Iran and the Two Faces of Modernity
by FARZIN VAHDAT
14 Aug 2010 19:06
[ IDÉ ] It is often thought that what is currently taking place in Iran, the continuation of what has unfolded there over the past three decades -- violation of human rights, systematic discrimination against women, and belligerence toward the West -- constitutes a rejection of modernity and its fruits. There are many reasons to find this view plausible. Soon after the victory of the Islamists in the Revolution of 1979, most of the modernizing efforts and institutions of the 55-year-old Pahlavi dynasty were either abandoned or completely reversed. Some of the most visible of these institutions pertained to women. During the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah, the state had taken some positive steps regarding the status and welfare of women. Some of the most flagrant institutionalized forms of discrimination and abuse were curbed, if not abolished, through the curtailing of arbitrary divorce by men, the institution of more women-friendly custody laws, and the restriction of polygyny.
With the establishment of the Islamic Republic, most of the provisions of the Pahlavi era's Family Protection Law were abandoned. Personal freedoms, which before the Revolution were more or less tolerated, came under severe attack by the revolutionaries. Women were forced to don the hejab, and any form of resistance to the closely monitored dress codes for both men and women was met with harsh punishment, including public flogging. Ancient retribution laws that entailed the cutting off of thieves' hands and the stoning of adulterers -- which, in fact, had rarely been performed in medieval Iran -- were enforced in many parts of the country.
Human rights, including freedom of belief, among the fundamental features of the modern world, received a fatal blow under the Islamic Republic. Adherents of the Baha'i faith, for example, came under savage attack by the government and zealots soon after the Revolution. Some 200 to 300 Baha'is were killed merely because they were not willing to recant their faith. Many more received long prison sentences. The property of thousands of Baha'is was confiscated and their children were deprived of education, especially of access to higher education. Last week, in a renewed attack on the members of this faith a court in Tehran handed down 20-year prison sentences for seven Baha'i leaders.
There is no doubt that the Revolution and the Islamic Republic that was established in its wake militated against and negated some of what we take to be the most important aspects of modernity. Yet, modernity is complex. Under closer analysis, it could become evident that what has been taking place in Iran over the past three decades might very well be the initial phases of modernity, whose emergence has often been Janus-faced in other parts of the world. The notion of modernity is a contentious one, surrounded by conflicting methods of analysis, value judgments, and sentiments. There is little consensus among social and political thinkers concerning basic questions. What is the nature of modernity? Do we still live in the modern or we have entered the postmodern phase? Was modernity a Western -- that is, Western European -- phenomenon, or not? When did it start, and can we speak of different phases in the development of the modern civilization? Has modernity improved human life or been detrimental to our happiness and security? These are difficult questions and much academic ink has been spilled without resolving them.
Of particular relevance to Iran's situation, there are some intellectual traditions that tend to view modernity in terms of transformations in the human psyche that empower individuals so that they are no longer passive, inactive, docile, compliant, idle, suffering, and resigned. From this point of view -- shared in varying ways by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and Jürgen Habermas -- modernity begins when a critical mass in a society abandons the life of passivity and acquires a sense of assertiveness, vigor, volition, resolve, and action. In a nutshell, modern people are not passive. They possess agency and power. They act upon the world. Moderns' intervention in and acting upon nature constitutes the foundation of technology, which has liberated humans to some extent from the whims of nature and at the same time brought us close to the destruction of both nature and ourselves.
Modern people also act upon society and politics as they assert their individual and collective power. This aspect of human agency and empowerment underlies the democratic institutions of modern societies. Democracy in the modern world is not possible without these fundamental transformations in the psyches of the people in a given society. We can install all the institutions of modern democracy, but without a critical mass in the society that has a sense of agency and empowerment these institutions will not survive. This happened in Iran (not to mention other countries) in the early 20th century. The Constitutional Revolution of 1906 laid the foundations of a restricted, constitutional monarchy, a parliament, a more or less free press, and free elections. But because a sense of agency and empowerment had not developed among the bulk of the Iranian people, all of these institutions failed. In fact, in the hands of the despotic Pahlavi kings, they were transformed into instruments to promote their heavy-handed rule. Especially from the 1960s on, the monarchy tried to win legitimacy by pursuing a kind of hollow modernization, typified by economic development projects, simultaneously ambitious and corrupt, directed from above.
The observation may at first seem very counterintuitive, but the experience of Iran in the past three decades has brought a significant sense of agency and empowerment to average Iranians, especially those of the lower and lower middle classes. Ironically, this development may ultimately challenge the very existence of the Islamic Republic as we know it. The Revolution of 1979 galvanized and mobilized the "masses" of Iran like no other event in the country's recent history. The participation of Iranians from all walks of life, especially the lower and lower middle classes, in political rallies, consciousness raising (as well as ideological indoctrination), formation of protest groups, and many other forms of social and political struggle toppled the Pahlavi dynasty. This collective action jolted ordinary Iranians and catapulted them into a form of agency, albeit rudimentary and contradictory.
The eight years of war with Iraq in the 1980s further promoted the sense of agency among Iran's men, and to some extent its women (female participation in the war effort behind the front was significant). The conflict was inarguably devastating: it took a massive human toll, with between a quarter of million and one million Iranians killed. It also further devastated what remained of the country's physical infrastructure after the Revolution. Yet, despite the massive human and physical damage that the war inflicted on Iran, it served to increase the sense of boldness and agency among its people.
Thus the foundations for societal modernity among Iranians of average means were laid. And when a sense of agency and empowerment is initiated among a critical mass of a population, there can develop a dynamic process that not only increases the sense of agency in the individual, but also disseminates it further in society. When an individual develops a sense of agency and empowerment and comes to realize that other individuals in the society should have the same, then the foundations of universal rights are created. This, in turn, can inspire a democratic ethos among a large number of people. This seems to have taken place in Iran. The Reformist movement of the 1990s, an abbreviated version of this scenario, gave rise to the much larger Green Movement that emerged, seemingly spontaneously, last year in response to the rigged presidential election.
In fact, that earlier Reformist movement did not emerge out of nothing. It owed much to the actions of some of the once downtrodden people of Iran -- those who had joined the Revolution, participated in the war with Iraq, and as a result had developed a high sense of agency while acknowledging and conceding the same agency for others. In this way a group of Iranians from humble backgrounds gave birth to the ethos of modern agency and its universalization that is at the foundation of societal modernity and democracy.
And this Reformist tide, while large enough to win two presidential elections for Mohammad Khatami, was not quite as large as the Green Movement that succeeded it last year. During Khatami's presidency, between 1997 and 2005, the newly developed middle classes of Iran were mostly silent, even as they sympathized with Reformist policies. With the fraudulent presidential election of 2009, this vast group of people shed their last layer of passivity and became fully active, participating in the protests that shook the regime for many months.
Yet societal modernity has another face. The popularization of agency among the multitude may not be fully disseminated. The democratic ethos is sustainable when the sense of empowerment and agency is dispersed in society and people acknowledge the agency of everyone else. But when a group wants agency and power for its members alone, then an anti-democratic ethos come to the fore. Modernity, it seems, engenders both of these types of ethos and social groups that identify with them.
The people around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Basij embody this anti-democratic face of modernity. Their roots are also largely in the lower and lower middle classes of the 1960s and 1970s who acquired a sense of empowerment and agency as a result of the Revolution and the war with Iraq. However, unlike those whose support the Green Movement, they wish to keep this agency exclusive to their circle and monopolize power. They are relatively small groups who benefit -- or think they do -- from not sharing power. They do not, by any means, constitute a subordinate class, "subalterns," as they are sometimes portrayed. They are ambitious. They actively seek favor, position, and financial resources from the government, Guard, and militia leaders. They possess a large appetite for power and for keeping it within their ranks. They also have a monopoly over the means of violence.
The conflict between these two faces of modernity in Iran makes the struggle for change a protracted endeavor. Those who wish to monopolize power will not give up easily. They belong to the first generation of downtrodden Iranians who acquired power by means of struggle and violence -- or, in the case of the younger Basijis, the first underdog generation to be given a taste of power.
On the other side, the new middle classes of Iran, who have also newly acquired a sense of empowerment and agency but wish to share it in a democratic fashion, are resilient. Nobody has conferred their new status to them on a silver platter. They have earned their status and developed their modern democratic ethos through hard experience in the past 30 years. These new middle classes are the motor behind the civic progress in Iran that has coalesced into the Green Movement. They are not going to give up their desire for democracy because that desire has been evolving for more than three decades. The good news is that most of those involved in this civic movement believe in nonviolent means to bring change and democracy to Iran. Because of that it may take a while for them to succeed, but they are consciously avoiding the sort of violent conflict with the forces of monopoly that could lead to a devastating conflagration.
Dr. Farzin Vahdat is a research associate at Vassar College. IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.
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