Iraq's elected leaders are moving toward clerical rule while in Iran a leading Shiite cleric, who advocates secular rule, suffers in prison.
The Sunnis of Al Qaeda and the ruling Shiites of Iran – despite their different brands of Islam – have one thing in common. They both believe in public religion, or rule by Muslim clerics. Their attempt to impose political theology lies at the heart of the Muslim debate over democracy.
As US forces begin an exit from Iraq, neighboring Iran has stepped up support of attacks on American soldiers. June was the deadliest month for the United States there since 2008, with most attacks blamed on insurgents using weapons from Iran.
Such Iranian-backed violence would not be happening if Iraq’s elected government weren’t drifting toward an Islamic state like that in Iran.
To stay in power, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has had to rely on the political support of a group run by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is aligned with Iran. But more than that, Mr. Maliki recently shifted the religious authority of his Dawa Party away from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who advocates a separation of Islam from government.
Now Maliki looks for religious guidance from Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, an Iraqi-born cleric in Iran who backs the theory of velayat-e-faqih, or political leadership by Shiite clergy.
Unless Iraq’s majority Shiites – especially Mr. Sistani – demand a firm line between mosque and state, Iraq could be losing its hard-won democracy. Iran would be the winner, and the US withdrawal from Iraq could be even more difficult.
Iran, of course, already has had three decades under clerical rule. But lately it has faced popular opposition, forcing leaders to become even more ruthless, especially in suppressing street protests and Internet access.
While the so-called Green Revolution in Iran appears dormant for now, a lively struggle is still under way among top clergy over the correctness of velayat-e-faqih.
Many clerics already challenge the legitimacy of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who claims to be the representative of the Muslim prophet Muhammad on earth. But one unusual challenge comes from a respected cleric in particular, Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi. He has openly denounced Shiite rule and has championed secular government.
Mr. Boroujerdi’s stance explains why he was thrown in prison in 2006 and has received such brutal treatment that his health is failing. He has also been charged with more than 30 crimes, including “waging war against God.”
Before being jailed, he preached in a poor neighborhood of Tehran. He once said “Islam is the religion of tolerance, forbearance, and mercy, to the point where the Quran emphasized to us that ‘there is no compulsion in religion.’ ” He also told a Western audience that “real Islam is free of political ornaments.”
Boroujerdi may be Iran’s most important political prisoner. Many human rights advocates in the West are seeking his release. His ideas are the biggest threat to Iran’s rulers, just as Sistani’s support for secular rule threatens the legitimacy of Iraq’s ruling parties.
Ideas matter in the violent Middle East, and none more than the idea that religion is best left as a private choice for each individual, something of the heart and not of the gun.