by Anwar Khan
This is a brief review of an article written by brother Blake Archer Williams a short while again titled Sacred Communities and the Emergent Multipolar Landscape. Let me first commend our most esteemed Saker for bringing forth, once again, an intelligent, nuanced, and tremendously articulate pen to his one-of-a-kind forum.
To say that brother Williams’ article was refreshing and educational would be an understatement. He had the courage and knowledge to take on some very challenging conceptual issues that can be quite daunting to articulate to a modern non-religious reader. That he has done most handsomely. From the standpoint of a traditional Shia(though some may argue that subscribers of Wilayat e Faqih or as he calls it Waliyic Islam are reformists, strictly speaking), he has articulated well the basis of that tradition. More importantly, from a standpoint of a believer in the Big Scheme, he has enriched us tremendously in presenting a coherent conceptual framework in understanding many important concepts, extending to all sacred traditions, among them, 1) the indispensability of what he calls Sacred Communities, 2) the nature of Sacred Communities, 3) the right of People to assign for themselves frameworks and values that attend to their particular spiritual, social and political needs, or in other words carving out their own destinies without the threat and blackmail of modernity superimposing its sacred institutions, 4) the history and roots of some of the institutions that have come to challenge the sacred ones.
Part 1 of his article, which investigates the philosophical configuration of the Sacred and the Profane, can adorn any manual that seeks to diagnose the human condition out of its current misery, despite some hyperbole that he engages in, such as “Imam Khomeini, the greatest man the modern era has witnessed”. One of the most influential, no doubt, but “the greatest”? Some may beg to differ.
Part 2—the Solution part— however, disappoints and runs into many problems, the least being brother William’s apparent detachment from reality. Some of his replies to comments further puts him adrift from his initial brilliant analysis. To be fair to him, this review will only cover the article not his comments.
Let’s start with the most problematic of his conclusions: Waliyic Islam as represented by Iran post-1979 Revolution being (despite many of her shortcomings that the author admits) the best formula to imitate not only as civilizational model, but also the prime guard against the advances of the Anglo-Zionist empire, hence finding herself in the inner most core of the “Five Ring Circus”(not a very assuring term if we are fighting a brutal Empire).
The biggest problem with this conclusion, and I am sure many of the readers did not fail to notice, is that brother William is asking us to take a leap of faith and trust him as he assigns Waliyic Iran as a model worth following, and entrusting our loyalty to her as a leader in the fight against the Empire and its various manifestations. This, because—and this is the implication that runs throughout the article— Waliyic Iran is guided by God and will not betray the trust entrusted to her. I am afraid brother William is asking for too much.
To begin with, Waliyic Iran as the representative and recipient of the Hidden Imam’s guidance(someone in actual occultation, with body and spirit, since 941 A.D.) has a messianic mandate as the driving principle of her very existence. This mandate is not only theoretical. It permeates the beliefs of important state actors. The state legitimizes its very existence based on this mandate. If you deny the relationship between the Hidden Imam and the Waliyic state, you actually deny the foundational pillar of the Waliyic Iranian state. This relationship is understandable from the perspective of the Shia adherent, but to the other players, part of the “Five Ring Circus”, it represents obvious problems.
For example, how are the non-Shia partners to know that the strategic engagements of the Waliyic state is for the overall betterment of the Axis of Resistance—an implicit condition for the alliance in the first place— and not a messianic imperative determined by the creed of the Waliyic state? What assurances can the Waliyic state give to her partners that her current engagement in the various theaters of the Middle East is solely a passive/defensive act and not an active/offensive messianic mandate? After all the Shia scribes are clear on the conditions that will necessitate the Hidden Imam(or the Mahdi) to reemerge from his occultation or ghayba:
The Commander of the Faithful (ʾAli) said: “The Mahdi will not appear unless one-third of the people are killed; another one-third die; and the remaining one-third survive.”(Ibn Tawus, Malahim, vol. 58; Ihqaq al-Haqq, vol. 13, p. 29)
Muhammad ibn Muslim said: Imam as-Sadiq said: “The Imam of the Time will not appear unless two-thirds of the people in the world would die.” It was asked: “If two-thirds of the people would be killed, how many will remain?” He answered: “Are you not satisfied (and would you not like) to be among the remaining one-third?”( Shaykh at-Tusi, Ghaybah,p. 339; Kamaluddin, vol. 2, p. 655)
One might argue that even within the Sunni tradition, the arrival of the Mahdi (which in Sunni eschatology is not the same person as the Hidden Imam of the Shia tradition. He will be born on a later date) is predicated on death and destruction, so is Christian eschatology, why should the Shias be singled out for special treatment? The difference is—at least from a Sunni perspective—that there is no messianic imperative on which the Sunni political mandate is predicated. The arrival of the Mahdi and the events of the “End of Times” is a spiritual reminder to the flock, a reality to be understood to pierce the materialistic worldview of history. It is part of the doctrine but without necessarily carrying any imperative clause in the Now, as opposed to the Shia subscribers of the Waliyic state. The Imam is here but hidden, waiting for the right conditions to reemerge. The difference is not mere semantics. The implication of such a view is dramatic, to say the least.
Again, how are we, the outer rings, to know that the inner most circles of Iranian State are rational actors, operating on the common strategic framework of the Axis of Resistance, and not on a messianic imperative? Of course, it would be naive for anyone to reduce the aims of a powerful state and society like that of Iran to a mere fulfillment of an unavoidable Armageddon. I totally understand that and I am not suggesting that is necessarily the case. But it remains the cornerstone of the Waliyic state. What if the next Supreme Leader decides to escalate things further so that the conditions become ripe for the reemergence of the Hidden Imam? Brother Williams can only give us his word that doctrinal imperatives will not configure in state affairs. We are being asked to believe, in essence, that Imam Khomeini, and Khamenai after him, and someone after him are representatives of the Hidden Imam guided by him directly or through special instruction, conducting themselves in accordance with international law, humanitarian law, regional alliances in order to keep the region safe and prosperous so each group can maintain their beliefs and worship their Gods, and find peace and security in their ways, only to add more years to the Imam’s occultation? Is not the purpose of the Waliyic state to set the ground for the reemergence of the Hidden Imam? Can setting of the ground be done with peace, prosperity and brotherhood? If yes, then how does one interpret the Shia religious texts on the subject?
Again, I am not making light of the creedal necessity of the Hidden Imam, the Waliyic state and Shia destiny. These are parts of a whole religious eco-system. But it hardly is reassuring as a sustainable paradigm for strategic partnership with others.
If this “elephant in the room” was not enough, Waliyic Iran’s international profile since 1979 is hardly encouraging, considering she holds herself to spiritual standards absent in other political actors. Brother Williams says: “…. who is arrayed against this[Anglo-Zionist] daemonic alliance but Iran and Russia”. Well, was being an ally of Saudi Arabia and Uncle Sam in arming various anti-Serb militias in the Nato-led dismemberment of Yugoslavia any less daemonic? What was the motivation behind that? Surely it was not to help the poor Sunni Bosniaks, brethren in faith. Lessening the oppression of the Sunnis inside Iran would have been a much more admirable move for that matter. How about Waliyic Iran’s services to the Reagan administration in the Nicaraguan Contras’ case? It seems being part of Uncle Sam’s alliance is acceptable at times, especially if it offers certain economic relief. How about the creation of sectarian militias like that of Badr Brigade and ʾAsaib ahl al Haq whose reign of terror on the Sunni inhabitants(non-aligned to any group) of Iraq is an incontrovertible fact? These are outfits that answer only to Iran.
I am not suggesting that Iran is worse than any other state. Not at all. I am, however, suggesting that when it comes to politics, Machiavelli is often a bigger factor than the guidance of the Hidden Imam, slowly peeling off the veneer of other worldly piety.
But even before the 1979 Revolution, or “insurrection” as brother Williams call it, the religious figures, Imam Khomeini included, had a checkered history. Did we forget the role of religious class, among them Ayatollah Kashani, Ayatollah Behbehani and Ayatollah Boroujerdi who was the highest religious figure in Iran at the time, in opposing the nationalist and anti-colonialist Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, and their participation in the CIA led coup which ousted him? Was Mossadegh’s ouster and the ushering in of American puppet Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in any way good for Iran and its people? Can we imagine Iran today had Dr. Mossadegh stayed the course? The conservative Shias would protest Dr. Mossadegh’s increasing liberal tendencies and lack of commitment to the religious paradigm. But was not the Shah infinitely worse in that department? I get it, the democratic model is not necessarily a civilizational model for the Dispensationalists, but does that warrant siding with a figure as corrupt and Godless as the Shah of Iran? The religious establishment’s siding with the wrong person is hardly inspiring and betrays the Immaculateness of the Guardianship that is at the heart of brother Williams article. There are mistakes and then there are mistakes.
And if anyone wants to argue that for the Waliyic state to have become a reality it had to go through the necessary phase of the profanity of the Shah and hence siding with him was merely the fulfillment of a prophecy, then I a must admit to such a poverty of the mind: siding with the Godless to eventually usher in the Godly!
So when I hear brother Willams claim that “Shī’a Islam always had a political posture that balanced man’s imperfect state with his divinely-ordained imperative of enacting God’s will on Earth”, I hope he does not mean that beyond a theoretical framework because on the ground one finds more than anomalies. This is not unique to the Shias. The Sunnis suffer from the same delusions of moral grandiose, but at least they do not hold Immaculate Guardianship to their political mandate. Which brings us to yet another problem with the article: infallibility of the state. The Immaculate Hidden Imam is representative by an Immaculate Guardianship or Wilayat e Faqih. Is it even controversial to suggest that adding immaculateness + state is a deadly formula? Where does that leave the other partners in the ring when the inner core believes to be morally on a much higher ground through the Immaculate Guardianship?
Finally, the patronization that brother Williams have treated the Sunnis throughout this article was a big let down. Look at the name he uses for the Sunnis “Anti-Takfiri (Shiʾa Allied) Sonnis”, juxtaposing the utility of the majority of Muslims vis a vis their stance to Waliyic Islam. His “you are either with us or against us” rhetoric unfortunately took away from his otherwise sophisticated views.
And who says that Sunnis are “sitting on the fence”? Is the 70% Sunni army of Syria sitting on the fence? Is Ramazon Kadyrov’s Chechen brigade fighting in Syria sitting on the fence? Is the Pakistani Army’s continuous 5 year operations in the tribal areas to rid Pakistan of the takfīri TTP “sitting on the fence”? Technically speaking, Sunnis are by definition non-takfīri, unless you mean Wahhabis/Salafis who are not Sunnis to begin with and I have written about this before here and here, so no need to repeat it again. For someone who began his article emphasizing the need to get the terms right, it is disappointing to see this lack of refinement when dealing with the Sunnis.
Let me admit here, and I have also mentioned this before in other articles, the Sunni world is in a state of chaos. From a strictly doctrinal point of view, traditional Sunnism is hardly represented in any institution of merit today. There is no valid Caliphate. Traditional theological seminaries—the mainstay of Sunni ethos—is for all intended purpose extinct, or modified to watered down versions. Sufi fraternities or Tariqas, another Sunni tradition, has ceased to have any meaningful clout on the flock. The effects of western colonialism and its aftershock modern trends has been nothing short of a complete disaster for Sunni Islam. The reasons for this are many and beyond the scope of this article. So when brother Williams is asking the Sunnis that “you are either with us or against us”, which Sunni is he addressing? Are you asking the individual Sunni who has no clue about his identity to begin with and finds himself either droned by the Empire, or hacked to death by the sectarian Shia militias, or beheaded by ISIS bloodhounds? Are you addressing Sunni countries whose governments and institutions are mostly free of religious content, usually serving the interest of the Empire, against the desire of its population? Or are you addressing the traditional Sunni scholars or ulema who have already made their stance clear vis a vis the takfīri plague, only if we mind to look.
Even if we assume that there was an institution representative of world Sunnism, asking them to put their weight behind the Iranian lead “Axis of Resistance” when Iranian Sunnis themselves are a target of oppression in Iran is a demand lacking sincerity. Which brings me to the final point of this article.
For the “Five Ring of Circus” or the Axis of Resistance to get commitment from the remaining Sunni world, who may be sitting on the fence for good reasons, there has to be genuine pressure on Iran that it is about time that she shows sincerity and actions and not hallow words when it comes to creating a real Islamic brotherhood between the Shias and the Sunnis, serving the interests of all Muslims and not a narrow Iranian strategic ones. The oppression of Sunnis in Iran, a subject that has been in the dark for most, has to end. The harassment of their leadership and institutions has to end. For example, Sunni mosques should be allowed to have minarets and amplifiers for their called to prayer (Azan). The imprisonment and torture of Sunni Kurds on dubious charges of “terrorism” need to stop. The Waliyic state also needs to rein on the bloodthirsty Shia militias of Iraq who would make the Croatian Ustace proud. Sectarian rhetoric has to end genuinely. And the Waliyic state can do much on that front, other than PR stunts for the uninformed ones. When these measures are taken, the Shia call will find no shortage of Sunnis willing to put their lives for the resistance. But empty calls to join hands without like reciprocity will only fall on deaf ears.
Let’s not even counter this point with the history and performance of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are not Sunnis— strictly speaking— and do not represent Sunnism. They are a Zionist satellite and we should not pin our hopes on them for anything.
The core message of brother Williams is not only valid and sound, but imperative to adopt as a framework if we need to resist the Empire. Who can possible disagree with his following words:
the emerging multi-polar landscape is a spiritual one, and is one that recognizes that people of different faiths have more in common with each other on matters of substance and importance than we have differences on things that have divided us in the past (and continue to mark our boundaries), and that we have a very nefarious and powerful enemy in common which is eroding and ripping our values to shreds, call it modernity, secular humanism, neo-Paganism, the New World Order, or what you will. The basic premise of this assertion of the essentially spiritual nature of this emergent concrescence is that as time progresses and the outlines of the concrescence are more clearly adumbrated and ultimately crystalize into clearly discernable new formations, that the spiritual commonalities will trump other more traditional factors such as ethnicity, religious affiliation, cultural formations, national boundaries and geostrategic considerations.
As someone who believes in action and solutions, brother Williams’ views are a most welcome contribution. But if his proposal has any chance at embrace by the other partners, then he needs to be a little less enchanted with the Waliyic state and needs to engage in some self-criticism. And despite his impressive command of the English language, articulating the Immaculate Guardianship to the other partners is something that will not simply wash.