Democratization in Iran
Analysis of the Prospect and Process of Democratization in the Islamic
Republic of Iran with special attention to the Impediments of
Democratization, Forces of Democratization and Methods of
All quotations from the Qur’an are from J.M. Rodwell’s
translation (publisher: Everyman, 1909)
in despair I remember that all through history the way of truth and love
has always won; there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a
time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
new discourse has been established in the
in recent years regarding the potential and process of democratization
in the region. The
difficulties in understanding such a complex issue is not limited to
only scholarship but also in terms of a popular understanding of what
democratization is and how it can be achieved.
One of the most active debates concerning the issue of
democratization is occurring in
and it coincided with the popular reform movement spearheaded by
progressive clerics and chief among them is the current president,
Mohammad Khatami. However,
the reform movement must be investigated and scrutinized because it has
largely failed to produce results. Greater
democratization should have come out of the efforts of the reformist
administration but it has not. In
order to understand the process of democratization in
it is important to define precisely what democratization is as a
category of change. The
impediments of democratization, the popular forces behind it, what
methods may be used to bring it about and finally the potential of
success for the process of democratization are all necessary in learning
and appreciating the political struggle that could bring it about.
are several definitions for democratization and in one of the best
definitions Korany states that it, “entails an expansion of political
participation in such a way as to provide citizens with a degree of real
and meaningful collective control over policy.”
However, this definition is not entirely complete.
First of all, a difference must be drawn between democracy and
is a form of government that reached its climax during the time of the
ancient Greek city-states and since then the direct form of democracy
has rarely, if ever, been used in such a way again.
The form of government that is most consistently associated with
democracy is a republic. Virtual
democracy, as opposed to direct democracy, requires individuals to
represent determined portions of population with the processes of
government being democratic. So,
it is the democratic ideals of democracy that are sought to be woven
into whatever form of government a people wish to employ such as
republics or theocracies.
ideals and mechanisms of modern democracy largely are grafted from the
American experience with democratization.
Dolbeare and Medcalf note that “the American version of
democracy has always been grounded in individualism and holds an
especially inviolate regard for property, contracts, and law (Dolbeare
& Medcalf, 23).” The
issue of freedom also adds the element of liberalism to the debate of
what democratic ideals and mechanisms truly are.
Freedom from government should also be protected by the
government in a democratic system. So,
the definition of democratization shall stand as an amended form of
Korany’s definition: Completed
democratization includes greater political participation that leads to
control over public policy by valuing the individual’s dignity, while
respecting her right to choose her government (so long as it protects
property, life, personal freedoms by means of the rule of law, with a
consideration for popular sentiment, and the rights of minorities) and
where the absence of such things exists it is the citizens duty to
change their government by any means in order to restore, promote or
establish the aforementioned qualities of democratic ideals and
process of completing democratization faces certain impediments within
the Iranian context and is chiefly and adversely affected by three
factors: the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, the Velayat-e Faqih
(rule of the supreme religious jurist), and significant socio-cultural
. It is of fundamental
importance to understand the nature of Islam within a religious,
historical and political context insofar as Islam has played a role in
and why, in its traditional/conservative form, Islam is incompatible
we must discuss the religion of Islam as it pertains to each aspect of
the process of democratization with special consideration for the
dominant traditional/conservative interpretation of the Qur’an.
There are a number of minorities that are afforded some
protection, little protection or no protection under Islamic law as
derived from the Qur’an. These
groups would include homosexuals, members of religions that are not
strict monotheists (i.e. Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, and Polytheists),
members of religions that came after Islam (i.e. Bahais), atheists,
apostates, women (which will be discussed later) and monotheists that
are not Muslim (i.e. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians).
The doctrine of
Liwat describes what constitutes homosexual activity and different
schools of Islamic law interpret what the punishment of engaging in
homosexual activity should be. The
History of Al-Tabari comments on the Prophet Lut’s (Hebrew:
) experience (Sura 7:80-81):
transgression [fahisha] that they approach, for which they were punished
by Allah, is “penetrating males sexually” [ityan dhukur].
The meaning is this: it is as if Lut were saying “You are, all
of you, your nation of people, coming to men in the rears, out of lust,
rather than coming to those that Allah has approved for you and made
permissible to you from the women. Therefore
you rebel against Allah by that act.”
That is what the Qur’an means by going beyond the bounds [israf]
when Lut said, You are a people who go beyond all bounds. (Al-Tabari,
ed. Bashar ‘Awwad, 3:463)”
And we will shortly
learn what the punishment for rebelling against God is under
traditionally interpreted Islamic law.
Infidels, according to Islam, are those that believe in a
religion younger than Islam, those that worship more than one God, those
that do not have a holy book or a prophet sent by God, those that turn
away from Islam, those that deny the Last Day, those that do not accept
angels and djinns as real, those that do not accept Heaven and Hell as
real and those that doubt in God or deny God altogether.
These could be (and are, in many cases) forms of dissenting
opinions on Islam and God that can not be tolerated in a truly Islamic
will ask thee concerning war in the Sacred Month [Ramadhan].
SAY: To war therein is bad, but to turn aside from the cause of
God, and to have no faith in Him, and in the Sacred Temple [Ka’bah],
and to drive out its people, is worse in the sight of God; and civil
strife is worse than bloodshed. They
will not cease to war against you until they turn you from your
religion, if they be able: but whoever of you shall turn from his
religion and die an infidel, their works shall be fruitless in this
world, and in the next: they shall be consigned to the fire; therein to
abide for aye.” Sura 2:214
as to him who believeth not – verily God can afford to dispense with
all creatures!” Sura 3:92
whoso shall sever himself from the Prophet after that ‘the guidance’
hath been manifested to him, and follow any other path than that of the
faithful, we will turn our back on him as he hath turned his back on us,
and we will cast him into Hell; - an evil journey thither!” Sura 4:115
There are more of
these types of verses in the Qur’an and it is important to note that
all of these punishments are designed for God to carry out.
However, in an Islamic state, it is the responsibility of the
state to carry out the will of God.
So, Islam as a personal religion or cultural belief system would
not have the power behind the execution of the Divine Will the way a
theocratic regime would, such as the Taliban or the Islamic Republic of
Iran. In all fairness, the
Islamic world has consistently treated monotheistic minorities (dhimmis)
far better than the powers in the West (formerly Christendom).
The Ottoman Empire was particularly respectful in this regard,
of Islamic jurisprudence that was official in
proper, was not and is not the most commonly employed school of Islamic
law. And the treatment that
Hanafites would give the dhimmis is based on a very liberal
interpretation of the Qur’an when considering verses like:
”O Believers! Take not the Jews or Christians as friends.
They are but one another’s friends.
If any one of you taketh them for friends, he surely is one of
them! God will not guide the
evil doers.” Sura 5:56
now are they who say, ‘God is the Messiah, Son of Mary;’ for the
Messiah said, ‘O children of
! Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.’ Whoever shall join other gods
with God, God shall forbid him the Garden, and his abode shall be the
Fire; and the wicked shall have no helpers.
They surely are Infidels who say, ‘God is the third of
three:’ for there is no God but one God: and if they refrain not from
what they say, a grievous chastisement shall light on such of them as
Infidels.” Sura 5:76-77
all men thou wilt certainly find the Jews, and those who join other gods
with God, to be the most intense in hatred of those who believe; and
thou shalt certainly find those nearest in affection to them who say,
‘We are Christians.’ This, because some of them are priests and
monks, and because they are free from pride.” Sura 5:85
It is interesting
to observe the contradictions that exist in the Qur’an in conjunction
with the knowledge that the Qur’an is the source of law for an Islamic
state. In any case, Islamic
law does not protect the freedom of religion and clearly undermines a
fundamental tenet of democratic ideals at least within the boundaries of
are also arguments that support a compromise of sorts between Islam and
democracy and it is necessary to address the flaws in such arguments.
Three of the most commonly posited arguments are: the example of
’s Islamic government that popularly came to power in 2002, the long
history of rule by consensus in Islamic discourse, and that the
successful synthesis of Islam and democracy is related to how an Islamic
state would be conceived – either through violent revolution or
through popular democratic will.
has had over 80 years of forced
secularization as part of the legacy of Kemal Ataturk’s policies of
extreme Westernization and modernization.
The military is used in order to protect the secular nature of
the modern state of
and ensure a representative form government, theoretically.
After this long period of secularization, one can safely assume
that the culture of
has been directly affected. The
understanding of separation between religion and state is already a part
’s political discourse only because of those policies of forced
secularization. It would be
safe to extrapolate that any Islamic country that has had a long secular
history under a republican form of government could handle Islamic
parties. In addition, the
Justice and Development Party (Özel, 162) does not espouse a radical
fundamentalist Islamic ideology but instead concentrates on the
platforms of social justice and efficiency in governing.
These platforms could just as easily be in the form of an
officially secular political party.
Because the ideals of social justice are humanistic ideals,
rather than solely Islamic ones, the Islamic nature of the Justice and
Development Party (JDP) is rather moot and not truly an “Islamic”
party. It is akin to the
Christian Democrats in
that have the same analogous relationship to Christianity, which is
interesting but far from significant.
It seems that the significance of the JDP is that a version of
liberal “progressive” Islam can coincide with democracy so long as
other similar minded politicians constrain themselves to work within a
secular framework. But this
is not politicized Islam, but rather politicized social justice and
clearly, from the Qur’an we learn that these two are not the same
justice (albeit an incomplete form of it) is one of the great goods that
Islam has produced and seriously supported throughout its fourteen
centuries of existence. Except
in the cases of slavery, oppression of women and minorities and a
religious war here and there (most exceptionally the Muslim-Arab
conquest of the Sassanid Persian Empire) Islam has been successful in
creating a form of government from the time of the Prophet Muhammad up
until the end of the Abbasid Caliphate in the mid 13th century CE.
This system of government is typically defined as
rule-by-consensus that on the surface appears to be quite democratic in
nature. However, a closer
probing will reveal the historical truth that rule-by-consensus in the
Islamic context was anything but democratic, at least in terms that we
would appreciate in the modern world.
Firstly, women were not included in this process of consensus
rule except in the traditional indirect influence that women possess in
members of other religions were not allowed to participate in the
government that ruled them (which is in contradiction to the definition
of democratization) even if they were in the majority such as the case
of early post-Islamic
where most people were still Zoroastrian.
In the modern state of
, only one representative each is given to Christians, Jews and
Zoroastrians in Majlis (Parliament).
The value of Islamic consensus in a modern setting has
drastically altered and women can participate in parliamentary politics
thus making it more democratic. But
this is not the original meaning of rule-by-consensus in the classical
Islamic sense. However, just
because it is more democratic does not mean that it is democratic.
democratic tendencies and desires of a people are considered most
fruitful and legitimate when these changes come about democratically –
that is, from within. Supporters
of a compromise between Islam and democracy often point to how these
democratic/Islamic changes come about as a product of the forces that
brought those changes into reality.
Perhaps Islamic government in Iran is not democratic because it
was a violent and bloody revolution that brought it to power which then
leads to the absolutist and tyrannical elements that control the avenues
of change (such as in Iran today). But
this still cannot explain the fundamental theological contradictions and
disconnects that are directly tied to the Qur’an and the subsequent
Holy Law that it provides. For
example, Islam is well-known for its fatalistic belief system, or in
other words the complete lack of free-will that humanity possesses.
All is pre-determined in the course of events according to the
Qur’an, and by extension, Allah. How
can the ideals of democracy (where, through people’s choices are their
successes or failures determined) exist for “one who submits to the
will of God”? There is no
freedom in submission and freedom is an integral part of democracy and
democratization. An Islamic
polity can, with great effort and liberal interpretation make political
Islam provide some democratic relief.
But it pales in progress compared to accomplishing the same
democratization within a secular framework as is evident it post-WWII
that now hosts a thriving democracy.
We could even look to the example of
, that now; after all of the forced secularization supported by the
state, it can finally host a pseudo-religious political party.
So it seems that it is rather the interpretation of Islam that is
key to unlocking the potential of Islam in playing an active and
positive role in government, but even at that, it is only possible
within a secular value system that supercedes Islamic law.
Ayatollah Khomeini sought to implement strict interpretations of Islam
as official state practice and policy.
With austere and close-minded fundamentalism, Khomeini
successfully employed these draconian beliefs and laws as part of the
newly formed Islamic Republic. His
ingenious treatise on Islamic theocracy, The Mandate of the Jurist,
outlined the establishment of rule by a supreme religious scholar (not
entirely dissimilar to the Philosopher-King of Plato’s Republic) and
he called this government the Velayat-e Faqih.
The Supreme Jurist functions very much the same way that an
absolute monarch would. The
Supreme Religious Leader can table legislation indefinitely, he controls
the armed forces of
, all of the paramilitary forces of
and appoints members of the Expediency Council, the leaders of the
Judiciary and the Assembly of Experts.
Each of these various organizations and bodies has systematically
sought to halt the process of democratization by all means.
Torture was often employed in the early years after the
revolution to contain and discourage dissent.
According to the research of Ervand Abrahamian between 1981 and
1985 5,542 political prisoners were executed (Abrahamian, 131).
Despite the tight grip of the Supreme Religious Leader, the
Majlis had become more active in the reconstruction period after the
Iran-Iraq War. Ayatollah (at
the time Hajjatoleslam) Hashemi-Rafsanjani brought a certain level of
pragmatism to Iranian foreign policy when he became president, which
eased the crippled economy of
. Economic reform and more
open dialogue with European powers led to very small steps towards
. True change was not
attempted until President Mohammad Khatami came to power in 1997.
Unfortunately all of the hopes for reform and efforts to
failed due to the control of the Supreme Religious Leader.
The greatest obstacle, in terms of democratizing
, is the monarchical power of the Velayat-e Faqih.
Since the recent parliamentary elections on February 20th 2004
and the ushering in of hardliners and conservatives back to power, there
seems to be little hope in
for any transition into a more democratic form of government.
are not simply legal and institutional impediments to democratization
but also socio-cultural ones. Twelver
is structured in a similar way to the Catholic Church with ranked
positions according to the level of religious scholarship.
The value that Iranian Muslims place on the figure of the cleric
is much more reverent than in the Sunni form of Islam that is not
typified by a hierarchical clergy. This
however did not start in the early 15th century when Shah Ismail I
converted the Iranian peoples to the Shi’ite sect (Lapidus, 285) in
order to rally Iranians against the growing Ottoman dominion.
In fact, the reverence of clerics dates back to the beginnings of
the Zoroastrian Orthodoxy during the Sassanid period.
The interpretation of faith is not typically in the hands of the
believer such as is the case in Sunni Islam.
Instead, it is the cleric that clarifies, explicates and
instructs the laity as to what religion (in this case Twelver Shi’ite
Islam) is and how it should be interpreted.
This compounds the difficulty of creating a synthesis between
Islam and democracy because of the structural nature of Twelver
Shi’ism as opposed to Sunni Islam that may, in fact, be much more
compatible with democracy in this regard.
The source of interpretation and the hierocracy that supports
those interpretations is more of a mirror for the traditionally
hierarchical nature of Persian culture.
After millennia of absolute monarchies, a pattern of one ruler at
the top is a complex facet of the struggle for democratization.
Even the current system, that was and is so adamantly anti-Shah
and monarchy, has in effect created a new monarchy as a byproduct of the
Persian cultural heritage. However,
it must be noted that
was the first Middle Eastern country to call for a parliamentary form of
government with a constitution and those desires for representative
government culminated in the constitutional revolution of August 5, 1906
(Arjomand, 35). The kernel
for democratization has been present within
’s modern history for nearly a century and the significance of such a
yearning has played a defining role in the subsequent revolutions as
impediments of democratization most certainly have given rise to
opposing forces and trends that seek to remove these obstacles from the
process of democratization. In
contemporary Iranian politics there are four major trends that are
covertly or overtly bringing about transition in
: nationalism, feminism, intellectualism, and external pressures being
realized internally. But
before we delve too deeply into these forces of democratization it is
necessary to examine the psychology of dissent within the context of
Persian culture in order to better understand how these trends have
manifested themselves. Iranian
cultural psychology allows for two important innovations in expressing
dissent: becoming the anti-definition and the widespread practice of
dissimulation (or taqiyya). The
anti-definition comes first from defining the opposition and then
defining ones self and ones struggle by becoming the very opposite of
that which is detested. The
function of contemporary Iranian nationalism exemplifies this
characteristic in a following discussion.
The practice of dissimulation is often employed to avoid danger
or persecution and has long been part of official Shi’ite doctrine but
its roots are from pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism.
This act of dissimulation is useful in avoiding entanglements
with authorities while at the same time eventually positioning the
dissimulator into a position of authority.
This has been the secret that has allowed Persians to survive
whatever conquerors have come to
and eventually usurp power and put control of Iranian matters back in
the hands of Iranians. Notable
examples from history include the transition of Persians from being
second-class citizens under the Ummayad Caliphate to the controllers of
the Abbasid Caliphate, or the conversion of Mongols to Islam as a means
of controlling the behavior of the Mongol Ilkhanate, or even the fact
that Alexander the Great took the title of Shah, took Persian wives,
learned Persian, considered himself Persian and died in the Persian
Empire. In a modern setting,
Iranians have forced even the hardliners to make concessions to them
through this subtle and often subconscious means of popular resistance.
The psychological disposition of Iranians allows them to maneuver
certain trends of dissent and change into the national public sphere.
to take great advantage of the anti-definition approach in order to
define political dissent. Nationalism
of the Iranian variety has truly taken a life of its own and has created
a fascinating and startling dynamic within the Iranian political milieu.
The history of
’s modern nationalism is largely an imported form of European
nationalism that was prevalent during the early 18th to the mid-20th
century (Vaziri, 5). However,
in the pre-modern sense of nationalism, or proto-nationalism, something
akin to nationalism (or more accurately, perso-centrism) has existed in
Persian culture for many thousands of years.
Nationalism must be defined as more than patriotism because of
the philosophical aspect of nationalism (Gilbert, 87).
There are two objects that define all forms of nationalism:
hatred of something considered “other” and of course patriotism (and
for the ultra-nationalist, a deification of country is also a necessary
component). In the case of
Iranian nationalism this manifests itself in terms of anti-Islamic
sentiment and the ultra-nationalist extension of anti-Arab sentiment
(usually in conjunction with some form of Aryan racial theory).
The anti-Islamic sentiment stems from the perceived nature of the
Velayat-e Faqih. If religion
and state are the same, and it is against this form of government that
the Iranian stands for, then anti-Islam becomes the natural choice for
the Iranian. The pre-Islamic
has become so prevalent that Zoroastrian, Achaemanid and Sassanid
symbols are found adorning the windows of shops and on the sides of
buses. There are heated
discussions in Iranian internet chat rooms regarding returning back to
Zoroastrianism as the “true religion of
”. There is growing
interest in the opposite of what Iranians have been told to like – in
this case, Islam. However,
the actual fruition of a genuine Zoroastrian revivalist movement is
unlikely given the lack of religious freedoms in Iran, widespread
ignorance of Zoroastrianism, and the low priority identity politics has
compared to the concerns of getting an education, finding employment,
and raising a family. Also,
the likelihood of a Zoroastrian revivalist movement should be mostly
attributed to the entire disillusionment with religion (in general and
Islam in specific) in private and public life.
Anti-Arab sentiment is shallow and remains mostly as a remnant of
the 7th century Islamic conquest of
. But a stronger strain of
it does exist in small groups of ultra-nationalist Iranians (sumka.org
and derafsh-kaviani.com) that are mostly located in expatriate
communities around the world. It
must be noted that these sentiments are growing more rapidly in
prevalence and more strongly in degree than most observers give credit.
The fascistic tendencies of ultra-nationalist groups are
disturbing but luckily they are still a small minority with little voice
and are largely fringe.
One trend that is
promoting democratization with a loud and powerful voice is that of
’s flourishing feminist movement.
Women have found it exceedingly difficult to be treated equally
under Islamic law:
are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God hath
gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make
from their substance for them. Virtuous
women are obedient, careful, during the husband’s absence, because God
hath of them been careful. But
chide those whose refractoriness ye have cause to fear; remove them into
beds apart, and scourge them: but if they are obedient to you, then seek
not occasion against them: verily God is High, Great!” Sura 4:38
regard to your children, God commandeth you to give the male the portion
of two females…” Sura 4:12
it is for the women to act as they (the husbands) act by them, in all
fairness; but the men are a step above them.
God is Mighty, Wise.” Sura 2:228
In a democratic
system these archaic notions of a woman’s place in society and her
limited rights compared to that of men has no redeemable value.
Women are not afforded the same property rights, they cannot be
judges, men retain custody of children almost invariably (Mir-Hosseini,
30), women must have permission from their husbands or a close male
relation to travel far from the home, witnessing a crime takes a court
testimony of two women to equal that of a male witness, getting an
abortion requires the permission of the husband, divorce can only be
initiated by the husband (Mir-Hosseini, 62) and polygamy is condoned by
the state according to Islamic law (Mir-Hosseini).
And the most appalling lack of basic human dignity are the
Islamic laws concerning blood money (diyeh).
If a person is murdered in
, then the murderer’s family should financially compensate the
victim’s family. This
compensation for a female victim is half the money that it would have
been had the victim been male (Mir-Hosseini, 61). Even more offensive is
what happens if a woman is murdered by a man.
The female victim’s family must compensate the male
murderer’s family in order to have the male murderer executed.
This is because his life is worth twice as much as hers according
to Islamic law regarding blood-money.
And in many instances the female victim’s family does not have
enough money to pay for a writ of execution for a male murderer.
Property, life, and personal freedoms under the Islamic Republic
of Iran are severely restricted for women and the “Government of
God” has created abhorrent gender inequalities.
In spite of all of this, the burgeoning feminist movement in
has been the most successful in bringing about legitimate change in
Iranian society. Behzad
Yaghmaian notes that “youths and ordinary men and women created a
formidable movement with demands that transcended the interest of a
single class and challenged the state’s cultural mandate and its
political power (Yaghmaian, 23-24).”
No single other
woman has done more to improve the rights of women in
then the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Shirin Ebadi.
She plainly states, “Khatami is talking about the rule of law.
Everyone is talking about the rule of law.
We will only have the rule of law in
on the day that women are treated the same as men under the law (Sciolino,
109).” The legal status of
women has been a source of great controversy for the world and in no
better way has this been expressed than through the medium of film.
Two of the most successful films regarding the issue of women are
Hidden Half (2000) directed by Tahmineh Milani and The Circle (2000)
directed by Jafar Panahi. In
both of these films, the stories thematic elements surround the struggle
of women in everyday life under the Islamic Republic.
Film itself has become the “new Persian poetry” and it is
emblematic of the intellectualist forces bringing change to
. Intellectualism manifests
itself primarily in three groupings of people: students,
progressive/reformist clerics and critical journalists.
usually played a vital role in fomenting change within all societies
where serious improvement in policy or government is believed to be
necessary. Consider the
American student protests during the
era, the student opposition to the Egyptian leadership during the early
part of the second intafadah, and the student riots in 1999 at the
defiant, they came with masks, covering their faces to protect
themselves from the eyes of surveillance.
They mourned. They
defied. They made a
theatrical recreation of the days that had led to the downfall of the
Shah some twenty years earlier… Fists in the air, men and women stood
in a united front for rights. Smoke
in the air from a burning motorcycle, this was the near-occupation of
, across from the university entrance, by students.
They were there by the thousands, there to declare their
existence, demand respect from the state, and challenge twenty years of
Islamic codes of conduct. They
were there to defy all codes of conduct… They were not able to be led
by the official Moslem Student Association, those who had ruled the
universities for all the years of repression and censorship, the
soldiers of the cultural revolution, the reformed old guard – the old
repressors now seeking reform and freedom.
They were not to be led!” (Yaghmaian, 104)
This all occurred
the week of July 8 – 14 of 1999 but a brutal crackdown on the students
followed with thousands imprisoned and four executed on the order of the
(Yaghmaian, 112). Unfortunately
these protests never amounted to much afterwards and today many students
are disillusioned with the potential and idealism of democratization
under the rule of the Islamic Republic.
This is only but one of many examples of how the Islamic Republic
has used its power to suppress or ignore the freedom of _expression, the
right to assemble and even the government’s responsibility to protect
the lives of its own citizens. The
Speaker of Majlis at the time, Hassan Rowhani, gave an order to kill the
protestors because they were “warriors against God” (Yaghmaian, 111)
and the punishment for “warring against God” is death according to
all clerics in
agree with the interpretations of Islam that are provided by the leaders
and have sought to reform or progress Islamic law from within the state.
These types of clerics are generally associated with the popular
reformist movement that came to an end in February of 2004.
Then there are those among the reformists that actually
articulate dissent with Islamic treatise derived from progressive
interpretations of Islam. Most
notable among these are the works of Ayatollah Noori (currently serving
an indefinite house arrest before which, he was imprisoned) such as
Hemlock for the Advocate of Reform, Ayatollah Ganji’s The Fascist
Interpretation of Religion and Government, Abbas Abdi’s On the Road to
Freedom, and Mohsen Kadivar’s Apprehensions of Religious Government (Menashri,
307). These discourses
resoundingly support either liberal/modern interpretations of Islam
within the framework of an Islamic Republic or an entire separation of
religion and state. Of the
latter, Ayatollah Noori has been the most supportive and this only
underscores the fact that even very learned scholars of Islam believe
that Islam is incompatible with the goals of democratization.
The ideas behind these progressives had, for a time, been
promulgated in the newspapers that reformist-minded editors controlled.
These newspapers would be shut down by the hardline leadership,
and forces of the Velayat-e Faqih, only to have another one open up
active role of a critical press in fomenting change in
has been significant.
’s press has created a better informed public (Bakhash, 122) that has
forced conservatives to bow to the pressure from below.
A free press is an integral component to any democratic society
because of its ability to spark debate and call important issues to the
attention of leaders and voters. The
agenda-setting ability of a free media can be just as powerful as any
branch of government and it is for this express reason that news is
closely controlled and monitored in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The domestic presses of
have been crucial in relaying to the outside world what is going on in
. In doing so, foreign
powers have taken note of the struggle for democratization in
and have (especially the
and European powers) lauded the desire for greater democracy as
expressed by the Iranian people. External
pressures from these powers have mounted in the following decades after
the 1979 revolution and these have been realized internally in a number
’s call for greater democracy in the region is surely aimed at
creating unrest in Iranian society (and the Greater Middle East) to
effectuate the creation of democratic states.
This has been the official policy of President George W. Bush in
the region for some time now. The
greatest exchange between the outside world and
has been through telecommunications.
The internet has provided Iranians with a unique outlet to the
global community and in response to the greater access to communications
certain expatriate and immigrant Iranian communities are playing a
tertiary role in catalyzing change.
Websites like faithfreedom.org and the proliferation of blogs (or
weblogs – an online diary of sorts) that facilitate person-to-person
exchange have poured new ideas into
in an unprecedented fashion. The
common use of satellite dishes in
has allowed stations like NITV (stationed in
) to broadcast dissenting views in
from the outside and provide more objective news than what
state-controlled media allows. Telecommunications
has created a strong interest in Westernization only exacerbating the
prevalent sentiments of occiphilia.
The love of all things Western – on a popular level - started
from the beginning of the Pahlavi dynasty (and some would even argue as
far back as the Qajar dynasty) and was culturally interrupted after the
massively popular anti-Western sentiments culminated in the revolution
of 1979. But as we discussed
the Iranian psychology of dissent earlier, this was more due to
establishing dissent through the anti-definition (if the Shah is
pro-Western, and we are anti-Shah, then we are anti-Western).
we find that one means of passive protest is the acceptance of Western
culture over Iranian culture, much less Islamic culture.
It also explains the desire for Iranians to go abroad (especially
) and leave
behind (this is not to neglect the economic factors in contributing to
the desire to leave) for other countries (Sciolino, 222).
In fact, according to the 2000
is one of the top three countries for land of origin in terms of
immigration to the
. The “brain-drain” that
is experiencing due to immigration will have adverse consequences for
sustainable development in the country (and this phenomenon has been
true for most developing countries).
The development of democratization in
is rife with impediments and these impediments are challenged by certain
social trends within Iranian society.
However, when all is said and done, how is democracy finally
going to come to
? The methods available for
the greater process of democratization could come in the form of
revolution (velvet, violent or externally forced regime removal) or as
inevitable internal reform.
has been part of
’s modern history since 1906 with the Constitutional Revolution.
For almost one hundred years there has been some form of
political unrest in
. The rise of Mossadeq in
the 1950s and the subsequent CIA engineered coup that brought the Shah
back to power would color
’s foreign policies and become a pillar of state-supported
anti-Americanism that continues to exist today.
is host to a government that enjoys little (if any) legitimacy among the
majority of Iranians. So,
like all the other preconditions surrounding the former revolutions, a
similar status of potential for another revolution is certainly in
extant. What form could this
revolution take? If there
were to be a revolution the best form it could take is that of
Ceausescu’s Velvet Revolution; a peaceful shutting down of government
facilities and private industry with widespread support and, at the same
time, not incurring the wrath of the fundamentalist government.
This is highly unlikely considering the previous governmental
reactions to peaceful protest and the intolerance the hardliners have
for dissent of any kind. A
violent revolution would almost be the product of a revolution that
would start as a peaceful one. But
a violent revolution could also be part of an original orchestration
rather than a product of a velvet revolution gone awry.
This would create a great deal of bloodshed in
and, it too would most likely not be successful.
After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the revolutionaries became
keenly aware of the Shah’s relatively loose control on security
infrastructure (armories, barracks, police stations, strategic control
of urban areas, etc.) and took advantage of it by arming themselves.
Then when the revolutionaries assumed power they took great pains
in protecting the vital spots of domestic security.
In addition, the Shah was unwilling to use the brutality
necessary to completely suppress the revolution in Iran and this was
also compounded by the fact that the Shah’s military was made up of
Iranians (serving compulsory military duty) that were given orders to
open fire on their own countrymen. This
was psychologically devastating to the Shah’s soldiers and soon they
capitulated to the revolutionaries’ ambitions.
From this, the revolutionaries learned an important lesson, that
the military is reluctant in killing its own citizens when the military
employed is compulsory for citizens.
So, many of the paramilitary groups in Iran are led or
constituted by defected Iraqi soldiers from the Iran-Iraq war also known
as “the faithful unknown soldiers of the Islamic Republic of Iran” (Yaghmaian,
110). Their entire
livelihoods are in the hands of those that pay them, their mullah
leaders. They have no
and have had no compunction whatsoever in beating or killing Iranians.
The hardline government, believing that their actions are
divinely ordained (at least in terms of justification, if not genuine
belief) would have no problems in giving the order to kill infidels and
enemies of the “Government of God”.
In these ways, a violent revolution would most likely fail as
well. External forces
bringing regime-removal is not entirely unlikely considering
, has been the recipient of such a policy at the hands of
. And the only real
potential for externally forced change would come from another American
military invasion. Considering
the controversy surrounding
’s nuclear program the
could have the pre-text of going to war as a “pre-emptive” strike on
a country with “weapons of mass destruction”.
Because of the lack of confidence that the United States enjoys
on the world stage in terms of proving that other “rogue” nations
possess weapons of mass destruction, this may be a hard-sell to the
world and to Americans. Therein
lays the difficulty of external change, American credibility.
Internal change is inevitable because of the limited lifespans of
the clerics that control
. When the current
generation of young people inherits the mantle of power from their
fathers, change will inevitably occur.
The downside to such change, is that it is at least 20 years from
becoming a reality. This,
according to all likelihood, is the most plausible method of
a careful examination of democratization, the impediments, forces and
methods thereof, we have learned that there is no one simple answer in
developing democracy in
. If we blame Islam we must
also put into consideration the varying interpretations of the faith
(Ayatollah Khomeini vs. Ayatollah Noori) in terms of a political
ideology. There is Iranian
nationalism and Iranian Shi’ism and the resulting “schizophrenia”
of identity (Vaziri, 207). There
is Modern Feminism and Islamic Holy Law.
There is the internal struggle for change from intellectuals and
external pressure for change from American neo-conservatives and
expatriate Iranians. This is
the paradox of
. This is a place between
two truths vying for dominance in the hearts and minds of the peoples of
. The dialogue of democracy
has been established and whatever events or trends may come and go in
, democratization will inevitably occur because it must occur.
There must be public control over public policy.
The individual’s dignity, hopes, desires, freedoms, property
and life must be valued and respected.
The rule of law and a civil society in
must necessarily become a reality. That
has been the way of progress for all nations.
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"tu ne cede
sed contra audentior ito"
-- Roman saying
(Yield not to misfortunes, but advance all the more boldly against