It should be unsettling for the Islamic Republic of Iran's ruling clerics to hold a presidential election Friday and yet not have heard much campaign talk about Islam.
After all, hundreds of aspiring candidates were screened down to eight by the clerical Guardian Council. All those who failed to pass religious muster - especially any woman or anyone who might challenge supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - were barred. And this week, one hard-line candidate was asked to withdraw to help boost the chances for candidates who are even more hardline.
Surely, Islamic virtues should have been themes on the stump? Not.
Iran's repressive rulers don't get it. They hold their nose in limited tolerance for these elections. And in ensuring the vote is a sham, they further alienate Iranians from Islam.
If a reformer does squeak through, as outgoing President Mohammad Khatami did in 1997 and again in 2001, the clerical hierarchy clamps down on the free media and dissidents, blocks Mr. Khatami's weak attempts at reform, further pushing young Iranians from their faith. (Seventy percent of the electorate is under the age of 30.)
If anything, the elections serve as a minor release valve for political oppression and a useful poll for the clerics to adjust their policies just enough to stay in power.
Thankfully, other Muslim nations have learned well from Iran's big mistake. They've tried to keep Islam out of governance to a large degree. And in recent free elections in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, Islamic parties have softened their religious fervor to cater to voters who prefer secular leadership.
The nonvotes from a conscious boycott by young people will be the real winner in Iran's election.