It isn't always that the words Allahu Akbar sound this sweet to Western ears.
It's a muggy Friday afternoon and I'm standing curbside right outside Iran's Permanent Mission to the U.N. in New York City. Preaching in Farsi is a turbaned Shiite imam named Mohsen Kadivar. Hours earlier, in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had delivered a bullying sermon at Tehran University, warning the opposition that they would be "responsible for bloodshed and chaos" if they continued to march. Mr. Kadivar's sermon -- punctuated by the Allahu Akbars of 20 or so kneeling worshippers -- is intended as a direct riposte. Allahu Akbar has also become the rallying cry of the demonstrators in Iran.
Mr. Kadivar, 50, is a well-known quantity in Iran. As a young engineering student he was arrested by the Shah's police for agitating against the regime. He later became a seminarian in Qom, where he studied under the increasingly liberal-leaning Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri. Like his teacher, who had once been the Ayatollah Khomeini's designated successor, Mr. Kadivar ran afoul of the regime. In 1999, he was arrested a second time and jailed for 18 months. He credits Mir Hossein Mousavi -- then a university faculty colleague of his -- for helping to spring him free. He's now teaching at Duke.
Mr. Kadivar's chief claim to fame rests on a three-part work of political philosophy titled "The Theories of the State in Shiite Jurisprudence." At heart, it is a devastating theological critique of the Ayatollah Khomeini's notion of "the rule of the jurist" (Velayat e Faqih), which serves as the rationale for the near-dictatorial powers enjoyed by the Supreme Leader.
"The principle of Velayat e-Faqih is neither intuitively obvious nor rationally necessary," Mr. Kadivar wrote. "It is neither a requirement of religion nor a necessity for denomination. It is neither a part of Shiite general principles nor a component of detailed observances. It is, by near consensus of the Shiite Ulama, nothing more than a jurisprudential minor hypothesis."
Or, as Mr. Kadivar simplified it for me in an interview in the back of his van, "There are two interpretations of Islam. The aggressive Islam of Ahmadinejad, or the mercy Islam of Mousavi."
Why is this significant? Take a look at the color Mr. Mousavi's supporters have chosen for their movement: Green is the color of Islam, meaning the demonstrators are taking on the regime on its own terms. Part of that challenge is to Iran's republican pretensions, mocked by voter turnout that the regime itself admits exceeded 100% in some 50 districts.
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Those pretensions were mostly a farce to begin with, given the nature of a system rigged to produce an "Islamic" result. But they also served as a thin edge of the wedge, creating the opening through which a theocratic state can be challenged on theological grounds. In so doing, they exposed what might be described as the twin paradoxes of the Islamic Revolution.
The first is that any revolution carried out in the name of God is also susceptible to being challenged in the name of God -- and God has many names. As with the Communist revolutions of the 20th century, which were ultimately answerable to the verdict of History in which they placed so much stock, the ideological foundation of the Islamic Revolution rests with the prevailing views of a Shiite clerisy. Thanks to people like Mr. Kadivar, those views now tilt increasingly against the regime: So far, he notes, two of Iran's four major seminaries have refused to endorse Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "victory."
The second paradox involves the nature of revolution itself. All political revolutions involve liberation, at least from whatever came before. But liberation is not a synonym for liberty and is often antithetical to it. In 1979, Iran was "liberated" from the Shah's oppressive rule, but it did not gain any measure of liberty. Thirty years on, what the demonstrators in Tehran's streets seek is to join the liberationist impulses of the regime's founding with the liberal aspirations of the revolution's children.
Whether they'll succeed will depend partly on their willingness to continue their protests -- possibly through crippling work stoppages -- but mostly on the willingness of the regime to enforce its will. Mr. Kadivar is convinced a large segment of the regime's all-important Revolutionary Guards side with the demonstrators. But they have their own perquisites to look after, and liberal revolutionaries are often crippled by their own innate distaste of violence.
Which makes it all the more essential that a regime that has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of its people not recover it through international recognition. Mr. Kadivar praises President Obama's "no meddling" stance so far, but insists the president not recognize Mr. Ahmadinejad's government once its second term officially begins in August. He shouldn't hold his breath. As for the green revolutionaries, they will soon find out what consolation, or strength, they draw from knowing God is on their side, with or without America.