Lessons from the Ayatollah

Many on the fringes of the Christian right are flirting with post-liberalism. Their curiosity is understandable—today’s culture is inundated by temptations that are hardly conducive to human flourishing or nobility, let alone Christian piety. Be it cheap sex or pornography, high divorce rates, or simply the general mantra to “be yourself,” Americans and Westerners today are terribly adrift.

These criticisms are hardly new, nor were older generations of conservatism unaware of them. They were diagnosed by traditionalists like Russell Kirk seven decades ago and by scholars like Allen Bloom in the late 1980s. What is new among the post-liberals is the insistence, first, that liberalism itself is to blame for today’s woes and, second, that the solution requires affirming a public commitment to a more comprehensive view of the common good. In this they hope to correct liberalism’s pretenses to neutrality and the extreme license it gives its citizens. In short, they want to replace liberalism with some new, unifying outlook that better captures and answers man’s natural, moral longings.

The most extreme solution is offered by the Catholic integralists who explicitly seek to subvert “temporal power” (i.e., the state/government) to “spiritual power” (i.e., the Catholic Church). Along similar lines, Patrick Deneen proposes “Aristo-populism” to oust corrupt liberal elites. Add to the bunch National Conservatives, new-age Pentecostals, and Reformed Protestants and it seems that all the cool kids are coming up from liberalism. No solution is agreed upon. But all agree that the regime centered on the protection of individual rights must be replaced by some new system with more intrusive powers to direct our lost souls. 

The leaders of this broad coalition are not stupid and, therefore, their arguments should be confronted honestly and given due diligence. But dissuading them from their objectives will require more than pointing out how illiberal, homophobic, or un-democratic they are. Nor will it prove sufficient to point out how unrealistic their aims are in the context of the United States. Movements always begin with foolish hopes. What is needed instead are modern examples of states where similar revolutionary projects have been executed and produced less-than-ideal results. One state fits the bill nicely: the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini’s project in Iran was surely more extreme and violent than what most post-liberals would endorse. But given the authoritarian affinities of many post-liberals (consider their muted defenses of Vladimir Putin, East Germany, and the Chinese Communist Party), a comparison to Khomeini’s Iran is more than appropriate. Indeed, given the character and aims of Khomeini’s Iran, it is necessary.

The example of Khomeinism in Iran is instructive because it illustrates two lessons that classical liberals have long known. First, when a special class of moral guardians is permitted to be above the rule of law, there is no check on their own corruptibility, which all but ensures future abuses of power. And second, using the full powers of the state to enforce religious belief will render both the state and its religion illegitimate in the minds of the people. If post-liberals are serious about reviving moral virtue or shoring up religious faith, they should study the tragic example of Khomeini.

Khomeini and the Post-Liberals

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900–1989) is not a figure most think of when discussing American post-liberal intellectuals. After all, he was a Muslim cleric who defended Islamic civilization against Western civilization, the integrity of which post-liberals generally seek to defend. What is more, American conservatives despised the man while leftist intellectuals like Michel Foucault celebrated him as an authentic warrior fighting against the corroding tyranny of bourgeoise values. But there is plenty that connects Khomeini and his political project with today’s post-liberals. 

First are the more superficial similarities. Khomeini adamantly opposed liberalism, secularism, and capitalism. Not only were these modern phenomena un-Islamic, but in Khomeini’s view they were forces that misunderstood human needs and therefore culminated in states that consisted of lost individuals. Without the traditional guardrails of “laws, customs, and ordinances of Islam,” man’s selfish proclivities are unleashed. Man, left to his own devices, resides in a “dark pit of egoism.” In “individualist” or “materialist” societies, man becomes distracted from the love he is to show to his neighbors and God and is “blinded by his servitude to passion.” Such men often turn to alcohol and drugs, leading to the increase in “murders and suicides” Khomeini saw in Iran. The decline of sexual mores engendered by these strains was particularly troubling for Khomeini. He claimed in 1970 that “sexual vice [had] reached such proportions that it [was] destroying entire generations. Capitalism, too, had generated gross inequality and placed average Iranians in utter squalor. There is nothing here that an American post-liberal would find objectionable.

The unabashedly authoritarian nature of the government stemmed from the belief that the Islamic jurists were both morally superior and wiser than the average person who could not be trusted with wide freedoms to direct his own life.

Second, Khomeini’s attacks on the broader intellectual currents in 1970s Iran were coupled with an equally harsh denunciation of the Iranian elite. He directed particular ire against the Shah, the man who led the push for rapid modernization in Iran and commanded a brutal intelligence service that terrorized critics of the regime. But Khomeini also chastised Islamic clergy for embracing the secular dogma pushed by Tehran and failing to hold up the true faith. Similarly, he lambasted the universities that peddled scientism while failing to provide a proper moral education. These are all symptoms that post-liberals readily diagnose in our society: a corrupt political elite, a corrupt clergy that has forgotten the true teaching of scripture, and corrupt universities that are mere factories of relativism and moral decay.

The third point of similarity is Khomeini’s political solution to the problem of excessive individualism. The solution was relatively simple: Iran required the wilayat al-faqih (government by the jurist), or put more simply, theocracy. Guided by learned men of faith who had “knowledge of justice,” this theocracy would provide a harsh corrective to modern excesses. In his widely circulated lectures on Islamic government, Khomeini outlined the contours of this theocracy that would provide for “all aspects of human life.” The unabashedly authoritarian nature of the government stemmed from the belief that the Islamic jurists were both morally superior and wiser than the average person who could not be trusted with wide freedoms to direct his own life. The clerics, by contrast, would be given unchallenged discretion in monitoring the moral health of society.

There are obvious differences between Khomeini’s Islamic theocracy and post-liberals’ vague outlines for reinvigorating moral virtue in the United States. Integralists, for example, would rather see canon law, not Sharia, rule the day. Some post-liberals even express fidelity to the American constitutional arrangement. But even here the differences are not as pronounced as we may suspect.

Khomeini certainly justified his theocracy on Islamic grounds. But throughout his lectures on Islamic government, he claimed that the rule of the jurists could be justified by human reason alone, often listing “reason” before traditional Islamic justifications like the Qur’an and prophetic traditions. In fact, Khomeini consistently grounded his project on a view of the cosmos and human flourishing that he held to be ascertainable by reason. In his 1980 lectures on the Surat al-Fatiha (the first verse of the Qur’an), Khomeini paints with surprising detail a God whose attributes are rationally ascertainable. Indeed, the very existence of God is “a rationally self-evident proposition, intuitively understood by every human being.” He was so insistent on this that he considered “rational proofs” and “philosophy” to be preliminaries for prophets to receive revelation. What is more, he did not hold adherence to sharia (Islamic law) as an end in itself. It was only a means to a higher end of human flourishing and therefore was malleable to the needs of man. At times he calls sharia a “hindrance” and argues that it is a “progressive” and “evolving” force. In other words, a vague moral flourishing was as much Khomeini’s purpose as it is today’s post-liberals.

Accordingly, the central criteria for jurists to wield political authority was both knowledge of law and justice. Khomeini paid little attention to the problem of how to ensure that the wise arrived at positions of authority, i.e., the central problem with which liberal political theorists have wrestled for centuries. He cared little for constitutions whose structures sought to clearly limit the authority of the state—these only hampered the power of the wise to do their job.

Despite Khomeini’s efforts, Iranians are growing less and less religious. In 2020, a survey found that over 30% of Iranians identified themselves as either atheist or “none.”

Post-liberals differ most dramatically from Khomeini in that they do not call for violent revolution. This is an important difference. But the kind of regime Khomeini inaugurated is more pertinent to our discussion than how he brought it about. To confront growing immorality, Khomeini instituted a regime that vested ultimate discretion in the hands of religious men who, by virtue of their more comprehensive grasp of human nature and the divine, could theoretically guide Iranian society to a happier future, happier precisely because of their making explicit the aims of government founded on the rationally (and religiously) ascertainable ends of man. The Ayatollah is no pope, surely. But one does not find in the modern era a more compelling case of postliberal ambitions put to the test.

What Khomeini Wrought

In 1980, Khomeini secured his position as Supreme Leader of Iran and enshrined Sharia into the national constitution. He was then in a perfect position to put his theories for a more robust and self-consciously moral form of government into practice. He wasted no time. Tens of thousands of the Shah’s supporters (and secularists opposed to Khomeini) were rounded up because of the threat they posed to a perfectly just society. Many were executed. Most fled into exile. Khomeini shuttered the country’s universities and refashioned them to be more in line with the aspirations of the new regime. Predictably, there was a massive brain drain from the country. Alcohol was banned. Women were required to wear the hijab. Adultery and homosexuality were made punishable by lashing or stoning. Morality police made regular patrols through the streets to ensure all were in good order. And, of course, religious instruction was made necessary in the primary education system.

It has been over forty years since Khomeini created his ideal regime. Did it work? Did Iranian society become more virtuous and morally serious? In some respects, it surely did. The post-liberals will be happy to learn that there are no pride parades in Iran (the authorities do not allow that). There is also no drag queen story hour. Religious symbols and exhortations, along with portraits of martyrs, adorn the streets of Tehran. But despite Khomeini’s efforts, Iranians are growing less and less religious. In 2020, a survey found that over 30% of Iranians identified themselves as either atheist or “none.” What is more, a full 88% of Iranians believe a democracy is the best form of government while two-thirds believe this government should be secular.

The decline in religiosity is surprising given the popularity clerics enjoyed in the days of the Shah. Before the 1979 revolution, the clerics were respected to an astonishing degree, in part because they were a strong voice of resistance to the Shah’s forced modernization programs. Their network of 70,000 mosques proved essential in every mass political movement in twentieth-century Iran. Indeed, when Khomeini returned from exile in 1979, he was greeted by millions in Tehran and even more across the country. But because of the discretionary powers clerics enjoy in the judiciary and their privileged economic access, the clerics as a political class have proven prone to corruption. They are widely accused of taking lucrative bribes, failing to prosecute state agents, and stonewalling parliamentary inquiries. These are not mere rumors spread by secularist opposition. Khomeini’s successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has publicly chastised the judiciary for its corruption. Today, the class that Khomeini elevated to guide Iranians to virtue is widely despised as Iranians fight for a liberal future.

Post-liberals are right to bemoan the sad state of social discourse and cultural stagnation in the West. But the Iranian case should serve as a warning to their authoritarian prescriptions. The comparison to Iran highlights the dangers of vesting governing authority in a clerical class and predicating that authority on supposed knowledge of the comprehensive good of society. Maybe Khomeini’s project failed because his vision of the human good was flawed. That is certainly possible, especially if a part of our nature demands participation in government. But is it not equally possible, even more likely, that this failure was due to the potential for corruption even among those we hold to be morally pure? The clerics of Iran were revered during the years of the Shah. Today they are despised. This happens wherever final authority is endowed to a special class of persons, be they ayatollahs, popes, unchecked bureaucrats, or any messianic man with good intentions. Post-liberals would do well to remember this bit of liberal wisdom.