For many Shiite Muslims, whose religion was born of rebellion, last year's popular uprising in Iran was just the latest in a centuries-long struggle against injustice and tyranny. Now, as the clerical regime consolidates its grip on power a year after the tainted reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran remains torn by what seems to be a hopeless conflict between Islam and democracy. But the 2009 unrest and violent crackdown in Iran were actually battles in a larger war that has been raging for centuries within Shiism -- a war over who should rule the faithful, and how. There is a more moderate, democratic vision of Shiism -- one that has been stifled ever since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution -- that could ultimately resolve the current conflict.
Shiite clerics have long debated their role in politics. The "quietist" school -- rooted in the sect's tradition of seeking to avoid confrontation with powerful rulers -- argues against direct engagement in political matters. The more activist school emphasizes the martyrdom of Shiism's founding figure, Imam Hussein, who advocated rebellion and confrontation. But even within the activist school, there is a debate over the extent of clerical power.
The model of absolute rule that dominates Iran today is just one of several competing doctrines within the Shiite clergy. Wilayat al-faqih (velayat-e faqih in Farsi), or "guardianship of the jurist," triumphed under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 revolution. He modeled his doctrine on the concept of absolute rule exercised by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors in the early days of Islam. Khomeini's charisma and political skill overshadowed the more moderate vision of Shiism emanating from the Iraqi city of Najaf. By eclipsing the Najaf school, Khomeini succeeded in combining the role of Shiite theologian with that of political leader of the global Muslim community.
But contrary to popular perception, many Shiite clerics have long opposed Khomeini's vision of an all-powerful supreme leader. They do not want to seize political power directly, whether in Iran,
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