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Religious Minority Group Members Discuss Politics and Religion at IranWire Webinar

June 1, 2021
9 min read
On May 27, IranWire hosted a third webinar on religious thought and the issues that confront us today
On May 27, IranWire hosted a third webinar on religious thought and the issues that confront us today
The discussion was hosted by IranWire journalist Kambiz Ghafouri
The discussion was hosted by IranWire journalist Kambiz Ghafouri
One of the participants was Hasan Ferechtian, an scholar of Islam
One of the participants was Hasan Ferechtian, an scholar of Islam
George Haroonian spoke as a member of the Jewish community
George Haroonian spoke as a member of the Jewish community
Padideh Sabeti, a member of the Baha’i community, also attended
Padideh Sabeti, a member of the Baha’i community, also attended
The final participant was Farshid Fathi, a Christian pastor and Bible teacher
The final participant was Farshid Fathi, a Christian pastor and Bible teacher

On May 27, IranWire hosted a third webinar on religious thought and the issues that confront us today. The two previous webinars discussed the death penalty and religion and gender equality. The third one discusses religion, politics and the election.

Participants in this webinar were Hasan Ferechtian, an scholar of Islam, George Haroonian, a member of the Jewish community, Padideh Sabeti, a member of the Baha’i community, and Farshid Fathi, a Christian pastor and Bible teacher. Kambiz Ghafouri, a journalist, moderated the webinar on behalf of IranWire.

Lessons from Previous Webinars

Both the guests and audiences at the previous two webinars pointed out that there was not enough time to discuss the issues at stake in enough depth. The second webinar had seven guests, for instance, but despite having two hours to discuss the issue some aspects remained unexamined.

Therefore, for this webinar, we chose just four religions: Islam and Judaism, as two religions with stringent edicts on politics, Christianity, where attitudes shift depending on the church and the Baha’i faith, which  bans it followers from engaging in politics.

Religion has Nothing to Do with Politics in its Modern Sense

“Our politics is the exact same as our faith” is a popular expression among Muslims. Hasan Ferechtian, a scholar of Islam, says this expression can be both right and wrong: “It’s totally correct if you mean that religious values must be observed.

“In Islam and some other religions, fighting tyranny and injustice is a duty and an honorable endeavor. But there are two views in Islam over whether politics and the religion are one and the same, and the view that existed at the dawn of Islam was something quite different.”

Fereshtian told those present: “Religion has nothing to do with government and politics in their modern sense. But at the dawn of Islam, something else happened. Religion wants to guide you down the righteous path that God has ordained, and what it forbids or commands have their punishments or rewards in the afterlife. But, in practice, it changed.

“The situation in Mecca and Medina changed, and issues of mediation and solving the problems between tribes led them to decide that the Prophet Mohammad was the right person to rule over them.”

He believes the  Prophet Mohammad’s mission from God and his role as a ruler are two separate things: “The Prophet’s mission, as God’s messenger, was to convey religion to the people. But then he was chosen to be the ruler and he became ruler.

Then, after the Prophet was gone, they decided to choose a successor to him as the ruler. The job of god’s messenger was done and they got together and chose a ruler in their own way, not in a Islamic way because Islam had no procedure in this regard. The Prophet was supposed to rule hearts.”

Judaism is Not Just a Religion but a Nation

When asked about the role of religion in early Jewish communities, George Haroonian said: “I believe that when discussing issues of Jews and politics, we must refer to history and the conduct of religions and various groups, not to what happened to the Jews 3,000 years ago.

“But, as far as I know, when the number of followers of Moses in Sinai desert grew large, his father-in-law, who was a tribal chief, suggested to him that he bring in a few people and divide the work among them so that they could take care of smaller details. They called this Sanhedrin [the ancient Jewish court system].

“Later, when the Jewish state and Jewish kings came into being, the kings always had a Jewish advisor next to them to give them guidance. In fact, the Jewish state, the Jewish religion and Jewish principles were integrated at the time; they were one and the same.

“Judaism is not just a religion but, I believe, it is also a nation. When you talk about the Jews you cannot talk just about their religion, because these national ties bind them together as well.”

Baha’is do not interfere in “party” politics

Padideh Sabeti was asked whether it was correct that Baha’is are forbidden from involving themselves in politics. “We hear a lot that Baha’is do not interfere in politics,” she says. “But we must add a word: Baha’is do not interfere in ‘party’ politics.

“If we consider politics to be managing the affairs of society, and the measures to reform and improve societal welfare, then not only do Baha’is participate in politics  but sometimes they are at the forefront of it as well.

“We say humanity is on the threshold of maturity, and that’s why we need new ideas, because some of the institutions and structures we rely on are centuries old and cannot satisfy the current needs of society.

“Baha’i teachings say that two processes are active in the world: the process of destruction and the process of construction. The destruction process, including nationalism and materialism, has become so institutionalized that perhaps we do not feel it. But there are also constructive processes and the Baha’i community is aligned with them. If politics is in line with these constructive activities then the Baha’is will be on the frontlines.”

Mixing Religion and Politics was Disastrous for Christianity

Farshid Fathi, a Bible teacher, says: “The darkest hours of the Christian church were during medieval times when religion and politics were integrated: something that is completely at odds with the holy scriptures and especially the New Testament.

“Why do I say this? In the Gospel of John, Chapter 18, the followers of Jesus wanted to make him a king. In verse 36 of the same chapter, Jesus evades them and says: ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’

“None of the Christ’s apostles, be it Peter, John or others, get involved in politics. We have no instance of Jesus or his apostles getting into politics. We must emphasize that Christianity must not be mixed with politics. Whenever this has happened it has been a disaster. And this is true of other religions as well.”

Islamic Republic is a Contradiction in Terms

“After the people chose the Prophet as their ruler,” says Hasan Ferechtian, “when he gave people an order they would ask him whether the order came from him from God. If he said the order was from God, they would obey it without question. But if he issued it as their ruler, they’d argue with him.

When it says in the Quran ‘Consult on affairs’, it means the affairs of this world, because you cannot consult on the affairs of the next. In the latter case, God reveals his message to the Prophet and the people are listeners, not advisors.”

But, he adds, this concept has changed in the last century. “In modern times some Muslims have tried to turn Islam into an ideology. Perhaps it began in Egypt, when they said that Islam had the solution for everything, from the economy to politics and so on.

“This idea entered Iran about 70 or 80 years ago. The first group may have been the Fedayeen of Islam and then, in the years that ended with the Islamic Revolution, came Ayatollah Khomeini and his philosophy of Velayat-e Faqih [the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, the founding principle of the Islamic Republic].

“In my view, the term ‘Islamic Republic’ is inherently a contradiction in terms. ‘Republic’ means the people and ‘Islamic’ means Islam. Well, Islam comes from God and we have no right to question it. But ‘republic’ means majority rule. The two are inherently incompatible.”

Beliefs Aside, Actions are What Counts

“In any discussion, I never comment on people’s beliefs, because one believes what one believes,” says George Haroonian. “Can you argue with somebody who says God has said this or that? We must discuss how the followers of a religion act. We can talk about how the Islamic Republic has treated non-Muslims. We can talk about how Christians have treated non-Muslims, including the Jews, throughout history. Beliefs aside, actions are what is important.”

He mentions Jewish community’s internal issues: “In the 18th and 19th centuries, patriarchs and elders were the leaders of the Jewish community and, in any case, people who became leaders were respected members of the community. After the Constitutional Revolution in Iran [1905], the Jews were given one seat in parliament.

“Traditionally, this MP became the leader of the community and, later, the leader of what was called the Jewish Committee. Later still, however, the two jobs were separated, and the chair of the Jewish Committee was different from the Jewish representative to the parliament.”

How the Baha’i Community Makes Decisions

“Baha’is don’t have clerics in the conventional sense of the word,” says Padideh Sabeti. “The affairs of the community are managed through local, national and international elections. If there are more than nine Baha’is in one locality, they hold elections and elect individuals to manage the affairs of the Baha’is in that area.

“The decisions made by these elected people after consultations and discussions. The same happens at the national level: they elect nine people to the National Baha’i Council. And the national councils then choose nine appointees to the Universal House of Justice, which handles the affairs of the Baha’is at the international level. The emphasis of the Baha’i community is on consultation.”

Christians Have No Representative at the Iranian Parliament

Has parliamentary representation based on religion, before and after the Islamic Revolution, benefited the Christian community in Iran, or is it a form of discrimination? “The Christians in Iran have no representatives in parliament,” Farshid Fathi says. “The Armenians and Assyrians who are Christians do have representatives but as ethnic groups, not as Christians.

“And whoever gets elected need not be a Christian. The Persian-speaking Christian community in Iran is now more than 100,000 strong, meaning that there are more of them than Armenians or Assyrian, but the government tries to question their very existence.”

George Haroonian adds: “In the first election [after the Constitutional Revolution], a Jew by the name of Azizollah Simani was elected to parliament. When he entered parliament he was booed so badly that he left and Ayatollah Behbahani became the Jewish representative at the parliament.”

Seminaries did not Agree with Velayat-e Faqih

“The dominant view in Shi’ism used to be that any government, save for a government by the Hidden Imam [the Shia Messiah], was one of usurpers,” says Hasan Ferechtian. “It stayed that way until the Constitutional Revolution.

“The new thinking after the constitutional government was established was that less tyranny was better, and it would be better to have a constitutional monarch than an absolute one.”

He adds that seminaries still think the same way: “One of the people who seriously discussed Velayat-e Faqih with arguments based on Fiqh was Ayatollah Montazeri. But eventually even he concluded that Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist was not legitimate and today some criticism of this principle is voiced in [Iranian] seminaries. Traditional religious authorities never accepted it and many young seminary students think the same way. In seminaries in [the Iraqi holy city of] Najaf where there is more freedom, the criticisms are more serious. In any case, religion is something separate from the government that should be run based on human wisdom.”



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