“God’s Country”: Iran & Other Theocracies

“God’s Country”: Iran & Other Theocracies

I realize that I have never done a blogpost on theocracies. Nose on my face.

Maybe I thought it a subject unworthy of serious analysis, so infantile in its thinking, inept in its imagination, fearful in its emotions, and bereft of sanity, clarity, or the merest powers of observation as to being beneath attention–but you can always count on a place like Iran to heave it back up into consciousness. So sit back, this is a longish one.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of theocracy is “a form of government in which one or more deities are recognized as supreme ruling authorities, giving divine guidance to human intermediaries who manage the day-to-day affairs of the government.” In a pure theocracy, the civil leader is believed to have a personal connection with the deity/deities of that civilization’s religion, such as Muhammad’s leadership of the early Muslims or Moses with the Hebrews. In an ecclesiocracy, religious leaders assume a leading role in the state, but don’t claim to be instruments of divine revelation.

A related phenomenon is a secular government co-existing with a state religion or delegating some aspects of civil law to religious communities. For example, in Israel, marriage is governed by officially recognized religious bodies who each provide marriage services for their respected adherents, but no form of civil marriage (free from all religion) exists, nor marriage by non-recognized minority religions. The same is true for divorce, child custody law, most matters pertaining specifically to the status of sex, reproduction, or women, and also army status (the Orthodox are excused from military service). Personally, I’d call that pretty solid theocracy.

The term was coined by Flavius Josephus in the first century CE to describe the government of the Jews. Josephus argued that while humanity’s main forms of rule could be subsumed under three types: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, the government of the Jews was unique. He proposed the term “theocracy” to describe this situation in which a god was sovereign and his word was law. This definition was widely accepted until the Enlightenment era, when the term took on negative connotations.

Christian theocracies currently in existence include the Holy See in Vatican City — and did you know it has a member seat as a state at the United Nations? It has non-consultative status, but the all-male priesthood scuttles through the halls, lobbying, wielding influence in crucial language for the drafting of documents (especially regarding sex and reproduction), and exerting considerable political power. That’s outrageous. Another current theocracy, going strong for over 1800 years, is the monastic community of Mount Athos, a peninsula in Greece which is an eastern orthodox autonomous area of 20 monasteries under the direct jurisdiction of the primate of Constantinople. It is specifically exempt from the free movement of people and goods required by Greece as membership in the European Union, entrance is permitted only with express permission of the monks, and the number of daily visitors is restricted with all visitors required to obtain an entrance permit. Also–wait for it!–only men are permitted to visit.

Current Islamic theocracies include the Islamic Republics of Iran, Pakistan, and Mauritania, although “Islamic republic” means different things to different nations. Some see it as a caliphate and others as a form of secular nationalism (although that’s a stretch). Usually, the Penal Code of the state is required to be compatible with some or all the laws of the Sharia; furthermore, the state may not be a monarchy, although many Middle Eastern states–the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, for instance, are clearly anomalies. Then there’s Afghanistan, reconstituted as an “Islamic Emirate,” where the Taliban (literally meaning religious scholars) are in complete control, with tribal khans and warlords ruling over different towns, villages, and rural areas. Prayer is compulsory and thieves are punished by amputation. Pork, alcohol, and same sex love are forbidden, as well as music, television, film, and most forms of art; movie theaters have been converted to mosques, portraiture is illegal (because it’s idolatry), girls are not allowed to attend schools or universities, and women are forbidden to work outside their household unless accompanied by male relatives. Punishment for such offenses ranges from public lashes through imprisonment to outright execution–sometimes by stoning. Shall I go on?

Well, there’s Saudi Arabia, an Islamic theocracy where religious minorities have no rights to practice their religions openly and conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable by death because it’s considered apostasy. Men can divorce and have multiple wives; women no way. The current alternative to such strictures seems to be the murderous young crown prince Mohammed bin Salman who actually did let women drive, gasp! — after they had been fired, imprisoned, and jailed for protesting the lack of driving rights for 40 years. Saudi Arabia also “religiously” observes male guardian laws meaning that women cannot go to school, seek or hold employment, travel, or take any legal action without the permission of a male relative, even if the only one available is their four-year-old grandson.

There’s also Tibet. Hmmm. I wonder why, despite his popularity as a world guru of wisdom governing from exile, the current Dalai Lama, while giggling cheerfully, continues the tradition of being a hierarch himself. To his credit, in 2011 he did suggest that the parliament of the central Tibetan administration begin considering a possible proposal to end his role as head of state in favor of an elected leader. Quite a few conditionals there . . .

There are also those countries that have an ambiguous status of living under an official “state religion.” The cultish adoration evoked by Kim Jong-un, the “dear leader” in North Korea, certainly comes to mind, as do those aptly termed “failed states” with temporary terrorizing dictators who adopt divine poses before they crash and burn. And of course when we get into ancient times, we’ve got theocracies from ancient Egypt through Japan and the Shinto sun gods to ancient Israel (technically a kritarchy ruled by judges) and from China to Rome, ancient Sumer to Deseret and the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints.

Theocracy reliably surfaces in different forms when major changes are sweeping the world—like those happening today in science and technology, and also those that demand payment due for the profligacy with which we have treated the planet in past centuries. Terrified, people scurry in search of something all powerful to which they can appeal, and then fill the silence that answers them with fantasies even more fearsome.

However, you can always trace two constant threads running through theocracies: control, and the suppression or erasure of women. The women are either strictly controlled, as in the Holy See, or simply excluded, as in Mount Athos. But whether through suppression or erasure, theocracies are not friendly places for women—or, really, for men, children, or other living things.

Which brings us to Iran.

What’s inside the global headlines of the first women’s revolution in modern times? Well, you could start with the patriarchy itself, or with Darius the Great of Persia, or Xerxes. Or you could flash forward to colonialism, or, after that, the 1979 “Islamic revolution.” We could certainly start with the murder by “morality police” of 22-year-old Mahsa Zhina Amini, for possibly showing a strand of hair. But let’s start with July 12th, 2022, which was the introduction of “national hijab and chastity day.”

This was instituted by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s introducing an even stricter set of rules to enforce women’s dress codes. Government officials, it was announced, would begin using facial recognition technologies on public transportation in order to identify violators. Moreover, the cabinet minister of “Iran’s headquarters for promoting virtue and preventing vice” announced that female government employees would be fired if their social-media profile pictures did not conform to the new rules. Since 2015, the Iranian government has been phasing in biometric identity cards, which include a chip that stores data such as iris scans, fingerprints, and facial images, enabling identification and arrest of anyone who violates the mandated dress code both in the streets and in cyberspace. Azadeh Akbari, a researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, noted that the regime “combines violent old fashioned forms of totalitarian control dressed up in new technologies. A large chunk of the population is now in this databank, so the government has access to all the faces and can easily find them.”

Sepideh Rashno, 28, a writer and artist, was arrested in July soon after footage circulated online of her being harassed on a bus over so-called improper clothing. In fact, a number of women were arrested in July after “hijab and chastity day,” but Rashno then appeared on state TV to make a clearly forced confession and apology. This incited further outrage, because both her delivery and physical state showed that she was exhausted, traumatized, and had been tortured: her face displayed cuts and bruises, and it turned out that she had been taken to hospital with internal bleeding. Rashno reportedly remains in custody: demonstrators have been carrying signs reading, Where is Sepideh?

Iranian women have been required to wear the hijab in public since the Islamic revolution in 1979, but the new president hardened the dress code along with more new restrictions: three women were arrested for dancing in public and sentenced to a year in prison and 91 lashes, 33 hairdressing salons were shut down, and 1700 people were summoned to Law Enforcement Centers for issues related to the hijab. Economic crises plus waves of protests against crippling inflation made diversionary tactics attractive, so Raisi, much more of a hardliner than his predecessor Rouhani, intensified the program of Islamization for the entire nation, and the Women’s Movement posed a convenient threat to national security since it represented a breakdown in social norms. For instance, Masih Alinejad, a journalist and dissident who described the current arrests as acts of terror, had spearheaded the White Wednesday Movement, which began in 2014 and encouraged women to wear white and discard their headscarves. She was the target of a kidnap attempt in 2021, and just last month a man with a rifle was arrested outside her house in New York. The introduction of a “population bill” in November 2021 restricts access to both abortion and contraception, in an attempt to increase Iran’s falling birth rate; it is part of a political process aiming to put women back in the home. And forced confessions are on the rise.

All of this—plus the chronic, severe oppression of the Kurdish population and repression of the young, Iran’s own future—finally boiled over. So today we see burning police stations, fire engines, and bus stops; student groups occupying more than 110 scholarly faculties and educational centers, a nationwide strike at universities; Tehran University, Tabriz University, and Sharif University campuses swarmed by hundreds of anti-riot police arresting or holding protesters hostage. Videos keep coming, and so do bullets, but so do teenage girls on the front lines: Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh, both 16, died after attending protests. Students have called on the United Nations Human Rights Council for help via social media, using such tags as #FreeIran and #SharifUniversity.

Fatemeh Shåms, who teaches Persian literature at Penn, observes that “One can get a very good sense of any revolutionary episode or movement from its slogans. The central slogan of this one is Women, Life, Freedom. Compare that with one of the main slogans of the 1979 revolutionary movement, which was Bread, Work, Freedom–the central slogan of the communist Labor Party which had been inspired by the revolutionary movement in Russia.” (Interestingly, unlike 1979, this uprising has the notable effect of cutting across different classes, itself a phenomenon in a class society like Iran. Mahsa Zhina Amini was herself from a humble background in a Kurdish border city.) Shams goes on to note that the core of this movement is the bodily autonomy of women, and reclaiming that. The slogan comes from the Kurdish freedom movement and is a result of decades of grassroots efforts by Kurdish women in one of the most economically deprived regions of Iran.

The leader of the Kurdish movement in 1998 gave a famous speech saying that women are the first captives in history and until they are liberated any emancipatory movement will be doomed to fail. As Shams points out, this revolution is leaderless: people in the streets are not waiting for anyone to take the lead. They are the leaders. It’s a point of strength that this movement has not coalesced behind a leader or a political party, which has made it very difficult for the security forces to suppress it. They tried.

They had mass arrests in the past few days of journalists and of people they thought could potentially be leaders. Indeed, by the three week mark (at this writing, two weeks ago), at least 1,200 people had been arrested, including 29 journalists, 20 activists, and 19 teachers, according to government arrest reports. Niloofar Hamedi, the Iranian photojournalist specializing in women’s rights, got away with stories for years, until she took a photo of Mahsa’s parents hugging each other in a Teheran hospital where their daughter was lying in a coma. Hamedi posted the photo on Twitter on Sept. 16, and is now being held in solitary confinement in the dreaded Evin Prison, where political prisoners frequently “disappear.” And now this, just in today: at least four prisoners have died and 61 have been injured in a major fire at Evin Prison.

It really all began at the victory of the Iranian revolution, very soon after Ayatollah Khomeini’s arrival back from exile, when the very first group of protesters who took to the streets were women protesting the compulsory hijab. I remember those demonstrations, and our support demonstrations here in New York, very well: the chants were “At the dawn of freedom, we have no freedom.” The protests were shut down. Nor should we forget that soon after the revolution even many so-called liberal figures who later on were disillusioned by the revolutionary government refused to criticize the idea of the compulsory hijab, saying in effect “Let’s not talk about a piece of fabric on women’s heads. That’s not the problem.” They cited the Shah and economics as the problem and called for unity. But as Shams reminds us, once the protests were shut down, women had to wear the hijab–and every political party that took power, including the reformists during the mid 1990s, none of them put fighting or abolishing the compulsory hijab as a priority.

Nassrin Sotoudeh, the human-rights lawyer who has represented many women who over the past ten years have been summoned to court or sentenced for not observing compulsory hijab, said recently, “This leaderless movement is led by women who are doing this one revolutionary act—not carrying a weapon. The only thing they’re doing is harmlessly taking something off their heads and walking in the streets of Iran. The figure of this revolution is the body of these women, these unveiled women who are walking in the streets harming no one. Their bodies have become the revolutionary figure of this movement. And this is unprecedented.”

Our own flirtation with American theocracy today would do well to study the reactions in Iran. After all, you can change the gods, since it’s not about them. It’s about power and control. And it always starts with women.

Scholars on extremism say that, post-January-6–insurrection, they have tracked the emergence of a “revolutionary Christian framework” among communities that have lost faith in the government. But that’s also not new. Christian nationalism has a deep history in America’s racist right-wing; its activism goes back to the roots of the Ku Klux Klan, who promoted themselves as Christian white patriots claiming credit for the more than 4000 documented lynchings, mostly of Black men, in the century after the Civil War.

The (all male, of course) Proud Boys and Oath Keepers of today also promote themselves as pious Western patriots. The Proud Boys, as only one example, burned Black Lives Matter banners at Washington churches a year ago, and then were spotted praying together the morning of the insurrection. Proud Boys knelt as a member prayed into a bullhorn, warning that far-left activists in a loosely knit group known as “antifa”(for “antifascists”) were “coming” for their culture and Constitution. “God will watch over us as we become proud,” the man said. Proud Boys joined him in shouting “We love you, God!” to the sky. This is not as amusing as it might seem. These are the same guys who, at their initiation ceremonies, vowed to not masturbate more than once a month, to hoard their precious bodily fluids and testosterone. Along with their piety and patriotism go their fears for masculinity.

Gavin McInnes, Proud Boys founder, proclaims that women’s role is in the home, as traditional housewives and mothers, and that “there is a war on masculinity,” being waged by feminists, adding that many Proud Boys have been raised by single mothers without a male figure in their lives. A researcher who studied 43 McInnes videos that drew more than 1 million views each on YouTube found that only three had to do with race, but 26 concerned women or feminism. One entitled “Single moms: stop talking about how brave and cool you are,” drew 2.1 million views. It’s not coincidental that this is happening at a time when we have a record number of women in Congress and when more women than men earn college and graduate degrees.

With so many ideological strands animating the far-right—including sexism, racism, antisemitism, nativism, and jingoistic nationalism—a shared affinity for Christian nationalism has come to serve as a unifying element, and as Christian nationalism’s presence grows, it could expand extremism’s influence over other, more moderate, conservative politicians and groups.

So we fight the same battles: for bodily integrity, for freedom, for each other, for ourselves, as do the women in Iran. Mahsa. Sepideh. Nika. Sarina. Niloofar. Nasrin. Together.

Woman. Life. Freedom.

[This Blogpost will be off next week and will return the week after next.]