Ran Number 497 16 July 2012
Friday in Tehran. A large, bearded man in high-ranking military uniform and wearing a black-and-white scarf cries. He is distressed, he sobs uncontrollably. People all around are visibly moved. Some shed tears. An unforgettable scene. The air in the auditorium is thick with fervour, with emotion, with passion. Why? Because the expected Deliverer, the restorer of justice, the Hidden Imam, the Imam al-Muntazhar, once again has failed to return.
In Iran last week for a Conference on Mahdism and Art, the priest lectured on the Hidden Imam theme in one of J.L. Borges’ tales, The Approach to al-Mu’tasim. A condign esoteric subject, I found, as hardly anyone in the audience had heard of the great Argentinean writer. Never mind. A seed was planted, insh’allah. And I learned from the questions. ‘Could the mysterious hero of Borges’ story have been Jesus?’ a bright-eyed young man asked me afterwards. First time I thought of that. The hearer’s mystical insight at work, perhaps?
However, the sobbing general at the Conference was Hasan Firooz-Abadi. In charge of the Basij, Iran’s voluntary revolutionary militia. Loved by some, detested by others. Yet, the fellow interested me. Because he represents a live example of a notable conjunction now lost in the West – indeed execrated - that between piety and politics.
The awaited Redeemer of Shia’ Islam, the Twelfth Imam, is a paradoxical figure. A more-than-mortal man who keeps out of sight, he is also all-too present and active in the hearts and minds of believers. President Ahmadinejad for instance invokes him frequently. (Peculiar though how the President’s name was never mentioned during the Conference – not even once. What could it mean?) Politically and doctrinally speaking, the Hidden Imam matters. And to people like the pious General he obviously matters a great deal. His tears were not faked. They were real. His were cries of longings, of yearnings and of hope. Felt expressions of deliverance from the darkness of the present age, like a rare Christian really looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ.
Nonetheless, the Basij name is mud in the Western media. They are loathed and reviled. Verily, the idea of a body of moral enforcers, of fighters against moral harm, must strike panic and terror in the hearts of dogmatic secularist regimes like those of France, Germany and our increasingly pathetic, drifting Ukania. Why? Maybe it goes back to that utilitarian thinker, Englishman John Stuart Mill.
In the pamphlet ‘On Liberty’ Mill offers a negative definition of political freedom. ‘Do no harm’ is the slogan. Your freedom ends where someone else’s begins....But Mill does not define what counts as harm. Coshing an old lady over the head to steal her purse clearly harms her and hence it is wrong. What about practices that harm people not physically but morally? Hard porn, for example? Or racial abuse? Or incest? Or prostitution? The harm they cause is not physical yet it is real. Thus Roger Scruton, the greatest living conservative philosopher, writes that ‘The concept of harm...brings with it precisely that reference to shared moral intuitions which the idea of utility and the negative concept of freedom were designed to replace’. Mill’s idea of man, his liberal individualism, in other words, is too atomistic. It does not do justice to the reality of man’s social life, rooted in communitarian institutions.
That the State has an interest in the physical welfare of its citizens no one will deny. Witness the public campaigns against smoking, hard-drinking, obesity and the like. But physical well-being is only one side of the coin. Society is also harmed by certain practices, the Basij would contend. Of course, where are the limits between individual freedom and societal rights? The debate is on. One thing is clear, though: the old, time-hallowed sins and crimes, laid down in God’s revelation, like incest, bestiality and sodomy, in the West are now either relegated the private sphere, out of reach from the law, or even extolled as downright virtues. Indifferent matters of personal liberty or choice. People, it appears, no longer care about them.
It is different in Iran. God still matters. Iranians, unlike post-Christian Brits, ‘do God’. God’s word, the Qur’an, is uncontested. The Book is universally venerated and, at least in principle, followed. Self is subordinated to community, to the whole. Justice, rooted in revelation, is the overarching principle at the basis of legislation. Hence the Basij are no aberration.
Bizarre? Yet till recently in Britain a luminary like Lord Denning, former Master of the Rolls, could argue that ‘without religion there is no morality...and without morality there is no law’. The good peer even kept the Bible by his side when deliberating. He was no soft touch when it came to punishment - a mugger who had hurt an old pensioner was sentenced to 25 strokes of the birch. Why, o why can’t we get judges like that today? It really would work wonders. Not ‘hug a hoody’, as silly PM David Cameron once urged, but ‘birch a hoody’ might sensibly fix the problems of feral, violent youths...
Don’t get me wrong. Iranians struck me as pretty laid back about the Basij guys. After Tehran, I stayed with the family of a friend in the famed city of Isfahan. All observant and practising Muslims – and indeed believers in the Hidden Imam - they smiled at mention of the moralistic Basij but expressed no downright hostility or sense of dread. Naturally, Iranians are good Muslims all right but they are also a proud, independent-minded and individualistic people. (Evinced especially in the eccentric way they drive!)They are certainly not, pace Western propaganda, a people crouching in fear under a 1984 menacing, all-invasive control. A healthy diversity of opinions prevails about things. And a Sufi painter I met there just e-mailed me with some amazing words of wisdom concerning matters of the invisible world.
Come to think of it...could I possibly, fleetingly have rubbed shoulders with the Hidden Imam in the magic streets of Isfahan? Been in receipt of his grace, his truth, his enlightening secrets?
Mumkin. It is possible...
Revd Frank Julian Gelli