This week I intend to illuminate one of the Western political world’s most blatant double standards when it comes to geo-political issues. The issue in question is the relationships that Western nations have with theocratic governments around the world. When I say Theocracy of course, I assume that many readers who happen to live in “Western” nations, through ceaseless discussion in the media and in political spheres, have come to understand Iran as an encapsulating the notion of a theocracy, but how we view several other Middle Eastern nations with almost identical governments is a little more questionable. In the process of discussing how the current state of affairs came to be I will inevitably dip into the history of how theocracy in its current form came to be a popular movement in the world and will doubtless come to speculate on the dangers posed by all theocracies in the near future.
The history of theocracy as we understand it, certainly in the middle east, began during the earliest phases of the Cold War in Iran. The year was 1951 and the starting gun that sounded which began theocratic movements was the policy of the then Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, to nationalise Iranian oil production, in the process depriving British oil companies of funds they felt they were entitled to.
After Mossadegh’s movement towards nationalising the countries oil resources was initially ratified in the Hague as a legal action, a clandestine movement began to overthrow Mossadegh and re-instate the Shah (the traditional leader of the country) in a supreme position of power. The clandestine movement to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran was, you’ve guessed it, initiated by an organisation who’s raison d’être was seemingly the planning of hair-brained coups, the CIA. In a bizarre twist however to the usual story of CIA ineptitude, the coup was actually a success and in place of Mossadegh now sat the dictatorial Shah Reza Pahlavi. What followed was a prolonged attempt by a western backed secular dictator to modernise Iran along Western lines which proved highly unpopular with many aspects of Iranian society. Whether the reason for the unpopularity of the modernisation programme was the break neck pace at which the Shah’s reforms were due to take place or whether it was the repressive way in which the Shah dealt with any who dissented against his rule, from both left and right of the political spectrum, we will never know exactly and will simply have to remain content to know that generally speaking the regimes movements were highly unpopular. After 25 years on the throne, the damn finally burst and a massive wave of protest, headed to some degree by religious movements as one of the most repressed social group under the Shah’s secular rule, deposed the Shah and seized control of Iran. After the revolution had successfully disposed of the former government, a vote was held and Iran officially became an Islamic republic and the worlds first theocracy as we currently understand the term. It is important that I point out here that the action which started this whole chain of events was not some innate love on the part of Iranians or by further extension, Muslims for governments based on their religion of choice, it was the imperialistic actions of dying empire trying to ensure that it could first of all, continue to plunder mineral wealth from the developing world and secondly, to prevent a government that had its own peoples interests at heart “going over” to communism. It was these two rationales that informed the British and American decision to re-impose an unpopular leader on the Iranian people who eventually coalesced around religion in defiance of the Shah. Politicians here can offer endless platitudes about the “evil” that the Iranian clerics and Hezbollah represent all they want, but they must never be allowed to forget that it was the West’s meddling hands that directly created the environments in which such movements and peoples developed.
The story however did not end there. After the Iranian revolution had successfully purged itself of the last vestiges of the Shah’s regime, genuine fears were expressed throughout the west that much like the French revolution before it that the revolution would spread and overthrow more Western allies in the process. Adding to these concerns, in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Shah a crisis of sorts developed between the USA and Iran as armed groups stormed the American embassy in Tehran in search of documents which proved that the CIA had been directly involved in the overthrow of Mossadegh in the 1953 coup. It as this point in time that the seeds of mutual distrust and discord were sowed in both the USA and Iran and goes some way towards explaining how relationships between the two nations have remained so poor over the years. Further adding to the strained relationship between the West and Iran was a period, where during a protracted mutual antagonism between Iran and Iraq, many Western nations flooded neighbouring Iraq with weapons to prevent the spread of an Iranian style theocracy to another critical nation in the chain of oil supply. This flow of weapons and support for Saddam Hussein likely lengthened the conflict much past the initial battles, to the point where in the end the war between Iran and Iraq lasted 8 long years with thousands butchered mindlessly for no major gain to either country. Alongside arming the neighbouring dictator, the Western world also engaged in a more subtle form of conflict with Iran in the form of economic blockades in an attempt to get Iran to play along with Western economic interests, economic blockades which have pretty much been a constant reality of life in Iran ever since with sanctions taking the place of the blockade in recent years. While the West intended through both of the above measures to subject Iran and principally the Iranian clerics to a position of economic and political inferiority, arguably both measures helped to cement the religio-nationalist movement in its position of power which it continues to hold unto this day.
During the same time period, events were afoot in neighbouring Afghanistan which eventually lead to the foundation of a theocratic government there. At this time, Afghanistan had recently undergone a revolution of its own, which unlike the Iranian one moved away from religion and towards a far more socialist approach to government. As the Saur revolution swept to power it became closely linked with the Soviet Union, who of course were happy to have another state on their Christmas card list, which only extended really to nations who cited Marx as a basis for their constitutions. Anyway, from the moment that a socialism-inclined government came to power and developed ties with Moscow, the loving care bear peace president of the United States Jimmy Carter signed directives to begin covert support for anti-government movements in Kabul. Eventually things came to a head when American and Pakistani backed Islamist militants, who were angry with government attempts to secularize the country, attempted to overthrow the Afghan government, which precipitated a greater period of instability throughout the country. Eventually the Soviet Union intervened in the conflict in an attempt to prop up the socialist government against a broad insurgency which among other elements had a strong religious backing. Anyone with a basic grounding in history knows what happened next now that the Soviet Union had become involved in the conflict, in the usual petty tit for tat that both superpowers waged throughout the Cold War, the USA started giving masses of military and financial aid to a plethora of insurgent groups which did eventually push the Soviet Union out of the country but in the process massively destabilised the country setting the stage for a hard-line religious government to capitalise on the anarchy that was widespread across the whole country at this point in time .
At this point in time I would take care to point out that in both the cases of Iran and Afghanistan prior to the coming to power of theocratic governments, what we can see is western political ideologies creating a vacuum which in both cases a reactionary religious movement has filled. In the case of Iran, to ensure the continuing supply of oil for the Western consumer markets, such market minded capitalism lead to a staged coup which ousted a democratically elected leader and replaced him with a widely hated monarch who however was willing to continue to perpetuate Iran’s economic subservience to Western nations. In Afghanistan we saw a European style socialist government attempt to modernise and secularize the country along the same lines as had been done by the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations which led to much popular resentment of the government among the people of the country and later, when the USA and USSR we saw later day imperialism ruin the country and create a lawless state where the rule of the strong would be the only thing capable of maintaining order. These facts demonstrate a clear line of causation between the actions of the West, that is both schools of Western thought – capitalism and communism, and the type of governments that later formed there. The racist rhetoric of the media who assume that somehow that there is an innate love of religious government amongst Muslims is nonsensical and we would do well to begin viewing the situation as it really is with religious governments simply being just one possible option that people who find themselves in desperate situations can turn towards to lead them.
While these two rather well known cases of theocracies were developing however, other nations in the world were also steadily moving towards a theocratic government of sorts under the radar and continue to do so. The countries in question are Israel and the Gulf Arab nations, with the main example being Saudi Arabia. It is true that neither of the two nations I have just named are true theocracies in the dictionary sense of the word defining a theocracy as a “system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god.” The above being true though, does not change the fact that both of the nations I mentioned above are nations were God is taken as the ultimate source of the constitution and the laws by which citizens live their lives. Saudi Arabia’s monarchy rule over a nation which is a theocracy in all but name and has been since the day it was first formed from the remnant states left after the Ottoman retreat in the First World War 1. The kingdom is not only a theocracy, but it is a theocracy of the type that gives atheists and secularists nightmares, with many of its laws based upon the most literal translation of thousands of year old texts which advocate many things which of course upset modern sensibilities. The problem with this as a practice, in my opinion at least, is that the laws were never defined by a wide political consensus but based upon the interpretations of holy texts by Religious and Political elites who naturally are inclined towards only creating laws that maintain their elite positions within society. I’m sure for example a majority of Saudi’s would likely feel less offended by adultery or women driving, than the clerics who enforce such laws which have been used to effectively terrorise the people into a miserable state of submission to the state. Of course were the truth of the matter that a wide array of Saudi’s had agreed upon the inclusion of such laws in their constitution then while it would admittedly still gall me then at least democracy had been practised but the theocratic practices of the Saudi monarchy are enforced from the top down with religion not only being a means of finding spiritual peace, as intended, but also a means for the elite to utilise in controlling the people, surely never the intention of any prophet.
In the case of Israel , we have a state which on the surface is even less of a theocracy than any of the three nations I have mentioned above and yet there are many unresolved issues with the country, several of which revolve around the place of religion in society. Central amongst the issues for both religious Zionists and for Palestinian Muslims and Christians that live within the borders of Israel proper is that Israel does not have a written constitution. The problem with a presumptive constitution is that it will inevitably lead to calls for the drafting and creation of a written constitution in the name of simplicity, and it is this drive by many for a written constitution to codify the laws that would govern the state of Israel that is the problem as the question is pondered as to whether the state of Israel is the state of all those within its borders or whether it is Jewish state exclusively for it’s Jewish citizens. This perhaps seems less repugnant to many in the West for example by comparison to the mandatory wearing of a headscarf but when we really get down to pondering the implications of the Israeli state defining itself as a Jewish state then they are just as horrifying. Dying with cancer and in urgent need of treatment to prevent death ? Wait your a Palestinian of the Shia branch of Islam, Sorry no space for you. Nearest school for you children to attend is just a mile down the road ? Sorry, if your a Palestinian Christian then the nearest school for your kids is ten miles away in a run down area of town. Want to keep your business open all day Saturday ? Sorry, Saturday is a holy day that all must observe whether they are religious or not. All of the above scenarios might seem a little far fetched but Israel already has a pitiably poor record when it comes to minority rights and it is entirely possible that, if the state of Israel was officially codified in writing as a Jewish state for its Jewish citizens, it would take this definition of itself to its logical conclusion by depriving anyone not of Jewish ancestry of valuable services and facilities.
When we look at countries where religion does play such a fundamental part as the basis of the laws by which society lives it is notable that the West has a very chequered record on this issue with certain theocracies being bad yet others being critical allies. On reflection, I feel Iran was simply unlucky when it became the first true theocracy in the current era in that it came to represent a powerful new political idea that to some degree helped a faltering nation in regaining much pride in itself by standing up to those who would have seen it subjected to their own political and economic interests and priorities. The success and totality with which the Iranian revolution overturned the existing natural order in one of the Middle East’s largest and arguably at the time most powerful nations undoubtedly scared many in the West whose economic and industrial and even cultural strengths to some degree were based almost entirely on access to cheap oil by which to export their goods to world markets and import the raw materials. Oil that is, that primarily came from other Middle Eastern countries were now the West was worried similar revolutions might sweep to power and give rise to more nations that were willing to stand up to the neo-imperialist economic subjugation of their countries.
And this, as almost no ever says, is were it all went wrong. In true Western style, the nations of the West fed on a diet of poor quality intelligence and their own racist paranoia decided to embrace several other countries who were equally theocratic in nature and turn a blind eye to their barbarity which certainly in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan was as bad if not worse that of Iran. In signing this compact with devil the West demonstrated its blatant double standards on moral issues when profits are concerned and must have further reduced its own standing as an entity in the eyes of those that found themselves in countries were their rights were now being abused by corrupt elites in the name of a fundamentalist interpretation of their religion.
If the reader was left unsure by arguments offered above then I simply would ask them to consider the case of Syria, were the West is openly engaged currently in verbally antagonising a secular regime, which has always strived to negate sectarian conflict in its ethnically diverse territotry, and materially supporting some seriously unsavoury characters in their war with the Syrian Army. The reason for this you ask ? Well, the Syrian government is supported by the main bad theocracy, Iran, which we want to replace with a group of extremists who will likely replicate the hell hole that was southern Afghanistan under the Taliban, and the reason we support these groups ? Simply because they represent the interests of and are supported by the good theocracies as exampled by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.