Professor frowns on political use of religion

A small group of faculty and students were brought together the night of Oct. 29 by a visit from Hossein Kamaly, a professor in Columbia University’s Middle Eastern and Asia Languages and Cultures Department.

Kamaly’s lecture, titled “Politics of Messianism in Contemporary Iran,” explained how many Iranians are now awaiting the coming of Imam Mahdi, the 12th messiah according to Shiite culture, for salvation from the world’s current turbulent state.

“We are at the cusp of a total change in the world as we know it,” Kamaly said, explaining why there is the sudden desire for a savior.

Kamaly, who is originally from Iran, said he noticed something interesting when he visited his home country last summer. The words, “Oh God, hasten the arrival of your designated authority,” were painted everywhere. He said cars, walls, sidewalks and billboards all bore the pleading phrase.

Although strictly of Shiite origin, Kamaly said he was struck by the fact that these words no longer seemed limited to one group of people in Iran and, after conducting further research, he realized Iranians of all backgrounds and classes were starting to share in the re-emerging phenomenon of messianism.

Kamaly’s lecture also focused on how certain Iranian political groups are using messianism to their advantage. Kamaly said this has been happening for years, long before expectations of the messiah’s arrival began to escalate.

According to Kamaly, political groups began exploiting messianism in 1978, when the Shah of Iran was overthrown. The group that overthrew him declared repeatedly that the Mahdi was on his way, gaining many followers as a result.

Since so many people today are turning to Messianism, Kamaly asked, does this mean there will be change similar to that of 1978? Kamaly said it is people’s actions that actually bring about change, not necessarily what they believe in.

However, according to Kamaly, the groups’ intentions may not be what is best for Iran, since they tend to use messianism only as a way to gain followers. He said Iranians who strongly want change and salvation should not fall prey to this trap.

Some members of the audience questioned what exactly Kamaly’s proposed solution was. When questioned by one professor of the College, Kamaly said he feels political groups in Iran should stop using religion as a front, shaping it for their own purposes. Instead, the groups should work to find political meaning in religion instead of fabricating it, so they can connect to the people in an honest way.

This is the first of two lectures at the College on Iran’s history and culture. The second one will be announced at a later date.