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Iran, it seems, is experiencing a textbook case of conflict between the aggressive and absorptive power of the secular state and religious authority.

In today’s Financial Times , Najmeh Bozorgmehr reports that Iran’s highest ranking cleric is getting sideways with the officially Islamic regime in Tehran, a symptom, perhaps, of clerical unhappiness with the tendency of the modern state—especially those that claim religious sanction—to become the sole arbiter of all dimensions of society, including the sacred dimensions.

The particular issue is narrowly legal. Grand Ayatollah Hosein Vahid Khorasani has told his students that self-incriminating confessions made under the duress of imprisonment are not valid. This bears on the controversy surrounding a woman condemned to be stoned to death after confessing to having engaged in an adulterous affair.

There are doubtless many subtle undercurrents at work in Iranian society and politics. But it is a mistake, I think, to try to plot this episode (which is not the first—this summer the clerical establishment spoke out against the claims by the Iranian regime to define Islamic law) according to a secular left/right distinction between “reformers” and “hardliners.” And indeed our policy wonks consistently make this mistake.

The larger issue, it seems to me, is classical and has a long history in the West: Who will speak for God? Just as the church faced a aggressive secular power during the medieval investiture controversy, a power that wanted to draw to itself all authority, both worldly and otherworldly, the Iranian clerics must reckon with a secular state that wants to maintain its legitimacy by claiming sacred sanction, which, at the end of the day, will tend toward gaining control over the mechanisms, institutions, and authorities who rule on questions of the sacred.

As I said, this is not a progressive vs. conservative issue. Instead, it’s a sacred vs. secular issue. Or more precisely, the clerical assertion of independence reflect an essentially conservative move, if by conservative we mean modern conservatism’s commitment to limited government. For the secular sword is limited, restrained, and humanized precisely to the degree that it is prevented from taking control of the sacred. When Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Emperor Henry IV during the investiture controversy, he was saying, in effect, “The things of God you cannot control!” It was a crucial first step toward limited government.

Here’s hoping Grand Ayatollah Hosein Vahid Khorsani says the same.

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