Coverage of the recent tumult in the Islamic Republic of Iran has focused on how economic frustration is affecting the country’s politics. But in a theocracy, any political upheaval will inevitably affect the faith. Westerners following the recent wave of protests should also consider a series of important religious questions. Is the Islamic Republic’s religious identity in transition? Is Islam in Iran losing its appeal as a unifying political force? Is secularism rising? Are Iranian clerics finished as intermediaries between God and man?
The Islamic Republic has been an outlier in the Muslim Middle East since the 1989 death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the revolution and one of the most charismatic personalities in Islamic history. As Arab states and Turkey enhanced their religious identity and fortified fundamentalism, Iran moved in the opposite direction. What Europeans discovered painfully and slowly during the Renaissance and Reformation, Iranians have learned more quickly: Religious rule secularizes. If Islam in Iran is about everything, then Islam is about nothing.
The Islamic Republic was born of two contradictory ambitions that cannot peacefully coexist: theocracy and democracy. If all dissident political action can be labeled as moharebeh, or warring against God, then what room exists in the Islamic Republic for healthy political debate? To put it crudely but not inaccurately, the Iranian left for decades has wanted to invest ultimate authority in the people, while the right has sought to check electoral mandates through clerical oversight. The Iranian right demolished the organized reformist left between 1999, when free-speech student riots broke out in Tehran, and 2009, when the pro-democracy Green Movement was crushed.
While the right may have the physical, repressive advantage, the left’s critique of the clerical regime has triumphed. There is no great Iranian cleric, philosopher or writer who can attract large crowds with a brilliant defense of clerical rule. But plenty of thinkers could fill a stadium with withering critiques of religious dictatorship—if they were permitted.
The Iranian left has provided sophisticated critiques of the holy law and its difficult integration into democratic governance. There are trenchant assessments of the clash between Western and Islamic civilizations and the need for Muslims to admit the moral and spiritual deficiencies of their faith. The best the clerical right can do is field a member of its own, President Hassan Rouhani. Though portrayed as a “moderate,” Mr. Rouhani is the founder of the Islamic Republic’s lethal intelligence service. As president he has promised an Iranian Islamist version of Chinese communist success: greater economic growth in exchange for acceptance of the regime. The omnipresent chanting against Mr. Rouhani and the Islamic Republic clearly signals the president has failed.
The mullahs’ system is stuck: It can’t evolve into a real democracy, and it can’t resuscitate the religious militancy that once sustained the theocracy and drew tens of thousands of new recruits into the clergy. Despite providing a route to power and wealth, Iran’s seminaries have seen plummeting enrollments. The common sense of revolutionary mission—the hunt for equality, justice, fraternity and martyrdom—now seems distant.
Few organizations still carry the revolutionary torch. The Revolutionary Guards are willing to kill and die in Syria. The Basij, a “mobilization” force of club-wielding thugs under the command of the Guards, has been willing to murder its own countrymen to preserve the clerical state. But its commitment appears so sharp precisely because Iranian society as a whole has moved on.
Mosques all over Iran are empty at prayer times. In 2015 a Revolutionary Guard commander, Ziaeddin Hozni, revealed that only about 3,000 of the country’s 57,000 Shiite mosques were fully operational. And of the 3,000, some were only functioning during the religious months of Ramadan and Muharram. The Shiites have usually been less diligent than Sunnis in mosque attendance, but lack of attendance is striking in an explicitly Shiite state run by mullahs.
Do not underestimate how these trends influence the protests. Youth unemployment and the ever-rising price of food matter. But even more important is the collapse of the revolution’s civilizing mission among the college-educated children of the ruling elite and the poorly educated urban working class. Nothing in the nuclear accord can revive the fraternity that once bound Iranians together. The current eruptions may well fail to unseat the mullahs. Yet as the great medieval historian Ibn Khaldun warned, there is always another asabiyya, or galvanizing spirit of a superior force, waiting outside the capital, gaining unstoppable momentum.
Mr. Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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