Leaving Islam




 Democratization in Iran

By  Rom

Critical 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 Democratization  

Author’s Note:  All quotations from the Qur’an are from J.M. Rodwell’s translation (publisher: Everyman, 1909)  

“When 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


            A new discourse has been established in the Middle East 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 Iran 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 Iran 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.

            There 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 democratization.  Democracy 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.

            The 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 mechanisms.

            This 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 factors in Iran .  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 Iran and why, in its traditional/conservative form, Islam is incompatible with democracy.

            First 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: Lot ) experience (Sura 7:80-81):  

“The 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 state.  

“They 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  

“And as to him who believeth not – verily God can afford to dispense with all creatures!” Sura 3:92  

“But 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, however the Hanafi School of Islamic jurisprudence that was official in Turkey 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  

“Infidels now are they who say, ‘God is the Messiah, Son of Mary;’ for the Messiah said, ‘O children of Israel ! 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  

“Of 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 traditional/conservative Islam.

            There 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 Turkey ’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. 

Turkey 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 Turkey and ensure a representative form government, theoretically.  After this long period of secularization, one can safely assume that the culture of Turkey has been directly affected.  The understanding of separation between religion and state is already a part of Turkey ’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 Germany 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 thing.

            Social 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 patriarchy.  Secondly, 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 Persia where most people were still Zoroastrian.  In the modern state of Iran , 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 in Iran 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.

            The 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 Japan that now hosts a thriving democracy.  We could even look to the example of Turkey , 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. 

            The 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 Iran , all of the paramilitary forces of Iran 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 Iran .  Economic reform and more open dialogue with European powers led to very small steps towards liberalizing Iran .  True change was not attempted until President Mohammad Khatami came to power in 1997.  Unfortunately all of the hopes for reform and efforts to democratize Iran failed due to the control of the Supreme Religious Leader.  The greatest obstacle, in terms of democratizing Iran , 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 Iran for any transition into a more democratic form of government.

            There are not simply legal and institutional impediments to democratization but also socio-cultural ones.  Twelver Shi’ism in Iran 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 Iran 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 Iran ’s modern history for nearly a century and the significance of such a yearning has played a defining role in the subsequent revolutions as well.

            The 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 Iran : 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 Iran 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. 

Nationalism seems 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 Iran ’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 identity of Iran 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 Iran ”.  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 Iran .  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 Iran ’s flourishing feminist movement.  Women have found it exceedingly difficult to be treated equally under Islamic law:  

“Men 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  

“With regard to your children, God commandeth you to give the male the portion of two females…” Sura 4:12  

“…And 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 Iran , 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 Iran 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 Iran 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 Iran 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 Iran .  Intellectualism manifests itself primarily in three groupings of people: students, progressive/reformist clerics and critical journalists.

Students have 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 Vietnam era, the student opposition to the Egyptian leadership during the early part of the second intafadah, and the student riots in 1999 at the University of Tehran :  

“Young and 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 Enghelab Avenue , 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 Revolutionary Court (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 the Qur’an.

            Not all clerics in Iran agree with the interpretations of Islam that are provided by the leaders of Iran 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 somewhere else.

            The active role of a critical press in fomenting change in Iran has been significant. Iran ’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 Iran have been crucial in relaying to the outside world what is going on in Iran .  In doing so, foreign powers have taken note of the struggle for democratization in Iran and have (especially the United States 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 of ways.

            America ’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 Iran 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 Iran in an unprecedented fashion.  The common use of satellite dishes in Iran has allowed stations like NITV (stationed in Los Angeles , CA ) to broadcast dissenting views in Iran 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).  In contemporary Iran 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 to America ) and leave Iran 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 United States census, Iran is one of the top three countries for land of origin in terms of immigration to the United States .  The “brain-drain” that Iran 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 Iran 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 Iran ?  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.

            Revolution has been part of Iran ’s modern history since 1906 with the Constitutional Revolution.  For almost one hundred years there has been some form of political unrest in Iran .  The rise of Mossadeq in the 1950s and the subsequent CIA engineered coup that brought the Shah back to power would color Iran ’s foreign policies and become a pillar of state-supported anti-Americanism that continues to exist today.  Contemporary Iran 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 Iran 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 connection to Iran 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 Iran ’s neighbor Iraq , has been the recipient of such a policy at the hands of America .  And the only real potential for externally forced change would come from another American military invasion.  Considering the controversy surrounding Iran ’s nuclear program the United States 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 Iran .  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 democratization in Iran .

            After 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 Iran .  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 Iran .  This is a place between two truths vying for dominance in the hearts and minds of the peoples of Iran .  The dialogue of democracy has been established and whatever events or trends may come and go in Iran , 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 Iran must necessarily become a reality.  That has been the way of progress for all nations.  

“[Certain advantages] indicate conditions that promise a renewal of the greatness of Persia when she has emerged from the transitionary period through which she is now passing.  Persians as an active and intellectual [people] offers a strong ground for belief that she has yet before her a prosperous future.”

  S.G.W. Benjamin, The Story of Persia , 1887



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"tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito"
-- Roman saying
(Yield not to misfortunes, but advance all the more boldly against them.)


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