Political theorist and Princeton professor Miriam Kunkler described the interaction between religious and secular elements of the Iranian constitution as “complicated” during a talk Monday afternoon.
Before a crowd of roughly 30 people in Rosenkranz Hall, Kunkler traced religious elements in the nation’s constitution as they have evolved since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Kunkler, who has written a monograph on the subject, said the two prominent Iranian leaders during the period, Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, used the constitution as a medium for exerting their religious authority, adding that the ayatollahs’ actions have enabled contemporary political scientists to follow the deepening connections between Islam and the country’s political structure.
“[Iran’s] uniqueness lies in the way its government has been exploited by various political factions to promote their vision,” she said. “This is what makes Iran a great case study both for political scientists and for students of politics.”
Kunkler said the original draft of the Iranian constitution adopted in 1979 under Ayatollah Khomeini surprisingly had many democratic elements that would be inconceivable in present-day Iranian society. Under this version of the constitution, Kunkler said, men and women were considered equal, and women could serve as judges. The Guardian Council, a political body charged with interpreting the constitution, did not hold the veto power it now holds over legislation passed by the Iranian parliament, she said.
But due to the strong presence of conservative clerics, the final draft of the constitution that was adopted in October 1979 restrained many civil liberties, Kunkler said. In the final version, she said, women were not allowed to interpret Islamic law as judges, and Islamic law superseded secular law in all cases.
She added that a 1989 amendment of the constitution under Ayatollah Khamenei ameliorated what she said were infringements on civil rights.
“[Khamenei] believed he could try to make up through new traditions and institutions the authority he lacked as a religious figure,” she said, explaining that many people looked down on Khamenei because he did not have the title of marja — the highest religious title in Shia Islam.
For instance, Kunkler said, Khamenei amended the constitution to suggest that leaders should earn legitimacy through political experience rather than religious title. The amendment also increased the power of the Special Court of the Clergy, previously considered unaccountable and nebulous, whose role was to prosecute all transgressions of the clergy, she said.
Kunkler said the constitution has also influenced the way some Iranian women are educated in hawzas, or religious seminaries.
“On one hand, hawzas have become more modernized in terms of their curriculum, offering comprehensive B.A. and M.A. degrees to women,” Kunkler said, “yet the way funds and stipends are distributed is still strictly regulated by religious authorities.”
Marilyn Moger, a retiree from Milford, Conn., who attended the talk, said although she found it difficult to follow Kunkler’s detailed account of Iran’s political history, she learned much about Iranian society from the talk.
“I was most intrigued by the way Kunkler portrayed the shifting roles of women in Iranian society,” she said.
Philip Gorsky, a sociology professor, said he thought Kunkler successfully articulated the complicated nature of Iran’s government.
Miriam Kunkler holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University.