tehranbureau An independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora

Books: Democracy in Modern Iran

by DAN GEIST in New York

10 Jun 2010 01:09No Comments
demIran.jpgThe first two chapters of Ali Mirsepassi's new work may have readers checking the cover, the spine, the title page to assure themselves they're in the right book. Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change (New York University Press) begins with a synoptic history of Western philosophical approaches to the concept of secularism that seems well removed from its titular subject matter. Those who forge ahead will eventually find that the author himself might have preferred to get down to business more expeditiously: "Even though philosophical quarrels are enlightening and might even sometimes indirectly influence some policies, and even though they are certainly necessary within the realm of academic and intellectual circles, they do not have any direct bearing on what is needed in order to establish democratic institutions in Iran."

And Mirsepassi -- who attended Tehran University's College of Law and Political Science, and is now a professor of Middle Eastern studies and sociology at New York University -- argues that it is high time for Iranian intellectuals to get down to that very business. He critiques those pro-Reformist thinkers who "focus on the need to grasp the epistemological and philosophical preconditions underlying the idea of democracy" rather than working effectively toward its realization.

The author convincingly argues for a view of democracy based not on "objective logic," but rather on pragmatic lines: experience may lead a critical mass of citizens to believe that democracy is superior to the alternatives, and history demonstrates that it tends to be more stable. Concurring with American philosopher Richard Rorty, he suggests that "if democracy is what is really sought, then the idea of democracy must take priority over all other theoretical concerns." Instead of waging battles over who possesses the more perfect vision of the "truth," clashes that rivet only the cloistered, intellectuals must claim a place in the public sphere and articulate how democracy can be established, secured, and developed in Iran.

This push for public engagement is important, more important even than Mirsepassi himself acknowledges. "It seems," he writes, "that Iranians are clearer now more than ever before about what kind of society they desire. They have made their choice in recent elections...and they have spoken through newspapers and other nongovernmental media. They would like to live in a democratic society." We may agree that this is true, but we must confront closely related questions that Mirsepassi does not address, basic pragmatic questions. How much would Iranians like to live in a democratic society? Is that really a priority for a large majority of the country's citizens? If the country under a regime structurally similar to the present one became substantially less corrupt, maybe a little more prosperous, a touch more liberal, how would that affect people's hunger for more fundamental change? Yes, people care about democracy. But do enough of them care enough?

Considering the forces that impede the movement toward democracy, Mirsepassi focuses on the arbitrary character of the country's legal system and what he identifies as the tendency among leading Reformists to operate as an "exclusive club" and to appease the clerics who retain ultimate authority. These are crucial matters, but not so crucial as, on one side, the powerful inertia of a tolerable life and, on the other, the fear of the truncheon and the dread of the noose.

In the struggle for democratic reform, many political leaders and intellectuals alike have argued on behalf of "religious democracy." Mirsepassi effectively debunks the notion:

All interpretations of religion, in one way or another, rest on a concept of the sacred. If any element of government, leaders, ideologies, institutions, laws, and the like, is invested with the aura of the sacred, it cannot claim to have come from the will of the people. It cannot be democratic. In a democracy, legitimacy and representation are not permanent or fixed. People and positions can be changed or recalled. Nothing should occupy a privileged position beyond the reach of popular vote.

His argument is persuasive, though he does not actually state its logical conclusion: "Religious democracy" is an irresolvable oxymoron. It is not possible. Mirsepassi's hesitancy here is understandable, because -- once again, on pragmatic grounds -- he makes the case that it is necessary for secular intellectuals to engage with religious ones. Even if religion does not belong in democratic governance, it can play a vital role in the process of ending dictatorship. Adherence to secularism holds no guarantee of deliverance from despotism -- critical exchanges are necessary so secular purity does not itself become a blind faith. And though leading Reformist politicians and thinkers may be wedded to a contradiction, such vows are subject to adjustment. The author reports on interviews he conducted with five members of the democratic movement who participated in the 1979 Revolution as Islamic leftists and who subsequently moved from statist to more democratic views after a series of disenchantments. (One of these interviews, with Alireza Alavi-Tabar of the Islamic Iran Participation Party, is reproduced in full.) Shifts along those lines and other productive ones are possible if purity is abandoned as a goal.

Mirsepassi thus takes to task highly regarded pro-democratic intellectuals of very different stripes. Acknowledging the devotion of Abdolkarim Soroush -- "the most prominent religious intellectual to have emerged after the Revolution" -- to the idea of democracy, Mirsepassi declares that nonetheless "[h]is refusal to recognize any distinction between the private sphere (including religious affiliations and convictions) and the public sphere, his insistence on incorporating his own religious and intellectual prerogatives into a broad social agenda and his habitual 'augmentation' of all sociological concepts with pre- and post-fixes, cannot help the cause of democracy in Iran." On the other side, he describes as "indefensible" Aramesh Dustdar's "claim that all believers and Muslim intellectuals think alike and that all are bent on destroying genuine philosophical thinking" (though the reader may be less than clear on whether such a destruction would do grave harm to the democratic cause). A third well-known thinker, Javad Tabatabai, is indicted on the lesser charge of impracticality. Contrasting his own view with Tabatabai's, Mirsepassi states that "the critique of the history of political thought in Iran must focus on the causes and consequences of the traditional hostility to democracy in Iran, rather than dwell one-sidedly on the propagation of modern reason."

As for those causes, Mirsepassi rejects the notion that there is anything inherently inimical to democracy in the Muslim sensibility, as well as the corollary that democracy is a "natural," inevitable outgrowth of Western culture. He shows how such ideas are exploited by both neoconservatives in America and Europe and dictatorial rulers around the Islamic world, a mirroring that looks less ironic and more apt the longer one reflects on it. In some of the book's strongest passages, he wrecks the hardliners' nativist rationale for resisting the alien cultural invasion: "Ostensible insistence on bravely confronting the moral corruptions of the West is, in reality, a manifestation of [the] fear of Western democracy on the part of oppressive national leaders.... In an increasingly integrated world of economic, technological, and cultural exchanges, one must simply confess the bankruptcy of any attempt to conjure up a pure and authentic cultural identity."

A regime driving the country headlong into financial bankruptcy can hardly be expected to recognize that it has already attained a cultural one -- the result of which is deservedly perverse, as Mirsepassi notes: "When an anti-Western ideology is imposed on society through brute police force, it creates the reverse effect: a noncritical surrender to what is perceived as Western. A stroll through the streets of Tehran and discussions with young people reveal how deeply occupied their minds and hearts are with Western cultural codes and behaviors, their systematic denial of which has only fueled the ardor of their fond and baseless imaginings."

What this development means for the democratic movement might fruitfully have been interrogated by the author. In the People's Republic of China, progressive Westernization of the culture has hardly loosened the regime's grip on power. In the Islamic Republic, of course, grassroots Westernization challenges virtues held dear by the theocrats and rock and rap constitute much of the opposition soundtrack. But popular cultural distractions have proved useful to dictators for millennia. How are the spoils of this surrender divided?

While Mirsepassi ultimately says little about his view of the causes of the "traditional hostility" to democracy within Iran, he does deliver a variety of useful perspectives on the nature of the contemporary hostility. Beyond that, despite his book's disjointed structure, he maps the divides between democracy in theory and in action, between democratic work in and out of power, and the intellectual pitfalls and opportunities that both abound.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

SHAREtwitterfacebookSTUMBLEUPONbalatarin reddit digg del.icio.us

No Comments