Book Reviews

The Debate Inside Iran

Some fascinating Iranian intellectuals are laying the groundwork for democracy. What chance of success do they have?

By Nader Hashemi

Tagged DemocracyInternational RelationsIran

Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change By Ali Mirsepassi • New York University Press • 2010 • 224 pages • $42

During the cold war, we had the Soviet Union; today, we have Iran. At least, that’s the way it seems in many American political and intellectual circles, where Tehran’s foreign policy orientation is deemed to represent and be motivated by the antithesis of Western values. The worst intentions are often assumed and attributed to its leadership. This is most evident in the debate surrounding Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. President George W. Bush observed at one point that if Iran were to obtain not an actual nuclear weapon but simply the know-how to produce one, World War III would be triggered.

The Obama Administration has adopted a less alarmist tone and attempted to pursue a dialogue with Iran’s leaders. Yet it, too, has placed the “Iran question” at the top of its foreign policy agenda, a reflection of how Iran is viewed by American political elites and the public at large. Is it therefore any surprise that a recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that a clear majority of Americans would support a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities?

The cold war analogy is also relevant in another sense when discussing Iran–the exaggerated danger posed by a perceived arch enemy. In retrospect, we can now see that the Soviet Union was not the ominous and rising power the Reagan Administration and its supporters portrayed it to be. Rather than expanding, the USSR was economically contracting and faced a steady and steep decline during the 1980s. The threat posed by Iran today is similarly misrepresented, for four reasons. First, the percentage of GDP that Iran spends on its military is smaller than many of its neighbors; Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Oman, and Pakistan all spend more. Second, while Iran is a leading petroleum-exporting country, due to weak refining capacities it imports a significant proportion of its domestic gasoline consumption, making it vulnerable to external pressure and sanctions. Third, as a result of mismanagement, corruption, and sanctions, its economy is in shambles. Inflation hit 26 percent in February, unemployment is at record level, and, according to a recent study by the Carnegie Endowment, “real GDP growth has been declining every year since 2005/2006…falling to less than 1.5 percent in 2009-2010. Official data also show an all round decline in capital, labor, and total factor productivity, with some 20 percent of the population now below the national poverty line.” And finally, with regard to Israel, the situation is not as black and white as often assumed.

The Islamic Republic remains home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East after Israel (about 25,000). Claims by those such as Benny Morris that “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wants to murder me, my family, and my people,” are spurious. Ahmadinejad has many Jews in his own backyard that are within easy reach, yet zero evidence exists that they have been targeted for mass murder. Moreover, notwithstanding the repressive and authoritarian nature of the Iranian regime, it has consistently voted in favor of UN resolutions that endorse a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and it is on record as endorsing, via the Organization of Islamic Conference, the 2002 Arab League Peace Plan that similarly calls for the creation of two states along Israel’s 1967 border. Of course, we can debate the ultimate value of these expressions and their significance. But it is perhaps for these reasons that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently stated that “Iran does not constitute an existential threat against Israel.” Former Prime Minister Tzipi Livni and the former head of the Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, have made similar comments in recent years.

While Ahmadinejad’s incendiary rhetoric is understandably a cause for concern, focusing exclusively on him and nuclear weapons inhibits a deeper understanding of contemporary Iran. On the ground level, there is a different reality. The future of Iran will be determined here, where a highly educated and politicized population is clamoring for change. An intellectual transformation of significant proportions, best described by Asef Bayat as “post-Islamism,” has emerged in recent years. This transformation demands greater attention and recognition within the United States, in the policy community, and the public at large.

It is a transformation inextricable from Iran’s internal struggle for democracy. This struggle, embodied by the slain figure of Neda Agha Sultan and the rise of the Green Movement, became headline news in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election. The largely nonviolent street protests shook the Iranian regime to its core, creating elite rivalries at the top and a roiling discontent below. The Islamic Republic now faces a major crisis of legitimacy, unprecedented since the 1979 revolution, due in part to the widespread internal perception that the election was stolen and to the severe brutality of the postelection crackdown.

This is where Ali Mirsepassi’s Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change begins. Mirsepassi, who teaches sociology and Middle East Eastern Studies at New York University, reminds us that these protests were not merely a spontaneous outburst of public anger but rather are deeply rooted in modern Iranian history and “reveal the continuity of an Iranian tradition of appearing in ‘public’ and ‘shaming’ the authorities.” He draws attention to a political tradition–largely unknown to many in the West–of peaceful mass mobilization that dates back to the nineteenth century. He notes that this tradition has long played a key role in Iran’s pursuit of representative and accountable government.

Democracy in Modern Iran is fundamentally a philosophical meditation on modernity, focusing on contemporary Iran as a way of considering the relationship between religion and politics around the globe. Mirsepassi is correct to locate the intellectual roots of the Green Movement in the reform process of the late 1990s that brought Iran’s liberal president, Muhammad Khatami, to power. Some of the most intriguing, important, and accessible parts of his book are the extensive interviews he has conducted with “religious intellectuals” such as Alireza Alavi-Tabar, Mustafa Tajzadeh, Hadi Khaniki, Reza Tehrani, and Abbas Abdi, who have been active in the intellectual transformation that Iran has experienced over the past 20 years. Two things are striking about these interviews: For the first time, these figures, well-known inside Iran, are introduced to an English-speaking audience. Secondly, Mirsepassi shows how these intellectuals embraced political Islam, underwent a process of questioning and disillusionment, and then began to explore and engage seriously with democracy, political pluralism, and human rights.

A full chapter is devoted to Alireza Alavi-Tabar, who explains how his generation–which came of age during the 1979 revolution–was shaped by utopian political ideas that synthesized a neo-Marxist critique of global economic relations with an Islamist vision of Iran’s future. The political and moral context that gave rise to this synthesis, of course, was the reign of the pro-Western and repressive Pahlavi dictatorship. Alavi-Tabar recalls reading translations of development theory by Andre Gunder Frank, a German-American scholar who held that Third World underdevelopment was exclusively due to the economic legacy of colonialism and imperialism. He also cites the work of the Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati and the theologian Morteza Motahari as being particularly influential. Both Shariati and Motahari were key theoreticians of political Islam in Iran during the 1970s, known for their development of a revolutionary, egalitarian, and religious modernity that claimed superiority over secular Western capitalist and Soviet socialist ideas and paradigms.

Alavi-Tabar, who has a doctorate in political science and writes frequently for reformist publications and websites, is pushed by Mirsepassi to reflect on his reasons for becoming disillusioned with the 1979 revolution. He mentions the period after the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 as being a turning point when two events coincided: “members of the [Islamist] left were removed from the fourth parliamentary election” and the “mass executions of 1988.” Alavi-Tabar identifies three significant milestones in his long journey from staunch supporter of the revolution to liberal democrat. First, there was the creation of a quasi-government think tank, the Presidential Strategic Research Center, which served as a forum for intellectual exchange–speakers were invited, new ideas were debated, and a culture of tolerance and civility was developed. Second came the appearance of Kiyan, a leading journal of philosophical and political thought, in 1991. It was here that reformist ideas were first explored and authoritarian Islamist doctrines critiqued. Finally, Alavi-Tabar cites the intellectual school that arose from the fractious religious debates among the followers of the dissident Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the one-time successor to Khomeini. These debates flowed directly from Montazeri’s public opposition to human rights abuses and, later, his open denunciation of clerical despotism which resulted in his removal from power. According to Alavi-Tabar, “these three schools of thought…gradually prepared the conditions for change.”

Mirsepassi builds on these probing conversations to describe the key characteristics and broad contours of the contemporary “Green” democratic movement in Iran. The intellectuals he interviews have all contributed to shaping this movement and are considered prominent supporters of it. He notes that it comprises a “diverse assemblage of secular and religious actors” interested in a critique of the politics of Islamic authenticity that dominated Iranian politics over the last 30 years.

Specifically, he writes: “[The] Iranian reform movement endeavors to reconcile the Enlightenment idea of democracy with local and national Iranian traditions and experiences. For this reason, it increasingly embraces a more pragmatic and sociological principle, rejecting the substantive ideological agendas that drove the Iranian Revolution and the authoritarian secular modernist and autocratic regime of the Shah.” In short, totalizing ideologies, both religious and secular, are subject to criticism. Some of the Western authors who were widely read by the intellectuals of this movement then applied to the case of authoritarianism in Iran include Immanuel Kant, Max Weber, Karl Popper, Jürgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, and David Held. On the Iranian side, the philosopher and Islamic scholar Abdulkarim Soroush, whom the journalist Robin Wright once referred to as the “Luther of Islam,” is repeatedly identified as the intellectual guru whose writings on religion and politics shaped a generation of post-revolutionary Iranian students, activists, and intellectuals.

Democracy in Modern Iran, however, is much more than simply a commentary on Iranian politics. In essence, it is a work of comparative political theory that examines the relationship between culture and democracy. Mirsepassi argues for the triumph of sociology over philosophy in understanding how democratic transformations begin and are sustained over time. Democratic transitions, he asserts, need to be understood not from texts, preconceived ideological doctrines or sudden epistemic shifts, but as “grounded in a complex and diversified view of social and political change on the ground.” With respect to Islam, Mirsepassi maintains that, like all cultures, it exists “pluralistically within an interrelated web of such varying historical-temporal structures and languages” and it is not a “single identity or consciousness defined by specific static ideas and practices, confronting other ‘cultural identities’ within a global arena of separate ideologies–any more than is ‘America.’” In other words, Islam is not a monolithic entity rooted in a fossilized medieval essence; instead, Muslim societies are fluid and are shaped, like all societies, by a myriad of socio-economic and political conditions at the local, regional, and international level.

The heroes of this book are none other than the great American pragmatists John Dewey and Richard Rorty, whom Mirsepassi points to for the best understanding of democracy and social change. He believes they serve as role models for the developing world, Iran in particular. It is precisely their commitment to social justice, rooted in humanism and democratic institutions, that he finds so appealing. Within the Muslim world, the author credits Islamic scholar Mohammed Arkoun and Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi for developing an approach to Islam that is scholarly, cosmopolitan, universal, and democratic. As such, these individuals and their interpretation of Islam can lead the way to an eventual Islamic reformation and are the best antidote to conservative Islamic orthodoxy.

On this point he is on solid ground. That Muslim societies are in need of a reformation is a matter of little doubt. But how can it be facilitated and which developmental strategies are best to be pursued? One of the lessons learned from this book is that meaningful and lasting social change can only be promoted by individuals who are organically connected to their home societies and who can act as bridge builders between tradition and modernity. Solutions to the problems of the Muslim world dreamed up by foreign think tanks and premised on a Eurocentric view of history and an Orientalist view of Islam and Muslims will not work.

While laudatory of the Iranian intellectuals who agitate for democracy, as well as the broader democracy movement, Mirsepassi is not without criticism for them. In his view, there is still room for growth. He wants to see them develop into “public intellectuals,” to speak the language of the masses–to spend less time on abstract philosophical debates and egotistical battles, and to invest more energy into building democratic institutions. “The main intellectual centers in Iran…instead of being a place of dialogue and discussion, we find a coliseum in which great battles are fought out among intellectual giants,” which leaves “the public sphere in the hands of people who are leisurely or incompetently involved in politics, or those who are journalists or professional writers but not researchers or thinkers.” Mirsepassi’s call is for Iranian intellectuals to “engage in dialogue and discussion concerning the expansion and growth of democracy and free themselves from competition over who embodies the truth.”

All of this has major implications for U.S. policy debates regarding Iran. While Mirsepassi does not address this topic specifically, it is evident that he is sharply critical of an American foreign policy that directly bolstered political authoritarianism in Iran before the 1979 revolution and has indirectly continued to do since then, via threats, sanctions, a policy of “regime change,” and labels such as the “axis of evil.” As Iranian democrats will tell you, these policies have only bolstered Iran’s clerical oligarchy and made the work of pro-democracy activists more difficult. “Democracy does not come from a blueprint dreamed up in a foreign think tank, to be imposed from above by an occupying military regime,” Mirsepassi affirms, “but it is generated by populations through time and struggle. From this perspective, Iran is traveling the difficult road to democracy with more certainty and experience than many other Islamic societies.”

It is the eventual triumph of this movement that holds the best prospects for moderating the behavior of a regime that is viewed today with suspicion and foreboding. U.S. foreign policy should be calibrated to facilitate this inevitability. There are no easy answers to how U.S. policy can do this. Any direct or overt involvement will backfire given the troubled history of U.S.-Iran relations. But there are several policies worth considering, including: preventing the Iranian regime from blocking satellite and internet access, so the domestic opposition can better mobilize its supporters; shining a global spotlight on Iran’s human rights record; and listening more carefully to Iran’s courageous democratic opposition, especially those who have their own ideas on how the international community can best support their struggle. Finally, there is the question of moral obligation. Americans have a unique responsibility to support democracy in Iran, largely because in 1953 the United States intervened in Iran to subvert it. The sins of the past need to be corrected today.

The preconditions for democracy in Iran look promising. Much of the heavy lifting, in terms of creating a political culture that can sustain democracy, has already been done by Iranian intellectuals. One element required for democracy to succeed, however, is a stable regional and international environment, and a new U.S. policy toward Iran that finds a central place for democracy support (properly understood). While this alone won’t guarantee a democratic success, if handled correctly, it could be a major source of support for Iranian democrats, whose valiant efforts deserve greater recognition and support by the United States and the West in general.


Read more about DemocracyInternational RelationsIran

Nader Hashemi teaches Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies (Oxford University Press, 2009), and is currently co-editing a collection of writings on the Green Movement and the struggle for democracy in Iran.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus