Hitchens on Iran's Theocrats

The term "theocracy" trips readily enough off the tongue and is an accurate description of a system where mortals claim the right to dominate other mortals in the name of God. But it is also a word that has uncomfortable implications for those who hope to stay out of the "internal affairs" of other societies. The Iranian theocracy, and the crisis of its regime, is a near-perfect illustration of this dilemma.

By the rule laid down by the mullahs, the Iranian people are not even allowed to meddle in their own internal affairs. They are counted as wards of the state, as children in the care of a paternal priesthood. (It's for this reason that the humiliation of dictatorship is felt with especial and stinging keenness by the rising generation of young Iranian adults.) The immediate result of theocratic policy when measured by the standard of repression is pretty clear and getting ever clearer: any government that imagines it has a divine warrant will perforce deal with its critics as if they were profane and thus illegitimate by definition.

But now see how this plays out in the ordinary human world, and watch what happens to a state or society that forbids itself the secular catharsis of self-criticism. In 1988 a certain Mr. Rafsanjani paid an urgent call on a certain Mr. Khomeini in order to tell him that Iran had no serious choice but to sign a U.N.-sponsored peace deal with Saddam Hussein. Not even the consecrated martyrs of the Revolutionary Guards could go on taking the catastrophic casualties of the war. Khomeini had resisted Rafsanjani's "realism" for a long time, claiming that God was on the side of Iran and that his will would therefore prevail. But he was obliged to sign.

Then, desperate to recover religious credibility and honor, and noticing that there were angry protests against an Indian-born novelist living in England, Khomeini doubled and quadrupled the cultural stakes and pronounced a death sentence on Salman Rushdie. Thus the West came to hear and understand the words ÒfatwaÓ and "jihad," as exported to non-Muslim societies by bribery and force. To this day—as evidenced by the Danish cartoon controversy and other crises—there is a palpable fear of printing or broadcasting anything that may offend Islamic extremist "sensibilities."

My colleague and friend Fareed Zakaria wrote not long ago in these pages that there was a significant difference between, say, the Taliban takeover of the Swat Valley and the launching of suicide attacks on the non-Muslim world. I said to him then and I say once more that in the long run this is a distinction without very much difference. A country that attempts to govern itself from a holy book will immediately find itself in decline: the talents of its females repressed and squandered, its children stultified by rote learning in madrassas, and its qualified and educated people in exile or in prison. There are no exceptions to this rule: Afghanistan under the Taliban was the worst single example of beggary-cum-terrorism, and even the Iranians were forced to denounce it—because of its massacre of the Shia—without seeing the irony.

But when the crops fail and the cities rot and the children's teeth decay and nothing works except the ever-enthusiastic and illiterate young lads of the morality police, who will the clerics blame? They are not allowed to blame themselves, except for being insufficiently zealous. Obviously it must be because the Jews, the Crusaders, the Freemasons have been at their customary insidious work. Thus, holy war must be waged on happier and more prosperous lands.

If you think I exaggerate even slightly, consult the Web sites of the Iranian theocracy and of its Hamas and Hizbullah surrogates and proxies. These exhorting leaders are not content to inflict their doctrines only on their "own" people. A failed state that cannot allow any grown-up internal debate, or any appeal against the divine edict, will swiftly become an even more failed state and then a rogue one because its limitless paranoia and self-pity must be projected outward. Thus we have a very direct interest in having the Iranian people permitted to interfere in their own internal affairs, and a very immediate reason to insist that the regime's thugs not make their next appearance on the historical stage with nuclear weapons with which to undergird their claim of unfailing righteousness and conviction that they alone know what it is to be a victim.

Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great.