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Customer Review

on 23 January 2004
In the late 1990s, the Islamic Republic adopted a policy of cautious outreach to the world and Khatami's landslide victory in 1997 raised hopes of a more moderate regime in Iran, with democracy, a free press, the free flow of information, political and religious tolerance, and participation by women and minorities. However, this revolution in thinking brought Khatami's government into conflict with the ruling clerics with their own vision of an Islamic society. Based on interviews conducted during their residence from 1998 to 2001, Abdo and Lyons concluded that the clerical establishment is still very powerful and is able to block any move not to their liking. As a consequence little if any of the hoped for changes have taken place. All politics in Iran stem ultimately from theological conflict and the deep doctrinal, philosophical and political differences separating the Sunnis who dominate the broader Islamic world and the Shi'ites who recognize only the authority of Mohammed's direct heirs. Both sides believe in preserving the Islamic system, but it is the degree of flexibility and independence within the system that forms the basis of their disagreement. Currently there are two issues which are being fought behind the scenes - will it be the democratically elected or the clerics who rule Iraq and will it be the Sunnis or the Shi'ites who will win the battle for the minds of the young people.
According to Shi'ite texts the first eleven heirs to the Prophet Mohammed were killed by agents of the rival Sunni Caliphs and the twelfth Imam went into hiding, announcing in 941 that he was severing his earthly ties to return at the end of time to usher in a reign of perfect peace and justice. The Sunni clerical class assumed the rights and privileges once reserved for the Imams, including the collection of obligatory religious taxes, convening Friday prayers and defensive war against the infidel. Weakened by World War II, Britain ceded its influence in Iran and in the Middle East to the US which played a central role in the 1953 overthrow of Mosadeq who intended to nationalize the British-owned oil industry. The CIA assisted the Shah's intelligence service; US businessmen became more influential; American servicemen and their families appeared in large numbers; and western culture ran rampant through a traditional society. It was the political mullahs led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, aided by Islamic activists, secular nationalists, militant students, clerics and the leftist militia who brought down the Shah allowing Khomeini to create a Sunni-based theocratic system. The desert city of Qom and the northeastern city of Mashhad make up the intellectual center of contemporary Shi'ism where many interviews took place. Below the surface Qom is seething with discontent over the clerics' 20 year experiment with direct political power during which universities were purified of un-Islamic influences by firing professors, expelling students and burning books; the secondary school system was reorganized; the penal codes were rewritten; western businesses were nationalized and the Shah's assets seized. Ten centuries after the disappearance of the 12th Imam, many Shi'ite clerics believe that the Sunnis have neither the authority nor the right to involve themselves directly in politics, which by definition has been corrupt and illegitimate since the Greater Occultation.
Following 9/11 a consensus emerged overnight that Islam had declared war on the West. But bin Laden's primary grievance concerns the shortcomings of the Arab rulers and not the values or lifestyle of the decadent west. Moderate Muslims are trying to find ways to adapt Islam to the demands of the modern world, which puts them at odds with extremists like bin Laden. Even so, it is only when the West intervenes in the Muslims' pursuit of Islamic purity and religious salvation - either by supporting repressive rulers perceived to be illegitimate in religious terms or interfering directly in domestic politics in the Muslim world - that it too becomes the enemy. One passage in particular caught my eye: "The battle for the hearts and minds of seminarians is critical to the struggle among the clerics, for these students represent not only the future of the clerical class but they also act as aides, researchers, and even propagandists and recruiters for the senior ulama who head the religious schools and institutes." Huntington in 'The Clash of Civilizations' warns us that the Muslim population is likely grow from 18% of world population in 1980 to 30% in 2025, that the Protestant Reformation was one of the outstanding youth movements in history and that the youth of Islam are already making their mark in the Islamic resurgence. Peter Bergen in 'Holy War, Inc' tells us that one of bin Laden's goals is to topple the Saudi regime and replace it with rule aligned to 7th century teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. What happens in Muslim countries will have an increasing impact on our lives in the west and such issues as who rules Iran and who will win the battle of the minds for the young people will set the trends for decades to come. For anyone who wishes to have an understanding of the big issues of our time this book is required reading.
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