Having written about politicians of many nationalities for decades, I thought I had become vaccinated against being surprised by how low they could wallow in cynicism. And yet last week I was surprised to learn I was not beyond being surprised.
Here’s why: In the past few days, the official media in Tehran have published a number of accounts by an Iranian delegation sent to Syria to monitor the so-called presidential election won by President Bashar Al-Assad with 88.7 percent of the votes. The first surprise came when Assad, a weakling with an ego the size of Everest, told the visitors that he owed his “victory” to “guidance by Imam Khamenei.”
This was a surprise because exactly at the time that Assad was making his sycophantic remarks, Ali Khamenei was ordering his minions to stop calling him “Imam.” A statement issued by his office insisted: “The Leader does not counsel the use of the title of ‘Imam’ . . . The title ‘Ayatollah Al-Ozma’ [Grand Ayatollah] is sufficient.”
The Supreme Leader was reacting to a number of thinly disguised attacks from senior clerics in Qom who have never recognized him as a religious leader, although they accept him as the Islamic Republic’s chief political figure. Last month, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Wahidi warned against those who “leapfrog and call themselves Hojjat Al-Islam, then Ayatollah, then Grand Ayatollah.” He did not name Khamenei, but everyone recognized the target.
Another Grand Ayatollah, Shobeiri Zanjani, has reminded everyone that Iran practices Twelver Shi’ism, meaning it has only 12 imams, the last of whom is “Hidden” and will return at the end of time.
Everyone knows that if Assad is still around, it is largely thanks to support from Tehran. Thus he has every reason to be grateful to the leadership in Tehran. What he is not obliged to do, however, is to be the “bowl that is hotter than the soup,” as we say in Persian, or “more Catholic than the Pope,” as they say in the West.
Assad is an ophthalmologist with no knowledge of Islamic theology. He is also the leader of a Nationalist-Socialist Ba’ath Party, a supposedly secularist outfit. The religious sect to which he belongs, the Alawites, has never been recognized as part of Islam by the Twelver Shi’ite clergy. So he could be excused for not knowing the difference between an imam and an ayatollah.
But if Assad has the excuse of his ignorance of Islam, what about Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, who bears the lofty title of Grand Mufti of Syria? This gentleman provided the second surprise of the week by offering a weird narrative of early Islamic history. In a meeting with the Khomeinist parliamentary delegation, Hassoun described Assad’s “victory” as a “blessing for Syrian people.” That much is understandable insofar as the gentleman is an employee of the Assad government. What is not understandable, let alone justifiable, is his attempt to put a religious gloss on what is an example of naked political cynicism.
According to accounts published by members of the Iranian delegation in the official media in Tehran, Hassoun claimed that after the Prophet’s death, Muslims developed the concepts of “caliph” and “imam” side by side. In that system, Hassoun went on, the imam was chosen “with assent from Allah,” while the people chose the “caliph” by swearing bay’ah (fealty). In other words, God and people made different choices. In that dualist system, the “caliph” could not fulfill his duties without the backing of the “imam.” Thus the first three caliphs, Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman, needed Ali as “imam.” (Hassoun does not say what happened when Ali himself became caliph.)
Trying to apply his theory to the present power structure in Iran and Syria, Hassoun claims that the “admirable success” of the Islamic Republic in Iran was due to “Imam” Khomeini and, after him, “Imam” Khamenei. According to Hassoun, The Islamic Republic’s various presidents, including Akbar Rafsanjani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani, are modern versions of the “caliph,” while Khomeini and Khamenei have played the “imam.”
Hassoun then claims that in Syria today, Assad plays the role of a “caliph” sustained by Khamenei’s “imam.” Leaving aside Hassoun’s pseudo-Islamic jargon, his analysis is correct. Assad is sustained by Khamenei. However, Assad’s position is best described by a pure Persian word: satrap, a provincial governor. He is satrap of Syria, with Khamenei playing the Shahanshah, the King of Kings. There is nothing new there; for almost 1,000 years Syria was an Iranian satrapy. What is new, however, is that Assad is as much a caricature of a satrap as Khamenei is of a King of Kings.
Hassoun’s despicable sycophancy does not stop there. In the meeting with Khomeinist parliamentarians, he asked them whether they had heard Khamenei’s latest speech. They replied that they had not because they were in Syria monitoring the presidential “election.”
Hearing that, Hassoun feigns surprise and hurt. “What is more important than hearing the latest guidance of the Imam?” he demands. “I will never miss the Imam’s speeches,” Hassoun boasts. “Each time I listen, I learn a world of wisdom.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that Khamenei, as the political leader of a beleaguered regime facing growing discontent within and sustained pressure from without needs whatever alliances it can make, even with a discredited dictator such as Assad. I also understand why Hassoun, whose fortune—maybe even life—depends on the continuation of the Assad regime, should try to curry favor with the foreign patron of that regime. Both positions make sense in terms of power politics.
What I object to is mixing religion with naked political calculation.