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The Future of Democracy in Iran: Is 'Collective Experience' the Key?


13 Feb 2011 19:17Comments

Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change (New York University Press, 2010), by Ali Mirsepassi

4_8911210357_L600.jpg[ IDÉ ] Ali Mirsepassi's latest volume, Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture and Political Change, is a timely contribution to the longstanding debate surrounding the status of democracy and prospects for democratic change in Iran -- a debate that has arguably been imbued with a new sense of urgency since the 2009 presidential elections in which unprecedented protests erupted throughout a number of Iranian cities disputing the electoral victory of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The publisher has clearly tried to reflect this sense of urgency. The book sports a green dust jacket and snapshot of one of the many protests caught on camera and broadcast to the world: thousands of protestors huddled together, steadily, but warily moving forward, speckled with flecks of green and slogans of indignation. The clear implication, though this in fact receives little attention in the actual body of the text itself, is that the so-called Green Movement is the future of Iranian democracy or perhaps its very realization. If it were not already clear where Mirsepassi's hopes for Iran's navigating its exit from autocratic torpor reside, his preface bears the subtitle "Where is My Vote?" This slogan, of course, was heard on the streets of numerous Iranian cities and many others around the globe where diaspora Iranians demonstrated in solidarity with their countrymen and women. These events in turn were often overshadowed in many respects by the protests' ubiquitous presence on the World Wide Web, disseminated through social networking sites -- the "Twitter Revolution," in the words of many a triumphalist newscaster or overzealous journalist, was nigh.

Mirsepassi's assessment differs significantly from this vision of things. He by no means sees the momentous events of June 2009 as sui generis or as the result of an IT revolution. On the contrary: he contends that "it is the strongly ingrained tradition of public and open social protest in modern Iran that made it possible" (x). To support this contention, he draws a vague, yet familiar genealogy of "popular protest" encompassing sit-ins (bastneshini), the Tobacco Revolt, the Constitutional Revolution, and the National Front Movement under Premier Mohammad Mosaddegh. To claim that this is all part and parcel of a "cumulative development" (xi) resulting most recently in the Green Movement is of course itself an abstract schematization which imposes an overriding trend or direction to Iranian history. This would not necessarily be a problem if Mirsepassi was not so keen on emphasizing that he seeks to overturn such abstractions (xiii) in favor of what he refers to as "a more modest sociological perspective on the politics of democratization grounded in everydayness rather than flamboyantly imagined philosophical visions of total change" (2). For him, "total change" is essentially bound up with the idea of "epistemological rupture," the rapid and highly violent uprooting of the norms, values, and practices of the preceding order in the name of "absolute truth" or "national salvation." This point, although without doubt important, was made long ago in the Iranian context, (though in distinct terms) by postrevolutionary intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush (among others), who was in turn deeply influenced by the philosophy of Karl Popper, particularly the latter's famous critique of Marxism presented in The Open Society and its Enemies.1 As argued by Soroush and others decades ago, if there is such a thing as Paradise, it is best left for the next world. Certainly no single political ideology is capable of harnessing its divine splendor and perfection in the here-and-now. Those who tried have almost invariably unleashed catastrophe in their wake.

Though not a vision of "total change," the notion of "cumulative development" as presented by Mirsepassi could be said to perpetuate the idea that Iranian history in all its diversity ultimately siphons off into a single evolutionary trajectory, one of gradualism reaching its eventual culmination in "democracy." Unfortunately, Mirsepassi addresses this term in only cursory fashion. In the preface he asserts that "Iranians historically prefer reform of existing political institutions to total change -- this is why important figures in the modern history of Iran are known as 'reformers'" (xiii). Piecemeal reform need not be democratic and may well often be introduced from above to further entrench the status quo, so the reader is at a loss to understand what is particular to "democratic reform," as opposed to "reform" more generally speaking. Moreover, Iran specifically, has witnessed an untold number of conquering kings who sought to extirpate the vestiges of their predecessors, and many so-called "reformers," most notably Amir Kabir, Mohammad Mosaddegh, Ali Amini, (perhaps) Mehdi Bazargan, and Mohammad Khatami have been killed, marginalized, or isolated.2 Thus the argument that "Iranians" as a people harbor a political preference for reform over radical change appears quite unpersuasive. The Islamic Revolution of 1979, as Mirsepassi himself admits, flies in the face of any attempt to attribute a political preference for reform to Iranians, of course providing that such generalizations are even remotely tenable in the first place. Whether the Revolution was an exceptional event and break with the Iranian penchant for reform could perhaps become the subject of debate, even if the merits of such a debate are themselves questionable. Another quite obvious point is that revolutions are exceptional everywhere, not merely Iran; very few, if any societies, have fulfilled the Trotskyite ideal of "permanent revolution," including most famously Stalin's Russia.

The crux of the book is eloquently stated in the preface: "The post-election events in Iran are to a considerable extent consistent with previous social events in the long history of struggle for democracy by modern Iranians...the specific nature of this long-standing democratic tradition is best understood through temporally grounded and concrete social analysis rather than timeless speculative abstraction anchored in the 'universal' philosophical assumptions of Eurocentric modernity" (ix-x). This is a very welcome approach, especially when so much of Iran's contemporary political discourse has been marred by extremism and a Manichean vision of things. However, exactly which "democratic tradition" is Mirsepassi speaking of? Is the "tradition of public and open protest" referred to earlier synonymous with the "democratic" one? And if so, how? On this issue there remains little by way of clarification, especially since many advocates of the Constitutional Revolution, for example, could hardly have been said to be liberal or Western-style democrats -- as numerous scholars have argued, Iran's Constitutional Revolution was first and foremost a revolution for law and in opposition to arbitrary despotism, and not, for instance, "democracy" in the senses propounded by either J. S. Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, or Robert Dahl. "Democracy" and what it signified for Iranian intellectuals and statesmen in different times and places is left unaddressed. Moreover, though Mirsepassi's introduction addresses the relationship between democracy and culture, there is little attention paid to democracy as such, or the constituent elements or processes of democratization. The reader in search of a systematic approach to the question of democratization, its modus operandi, successes, and failures in 20th-century Iran will in all likelihood be sorely disappointed.

The book is impressively broad in scope. Mirsepassi delivers a disquisition on aspects of Wittgenstein's later philosophy, John Dewey's pragmatism (introduction), the origins of secularism in Europe (chapter 1), and modern visions of secularism in which he repeats and evaluates some of the arguments of Talal Asad's Formations of the Secular (chapter 2). Then we are party to an exposition of Montesquieu's Persian Letters and some of the central arguments of Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts into Air (chapter 3) until page 81, at which point he returns to discussion of Iran and the issue of intellectuals and democracy. Though these discussions certainly make for compelling reading, the lay reader may well feel misled having purchased a book which falls short of 200 pages and bears the title Democracy in Modern Iran.

One of the more pertinent sections of the book is chapter 5, which summarizes interviews with prominent reformist intellectuals such as Alireza Alavi-Tabar, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Abbas Abdi, Hadi Khaniki, and Reza Tehrani. Chapter 6 reprints the full interview with Alavi-Tabar. The latter, especially, is full of fascinating details and will be of great interest to those unfamiliar with the contemporary Iranian intellectual scene and the conversion of many former diehard radicals to the "reformist" camp. However, it seems that Mirsepassi takes much of what these intellectuals say at face value without critical evaluation. These intellectuals could well be said to embody the change of disposition formed out of the weight of collective experience of which Mirsepassi often speaks -- in particular, the lived experience of revolutionary excess, wayward autocracy, and devastating conflict, and how such experiences have engendered a new found respect for democratic institutions and human rights. But an important question is to what extent these figures reflect the Iranian polity in toto over the last 30 years. Mirsepassi is not totally unjustified in attempting to illustrate his thesis in this manner, but it would be misleading to suggest these intellectuals are representative of the Iranian polity in its entirety. In fact, many of them comprise but a part of the once revolutionary elite, cast out of favor and/or the seat of power. There is nothing inevitable or necessary about their transformation from Khomenists to democrats. Many others underwent similar experiences, but have remained loyal to the establishment, albeit critical of Ahmadinejad's perceived recklessness (and even such criticism is often muted).

Chapter 8 is another interesting and cogent chapter of the book and attempts a professional intervention into the state of sociology and its practice as an academic discipline. As a trained sociologist, this question clearly resonates with Mirsepassi and he often deems the reform of the discipline in his homeland as bound up with Iran's debate vis-à-vis "modernity." This is achieved largely through an engagement with Taqi Azadarmaki's well-known book The Sociology of Iranian Sociology.

It should be stated that this is not a strictly academic work, but more along the lines of a "political intervention" -- an intervention that may very well appeal to some and repulse others. Rather than a work of impartial, methodical analysis, its style and syntax approximate in many ways that of a political pamphlet. Arguments and conclusions are often mounted from the first-person perspective and even supported by reference to Mirsepassi's own biography. For example, we learn that he studied with both Hamid Enayat and Mohammad-Reza Shafiee Kadkani (72), "I never forgot what Dr. Enayat had told me" (73), "No longer could I read something without speculating on its possible relation with some system of power" (75), "Reading Marshall Berman's seminal book on modernity was an important event in my understanding" (78), and so forth. In this way we get an inkling of Mirsepassi's own intellectual journey and dialogue with the "Western Other," which he then deftly proceeds to intertwine with Iran's very own encounter with the "West."

Moreover, the book often gives the impression of being written for a strictly Iranian audience. Mirsepassi regularly invokes a collective "we" -- that is, the author himself and fellow Iranians -- in the form of an imperative to action: "We must ask how we may produce a narrative of modernity that can at once critique Iran's traditional concepts and institutions and take account of the shortcomings in the received paradigm of modernity" (185); "we should welcome Foucault as a highly fruitful thinker while remaining firmly committed to the goal of Iranian democracy" (188); "We can't hope to understand our modernity if..." (76); "Iranians need to ask themselves..." (84).

It is in this way that Mirsepassi seeks to fulfill the role of a rather conventionally conceived "public intellectual." Mirsepassi's invocation of normative imperatives and exhortations to critical reflection suggests he might concur with the late Edward W. Said's desire to rehabilitate the idea that "the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public"19 and with his belief that "intellectual representations are...dependent on a kind of consciousness that is skeptical, engaged, unremittingly devoted to rational investigation and moral judgement."4 Mirsepassi on several occasions invokes Said as a model intellectual, the type Iran's institutions of higher learning should strive one day to "produce," providing of course, they are adequately reformed (158, 159, 75). These are certainly a commendable set of endeavors and aspirations. But as will be argued, it is not entirely clear whether such a model of the public intellectual remains coherent without a dialogical procedure, by which alternative viewpoints can contest rival normative claims and thereby frame the basic terms of debate. And as we will see, it is precisely on this point that a tension arises between Mirsepassi's anti-foundationalist philosophical commitments and his role as a public intellectual.

Now returning to the central arguments of the book, which revolve around "democracy" and "anti-foundationalism," it can be said that Mirsepassi comes closest to a working definition of "democratic society" in the course of a hurried reading of the implications of Wittgenstein's and Dewey's thought for "foundationalism": "a democratic society is grounded in institutional realities established collectively through a period of widespread public participation, on a pragmatic rather than fixed epistemic basis, and drawing on the selective continuity of existing cultural meanings rather than seeking to destroy them in the name of an epistemic rupture" (7).

Toward the end of the chapter, Mirsepassi adds: "Following Rorty, I propose that we should make democracy and the creation of democratic institutions the center of our theorizing, rather than philosophy" (21). The philosophical point of departure here is Rorty's own endeavor in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity to envision a "postmetaphysical culture,"5 one that has come to terms with the idea that truths are not found, but created.6 Rorty's essay "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy"7 is also a crucial point of reference in Mirsepassi's formulation of the problematic. For instance, later in the book he argues there "is no 'objective logic' as to why a society is better off adopting democracy instead of something else" (98). Yet at the same time, he insists on the necessity of consensus regarding the question "What is a good society?" How is such a consensus to be achieved according to Mirsepassi? "The individual and collective experience of citizens themselves might lead them to believe, given the right social conditions, that democratic institutions could be better alternatives to the existing arrangements" (98, my emphasis).

Mirsepassi contends that individual and collective experience might lead to consensus -- a most tentative conclusion. There are no reasons per se why Iranians ought to be democrats, but in light of their "experience" it seems like the best alternative available. In spite of this rather unconvincing argument, he then goes on to speak of the need "to desacralize all spheres of politics" if Iran is to have "a complete liberal-democratic system" (101). Are we to assume such a position is ultimately unjustifiable, but merely preferable in light of experience? The question, of course, presents itself whether notions of "preference" or "choice" are even coherent without recourse to justification and the adducing of reasons. Mirsepassi frequently invokes normative validity-claims along these lines, despite his self-avowed intentions to the contrary, and as a result of his endorsement of Rorty's dismissal of epistemic justification, is unable to adduce reasons that would convince his interlocutor to accept the particular utterance in question.8 There is no discursive procedure by means of which dialogue can occur in Mirsepassi's Rortian model; it simply occurs without rhyme or reason.

How, according to Mirsepassi, is consensus to be reached if not through argumentation and dialogical reasoning, even if such reasoning takes place in a historically situated life-world and against a set of background practices, which underwrite understanding and self-interpretation? We should also question whether polities even undergo such a thing as a uniform historical experience. After all, a major anti-democratic practice committed by Iranian governments of the past has been to assume that the metropolitan areas speak for the provinces and ethnic minority communities.

Perhaps the most important point and fatal flaw of Mirsepassi's argument is that Locke, Jefferson, and Mill -- key figures in the intellectual genesis of liberal democracy (to which Rorty himself often defers) -- can hardly be said to have been proto-anti-foundationalists or advocates of the idea that truths are contingent constructions without veracity or that liberal democracy is not justifiable philosophically speaking vis-à-vis its competitors. Rorty could perhaps assume, and it remains a highly dubious assumption, that contemporary liberals are free to ignore their anti-liberal critics, because their language is fundamentally alien to the moral and political intuitions of their own historical community and culture.9 Quoting the liberal political philosopher John Rawls on his conception of justice as fairness, the point is reiterated that "given our history and the traditions embedded in our public life, it is the most reasonable doctrine for us."10 It is in this sense that Rorty has the luxury of arguing that liberal democracy has little need to resort to philosophical justification, even if the need to invoke its "reasonability" remains. This is because it already informs American traditions and public life and in light of such traditions can be seen as the most "reasonable" alternative for the distribution of rights and resources. In another context, he speaks of the historical loss of the "habit of using certain words" and the gradual acquisition of the "habit of using others."11 For Rorty, the moral intuitions embedded in American public life are in no need of philosophical justification, merely systematization. This is also argued for by Rorty in his deferral to Wilfrid Sellars and Michael Oakeshott in seeing morality "as a set of practices, our practices,"12 that is, the practices of the particular and historically contingent community of which we are members.

There is also a more serious epistemological issue which presents itself here. Epistemologist Ernest Sosa, has argued that Rorty, when all is said and done, can be read as a foundationalist firmly rooted in the tradition of modern epistemology. This is because according to the latter's own credo of "epistemological behaviorism," both direct and indirect authority, which provide the basis for argument and inference are ultimately grounded "not [in] the taking of the given but the approval of society."13 So when Mirsepassi argues that democratic institutions should be built on a "pragmatic rather than fixed epistemic basis," much like his philosophical mentor, whom he observantly follows, he tends to confuse "convention" (i.e., direct social approval) with "public justification."14 Another issue which arises is that mere "social approval" is not and cannot be taken as a "pragmatic justification." Such an argument is thus also arguably guilty of committing the "naturalistic fallacy" or deriving an "ought" from an "is."

However, another absolutely crucial point upon which Mirsepassi's thesis hinges is that unless he is able to demonstrate that democratic, secular, and liberal norms and dispositions are embedded in the public culture of the Iranian polity, his efforts to draw upon Rorty's arguments are misconceived in more ways than one. He certainly brings no empirical evidence to bear in support of such conclusions. When contestation over the fundamental set-up and procedures governing society and its distribution of rights and resources are still fiercely contested, there seems to be a clear need or demand for an intellectual defense and justification of liberal-democratic norms and practices. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty himself states of Enlightenment rationalism that "although it was essential to the beginning of liberal democracy, [it] has become an impediment to the preservation and progress of democratic societies"15 (my emphasis).

In a theocratic state such as Iran in which the Supreme Leader claims to be invested with a divine right to rule and the body politic itself remains highly divided (as is clear from the history of the Islamic Republic and even the post-election turmoil) and undecided that liberal democracy is the best available alternative, along with the ever-looming prospect of civil conflict, can Iranian liberal democrats simply rest on their laurels and hope that by means of some miraculous feat (e.g., "collective experience" showing the way) democratic institutions "might," "could" emerge? Yet Mirsepassi continues to exhort his readers: "Now it is time for the establishment and expansion of democracy to become the basic objective and the primary focus of intellectual discourse" (151). Iranian anti-liberals or even those who are undecided or merely lukewarm toward such a political disposition are bound to ask: "Why should it become our basic objective and primary focus?" Even many of the Green Movement's key supporters and backers either advocate the current constitutional setup of the Islamic Republic, though they claim it has been "improperly implemented," or support a more democratic interpretation of Velaayat-e Faghih, the guardianship of the Islamic jurist, and wish to see the Vali-ye Faghih, the Supreme Leader, made accountable and as a result less inclined to arbitrary rule.16

Isaiah Berlin held social life to harbor an ineliminable value-pluralism. Rawls in a distinct vein speaks of the "fact of pluralism."17 Such diversity is indeed desirable in democratic societies. However, it is crucial if the political order is to remain stable and endure into the longer term that the political conception determining the basic distribution of rights and resources obtains a "minimal," or to use Rawls's term, "overlapping" consensus -- that is, a consensus affirmed in spite of individuals' diverging religious, philosophical, and moral comprehensive doctrines.18 What is missing in Mirsepassi's account is how conflicting parties possessing incommensurable vocabularies and values can establish the unspecified minimal consensus he merely posits as the outcome of "collective experience." The differences that divide the Iranian polity and chief political actors are not mere differences of degree; they are demonstrated by not only the very real political impasse that mars the present, but also the plethora of visions laying claim to the rules that ought to in their eyes govern the basic order of society. In the absence of any empirical support for his conclusions that consensus has been obtained under the extant conditions, it seems Mirsepassi has little grounds to claim the "collective experience" of the Iranian polity has led it to the conclusion cum "final vocabulary"19 that liberal democracy definitively trumps its ideological rivals. Perhaps instead, we ought to try and determine what the "overlapping consensus" of Iranian society might be. Such an endeavor could present a more viable question for a future research agenda on the subject.

It has been difficult to do full justice to this work, which is both provocative and broad in scope, in the small amount of space available. It will no doubt provide much food for thought, even if one decides to retain a healthy dose of skepticism vis-à-vis a number of its philosophical premises.


1. Abdolkarim Soroush, Farbehtar az Idiolozhi (Mo'asseseh-ye Farhangi-e Serat, 1993), 97-157.

2. It should be made clear that the notions of "total change" and "epistemological rupture" deployed by Mirsepassi are explicitly tied to modern political ideologies and mass politics. The point of these counterexamples is to merely show that "reform" hardly seems to be an inveterate characteristic of the "Iranian people."

3. Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The Reith Lectures (Pantheon, 1994), 11.

4. Ibid., 20.

5. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), xvi.

6. Ibid., 21, 53.

7. Richard Rorty, "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy," in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 175-202.

8. Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Beacon Press, 1994), 18-19.

9. Rorty, "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy," 180, 189.

10. Ibid., 185 (emphasis added by Rorty).

11. Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 6.

12. Ibid., 60.

13. Ernest Sosa, Knowledge in Perspective: Selected Essays in Epistemology (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 93.

14. Ibid.

15. Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 44.

16. "Ayatollah Montazeri: Payambar Ham Velayat-e Motlaqeh Nadasht," BBC Persian; "Enteqad-e Karubi az 'Damaneh' Ekhtiyarat-e Velayat-e Faqih," BBC Persian; "Bayanieh-ye Mohem-e Mehdi-ye Karubi dar mored-e Ekhtiyarat-e Velayat-e Faqih," Mizan Khabar (each accessed November 24, 2010). There are of course others -- perhaps most prominently, Akbar Ganji -- who have decided to wholeheartedly advocate liberal democracy and secularism. But the extent to which Ganji's view represents the mainstream of reformist or Iranian public opinion is far from clear. In short, the issue isn't by any of the stretch of the imagination settled or cut and dried. See Akbar Ganji, The Road to Democracy in Iran (MIT Press, 2008); Manifest-e Jomhuri-Khahi (Tehran, 2002).

17. John Rawls, John Rawls: Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Harvard University Press, 1999), 425.

18. Ibid., 421.

19. For Rorty on the meaning of "final vocabulary," see Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 73.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

related reading | Books: Democracy in Modern Iran

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