and the Question of Religion
Reza Pahlavi has by and large been reticent on the issue of religion.
He mainly mentions it in order to reiterate his belief in an Iran where
the separation of Mosque and state are absolute. In a part of the Middle
East where religion runs deep roots within the collective consciousness
of the population, playing the religious card seems to be a powerful
temptation for a leader who wishes to unite the masses under his flag.
Nevertheless Mr Pahlavi during his long and arduous campaign has consistently
refused to give in to any such temptation.
There are political experts who argue that if the Iranian prince would
have sprinkled his speeches with Islamic catchwords or would have sent
messages on the occasions sacred to the Shiites, he would have done
marvels to arouse the pious-minded masses of his nation. Under the present
circumstances where the clerical establishment has lost its moral credibility
and has been exposed as destroyers of authentic Islamic values, it would
have been easy for the Iranian crown prince to stir religious sentiments
and pose as the defender and potential restorer of the nation's Islamic
Not displaying any outward sign of religiosity, the son of the late
Shah of Iran whose namesake Imam Reza is Iran's most revered saint is
nevertheless far from being indifferent to spiritual belief. He has
named one of his daughters Iman (faith in Arabic) and although he never
refers to it, he has performed the sacred duty required of devout Muslims
of making a pilgrimage to Mecca. His refusal therefore to bring the
religious factor into his campaign has been a matter of principle rather
This principle is rooted in an outlook that the Iranian prince considers
as indispensable for the future of his country as a modern democracy
and a just society. Although the most dominant sect in Iran is Shiite
Islam, the country is a religious mosaic that includes Shiite and Sunni
Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Baha'is, Sufis. For a statesman,
public identification with one of the religious denominations of the
county, albeit the most numerous one amounts to discrimination against
the rights of others who adhere to a different faith. It undermines
the impartiality and the inclusiveness of the office he is representing.
Reza Pahlavi's vision of a secular government is not unlike the dream
of another modern, progressive statesman in a different era and different
country. John F. Kennedy believed in an America where the head of state
did not represent any particular religious group but stood up for the
rights and freedoms of all citizens. In a speech delivered to the Greater
Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, the then democratic presidential
candidate who was a Catholic insisted that his religious faith should
be considered as a private matter and ought in no way interfere with
his discharging of his responsibility as the president of the United
States of America. In that address he highlighted his belief in an America
is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish;
where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public
policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other
ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will
directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts
of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that
an act against one church is treated as an act against all".
Prince Reza Pahlavi's dream of the separation of religion and state
in his homeland, although totally at odds with Iran's present system
of government, is deeply embedded within the Iranian political tradition
and in agreement with the country's tolerant culture and society. Iranian
monarchs have a long tradition of acting as a moderating force and a
counterweight against the bulldozing power of dominant religion. The
biblical story of King Darius and Daniel is a good example of this moderating
influence. It reminds us that although King Darius was initially deceived
by the country's elders to sign the order for punishing Daniel for his
apparent disregard of an arbitrary law restricting the freedom of worship,
eventually he follows not the dictates of the religious leaders, but
the voice of his own conscience. Finally he takes the side of one Jew
against all his advisers and the country's religious establishment.
He proves that as a king his just authority extends over everyone regardless
of what they worship privately. (Book of Daniel, Chapter 6)
The crimes and atrocities committed by the clerical regime in the past
twenty-nine years in the name of religion have played a crucial role
in helping to bring home to the best minds of the Iranian nation the
need for a total separation of the institutions of worship and governance.
Less sensible minds however have been affected differently. There has
been an extremist backlash amongst many Iranians against Islam itself.
Books and articles have been written denouncing Islam as a backward
and irredeemably violent religion incompatible with advancement and
modernity. Some have suggested a return to Zoroastrianism or displayed
their preference for some aspects of Christianity.
A clear-eyed examination however proves to an impartial observer that
all religions have their positive and negative aspects. For those bent
on perpetration of violence it is not difficult to find verses in the
Old or New Testament to justify their actions. As far as compatibility
with advancement is concerned, one should remember that a great many
mediaeval thinkers and scientists who helped to establish the foundation
of modern science emerged from within the Islamic civilization.
The Iranian proponents of ditching Islam in favour of a more stylish
religion fall into the same trap as the fanatical mullahs, i.e. they
confound religious faith with religious doctrine. They strip religion
from all its poetic, emotional, cultural and civilisational values and
point at its skeletal bareness and deformities. Reduced to their doctrinal
bareness and judged on the basis of the misdeeds of their followers
all religions fail, and to borrow from the words of St Paul, all 'fall
short of the glory of God'.
As in the eyes of the Iranian regime it is an apostasy to publicly declare
one's lack of belief in Islam, amongst some circles of the Iranian opposition
outside the country, it is considered an anathema to admit that one
adheres to the Islamic faith of his or her forefathers or god forbid
performs the ritual of prayer. There is no question that Islam bashing
sells books in the West and to hurl insults at Moslems has become the
best refuge of mediocre Iranian minds and third-rate Middle Eastern
intellects. If the Iranian opposition hopes to make any substantial
change for better in Iran, it needs to dramatically alter its intolerant
attitude and leave religion alone as a matter of private conscience
and personal preference.
Reza Pahlavi's stance regarding religion amounts to acknowledging its
humanizing and ethical role in shaping the individual character and
infusing society with a sense of greater purpose. He has never advocated
freedom from religion but freedom of religion. He has astutely understood
that the biggest enemy of spiritual Islam is political Islam. In his
book Winds of Change he writes:
a profound personal commitment to faith has been deeply
rooted in Iranian culture and heritage. As one of the cradles of civilization,
Iran has been a land of tolerance, a home to a multitude of ethnicities
and religions. The respect for individual faith gained root and flourished
in our land, and our forefathers were among the first to introduce the
concept of a deity and of monotheism to mankind. In all these years,
men of the cloth, regardless of which faith they represented, were respected
members of our society.
Since the advent of Islam, our clergymen have served as a moral compass.
Spirituality has been an inseparable part of our culture. And our men
of the cloth have been respected by the various sectors of our society.
But the advent of an Islamic theocracy in 1979 introduced a totally
different role for religion and clergy. For the first time, these revolutionary
clerics stepped out of the mosques and entered the political arena.
Rather than being moral advisers to society, they became the decision
makers and attempted to manage the daily affairs of the country. Even
worse, they attempted to rewrite our history, our culture and our traditions.
Soon, the once revered clergy had to provide daily answers to the most
difficult social, economic, and policy questions. When their answers
fell short, so did reverence to them.
Today, moral guidance has been replaced by clerical censorship and dictatorial
The sad fact is that clerical policies have generated a great
deal of animosity and resentment - an immense disservice to our religious
heritage". (Winds of Change pp. 26-28)
What is evident in the above passage is that Prince Reza Pahlavi clearly
understands that Iran's religion, unlike its clerical rulers is part
and parcel of its rich moral heritage. It was there long before the
clerical dictators appeared on the scene and will endure long after
they have departed. For the past twenty-nine years Iran's national faith
has paid the highest price for the hardest lesson it has learned in
the long history of its evolution i.e. to stay within the parameter
of private and individual conscience where it belongs and where it can
earn the highest reverence and can produce the greatest impact.