In his speculation regarding the transmutation of capitalism, Marx envisaged a stage in which the system leads to total divorce between production and profit. In other words, you make a profit without producing anything.
In a sense, that has already happened. Today, for example, the market value of Nike as a brand is far higher than that of all the factories that produce its wares across the globe.
Can the formula that Marx applied to capital also apply to labor? In other words: what about earning good money without producing anything?
The honor of inventing that version of the Marxian prophecy goes to Iranians- well, to some Iranians. For almost a decade the Iranian economy has not been creating enough jobs to cope with the demographic surge of the 1980s. Despite significant levels of immigration, the result has been mass unemployment, averaging at 13 per cent. For the 16-25 age groups the rate has hovered closer to 20 per cent. Unemployment is the backstory in every field, from agriculture to manufacturing and passing by the services industry.
There is, however, one sector that, far from suffering a systematic destruction of jobs, has witnessed a boom in job creation. That sector is the clerical industry, the invisible machine that produces mullahs and aspirants to mullahdom. The latest estimates put the number of clerics, that is to say mullahs and aspirant mullahs (tullab) of all categories, at around 500,000. This means that, in terms of numbers, the clergy is larger than the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the Baseej Mustadhafin (Mobilization of Dispossessed) combined.
The weight of the numbers is better appreciated when we remember that the oil industry, accounting for 10 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 40 per cent of the national budget, employs just over 80,000.
A comparison with the number of doctors, around 18,000 according to Health Minister Dr. Hashemi, is also revealing. Hashemi says 10,000 more physicians are needed to fill the gap left by those who have gone into exile.
That so many young men decide to want to join the clergy and secure a place on the gravy train of power through a fast-track is not surprising.
In every system, the dominant element in power attracts such energies. In Argentina, for example, the decades’ long rule by generals inflated the military to the point that the country had enough generals and colonels for 10 nations.
There are, however, several problems with the Iranian situation. The first is that the procedure through which people join the clergy is chaotic, to say the least. The traditional Shiite clergy had strict rules and a sophisticated system of filtering those who wished to join its ranks. Typically, an aspirant would start studies at the age of six or seven and continue for 10 or 12 years before being admitted into courses conducted by a senior cleric.
In the process more than two-thirds would drop out or tangent toward other careers. Those who remained would face up to 20 more years of rigorous learning before getting a foot on the middle rungs of the clerical ladder and secure the title of Hojat Al-Islam. To earn the title of ayatollah could take up to 40 years and that of Grand Ayatollah is reserved for a handful in every generation.
Even then, scholars were never comfortable with such titles. For example, in the 1940s, Seyyed Kazim Assar, one of the greatest scholars of his generation, mocked those who used the title “Hojat Al-Islam” let alone ayatollah. He noted that the entire Islamic history until the 1920s had had only one Hojat Al-Islam, the philosopher-theologian Muhammad Ghazzali who died in 1111 AD.
Today, however, the journey to the position of Hojat Al-Islam or even ayatollah and grand ayatollah could take only months, if not weeks. In 1978 Ali-Akbar Bahremani, alias Hashemi Rafsanjani, was a building contractor in southeast Iran with no clerical pretensions. By 1978, when the Khomeinist revolt was under way, he had dressed himself up in clerical garb and encouraged his entourage to call him Hojat Al-Islam. Then, sometime in the 1990s, his friends started calling him ayatollah and, by 2007, he had upgraded himself to grand ayatollah (ayatollah Al-Ozma).
Khomeini’s 42-year old grandson, Hassan, has done even better. In 2012 he was just a student of theology while running the family’s extensive businesses including the late ayatollah’s glitzy shrine in Tehran. By 2014 he had become Hojat Al-Islam for his entourage and business associates. In 2015 a poster advertising his trip to Golestan, a northeastern province, marketed him as Grand Ayatollah. By 2016, his chief promoter, Rafsanjani, was referring to him as “Allameh” (The Man who Knows Everything), a title given to a single cleric in the past 200 years (Allameh Tabataba’i).
To be sure, people are free to call themselves whatever they like, including Doctor and Grand Ayatollah as long as they do not use such unearned titles as a means of securing advantages in cash or kind from the public treasury.
If the mullahs are financed by the private sector, that is to say through market mechanisms as are other celebrities such as footballers or movie-stars, there are no grounds for complaint. They would be part of the entertainment industry, selling something that someone wants to buy with his own money.
The trouble in this case is that, leaving aside a few thousand traditional clerics still clinging to the old ways, almost all the half a million mullahs we have make good money from the public treasury, producing nothing.
They are not subjected to any examination let alone a procedure of authorization. If you want to drive a cab in Tabriz you must jump through numerous bureaucratic hoops. But if you want to become a Hojat Al-Islam, all you need is a consequential beard, a good tailor and the skill to roll a turban.
Worse still, they don’t even do the job of a mullah which is supposed to be studying religion and instructing the flock about values. There are 12 Imams in the Twelver Shiism which is built around their lives and works. This means marking 12 birthday anniversaries and 12 anniversaries of “martyrdom” each year. Take into account that two months, Muharram and Safar on the lunar calendar, are reserved for mourning the “martyrs” and you have a full calendar for a mullah, leaving little time for engaging in political and business activities.
And, yet, our self-styled mullahs are found in almost every sector of the Iranian business world without forgetting the need for maintaining a high political profile. Most of these self-styled mullahs spend their time appearing on TV, making political speeches around the country and beyond or acting as influence peddlers for business deals. They have little time for religion.
I have no objection to ambitious young men using a fast-track to power and wealth. My concern is that they do that at the expense of the public, making a mockery of faith. Last month, Rafsanjani himself lamented that Islam was on the retreat in the Islamic Republic. No wonder. More mullahs mean less religion.