under the present circumstances where the clerical establishment has lost its moral credibility and has been exposed as destroyers of authentic Islamic values, it would have been easy for the Iranian crown prince to stir religious sentiments and pose as the defender and potential restorer of the nation's Islamic faith.

Not displaying any outward sign of religiosity, the son of the late Shah of Iran whose namesake Imam Reza is Iran's most revered saint is nevertheless far from being indifferent to spiritual belief.  He has named one of his daughters Iman (faith in Arabic) and although he never refers to it, he has performed the sacred duty required of devout Muslims of making a pilgrimage to Mecca. His refusal therefore to bring the religious factor into his campaign has been a matter of principle rather than apathy.

This principle is rooted in an outlook that the Iranian prince considers as indispensable for the future of his country as a modern democracy and a just society. Although the most dominant sect in Iran is Shiite Islam, the country is a religious mosaic that includes Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Baha'is, Sufis.  For a statesman, public identification with one of the religious denominations of the county, albeit the most numerous one amounts to discrimination against the rights of others who adhere to a different faith. It undermines the impartiality and the inclusiveness of the office he is representing.

 Reza Pahlavi's vision of a secular government is not unlike the dream of another modern, progressive statesman in a different era and different country.  John F. Kennedy believed in an America where the head of state did not represent any particular religious group but stood up for the rights and freedoms of all citizens. In a speech delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, the then democratic presidential candidate who was a Catholic insisted that his religious faith should be considered as a private matter and ought in no way interfere with his discharging of his responsibility as the president of the United States of America. In that address he highlighted his belief in an America which "... is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all". 

Prince Reza Pahlavi's dream of the separation of religion and state in his homeland, although totally at odds with Iran's present system of government, is deeply embedded within the Iranian political tradition and in agreement with the country's tolerant culture and society. Iranian monarchs have a long tradition of acting as a moderating force and a counterweight against the bulldozing power of dominant religion. The biblical story of King Darius and Daniel is a good example of this moderating influence.  It reminds us that although King Darius was initially deceived by the country's elders to sign the order for punishing Daniel for his apparent disregard of an arbitrary law restricting the freedom of worship, eventually he follows not the dictates of the religious leaders, but the voice of his own conscience. Finally he takes the side of one Jew against all his advisers and the country's religious establishment. He proves that as a king his just authority extends over everyone regardless of what they worship privately. (Book of Daniel, Chapter 6)

The crimes and atrocities committed by the clerical regime in the past twenty-nine years in the name of religion have played a crucial role in helping to bring home to the best minds of the Iranian nation the need for a total separation of the institutions of worship and governance. Less sensible minds however have been affected differently. There has been an extremist backlash amongst many Iranians against Islam itself. Books and articles have been written denouncing Islam as a backward and irredeemably violent religion incompatible with advancement and modernity.  Some have suggested a return to Zoroastrianism or displayed their preference for some aspects of Christianity.

A clear-eyed examination however proves to an impartial observer that all religions have their positive and negative aspects. For those bent on perpetration of violence it is not difficult to find verses in the Old or New Testament to justify their actions. As far as compatibility with advancement is concerned, one should remember that a great many mediaeval thinkers and scientists who helped to establish the foundation of modern science emerged from within the Islamic civilization.

The Iranian proponents of ditching Islam in favour of a more stylish religion fall into the same trap as the fanatical mullahs, i.e. they confound religious faith with religious doctrine. They strip religion from all its poetic, emotional, cultural and civilisational values and point at its skeletal bareness and deformities. Reduced to their doctrinal bareness and judged on the basis of the misdeeds of their followers all religions fail, and to borrow from the words of St Paul, all  'fall short of the glory of God'.

As in the eyes of the Iranian regime it is an apostasy to publicly declare one's lack of belief in Islam, amongst some circles of the Iranian opposition outside the country, it is considered an anathema to admit that one adheres to the Islamic faith of his or her forefathers or god forbid performs the ritual of prayer. There is no question that Islam bashing sells books in the West and to hurl insults at Moslems has become the best refuge of mediocre Iranian minds and third-rate Middle Eastern intellects. If the Iranian opposition hopes to make any substantial change for better in Iran, it needs to dramatically alter its intolerant attitude and leave religion alone as a matter of private conscience and personal preference.

Reza Pahlavi's stance regarding religion amounts to acknowledging its humanizing and ethical role in shaping the individual character and infusing society with a sense of greater purpose. He has never advocated freedom from religion but freedom of religion. He has astutely understood that the biggest enemy of spiritual Islam is political Islam. In his book Winds of Change he writes:

 "... a profound personal commitment to faith has been deeply rooted in Iranian culture and heritage. As one of the cradles of civilization, Iran has been a land of tolerance, a home to a multitude of ethnicities and religions. The respect for individual faith gained root and flourished in our land, and our forefathers were among the first to introduce the concept of a deity and of monotheism to mankind. In all these years, men of the cloth, regardless of which faith they represented, were respected members of our society.

Since the advent of Islam, our clergymen have served as a moral compass. Spirituality has been an inseparable part of our culture. And our men of the cloth have been respected by the various sectors of our society.

But the advent of an Islamic theocracy in 1979 introduced a totally different role for religion and clergy. For the first time, these revolutionary clerics stepped out of the mosques and entered the political arena. Rather than being moral advisers to society, they became the decision makers and attempted to manage the daily affairs of the country. Even worse, they attempted to rewrite our history, our culture and our traditions.

Soon, the once revered clergy had to provide daily answers to the most difficult social, economic, and policy questions. When their answers fell short, so did reverence to them.

 Today, moral guidance has been replaced by clerical censorship and dictatorial fiat...The sad fact is that clerical policies have generated a great deal of animosity and resentment - an immense disservice to our religious heritage". (Winds of Change pp. 26-28)

What is evident in the above passage is that Prince Reza Pahlavi clearly understands that Iran's religion, unlike its clerical rulers is part and parcel of its rich moral heritage. It was there long before the clerical dictators appeared on the scene and will endure long after they have departed. For the past twenty-nine years Iran's national faith has paid the highest price for the hardest lesson it has learned in the long history of its evolution i.e. to stay within the parameter of private and individual conscience where it belongs and where it can earn the highest reverence and can produce the greatest impact.

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