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Education | Everything I Need to Know About Democracy I Learned in 3rd Grade


23 Feb 2012 18:03Comments
13901203135458162_PhotoL.jpgFirst lessons in democracy offer insight into the democratic imaginings of the Islamic Republic.

[ analysis ] Parliamentary elections for the 9th Majles lie just on the other side of leap year, now less than two weeks away. The first major ballot since the disputed 2009 presidential elections, state leaders in Iran are, more than ever, anxious to put the controversies of the past behind them and to demonstrate the legitimacy of the regime in this, "the most sensitive elections in the history of the Islamic Republic." Analyses of the elections from outside of Iran have characteristically focused on the country's factional power struggle taking place within an ever-shrinking circle of players. With many of Iran's reformists sidelined, foreign observers are casting the March 2 ballot as a final showdown of sorts between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the conservative allies of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Absent from the swirl of debate and discussion is the possibility of sincerity, the recognition that for regime stalwarts -- and their numbers are considerable -- the Islamic Republic embodies democracy itself, democracy as they believe it ought to be. With the perennial drumbeats of war between Iran and the United States reaching their latest crescendo, it might be more constructive to take a different tact, to engage in what Andrew Sullivan and others have called small gestures of moral imagination, a measured consideration of how Iranians actually speak to themselves on the matter of elections and the function of democracy in an Islamic society.

The current absence of moral imagination is particularly curious given that central to the IRI's discourse of legitimacy is an animating belief in "religious democracy." Religious democracy represents not just another version of democracy or an alternative to democracy: it is the thing itself. "It is not like importing democracy from the west and then attaching it to religion," according to Khamenei. "Democracy itself belongs to religion."

The conceit that religious democracy is democracy done correctly fits neatly into a broader state rhetoric of Iranian and Islamic exceptionalism, the notion that in the experience of the 1979 Revolution lies the beginning of the end of history. By this thinking, the Islamic Republic and its nascent offshoots now flowering in the Arab Spring represent the triumph of spirit over the failed materialism of western liberal democracies and eastern socialism. Religious democracy, and in particular Islamic democracy, offers humanity the sole viable and virtuous path towards political and social fulfillment. Elections are an expression of that virtue.

How then does Iran constitute religious democracy? First lessons at school offer some insight into the democratic imaginings of the Islamic Republic. Formal instruction in religious democracy starts as early as the third grade, with the primer lesson "Class Representative."

From the beginning, Iranian children are taught that democracy is moral practice. "Class Representative" opens with a group of students at Ibn Sina Elementary preparing to cast their monthly ballot for representative. After going over the procedure for voting (two names written on a piece of paper, the top vote-getters named to the position), the teacher asks his students to reprise the virtues that a leader must possess.

Without hesitation come the replies, learned over months of instruction: Ali says that the representative must be just and honest. Hassan answers that a good representative is a studious and serious student. Saied declares that a leader must be resourceful and well qualified. Mohammad notes that the representative has to be patient and tolerant.

The lesson teaches neither the work, nor the name of the eventual winner of the position of class representative. All that matters is that the content of the representative's character be correct. Introduced in 1979 as part of the first wave of reforms following the revolution, "Class Representative" presents an untroubled view of democracy, one in which voters are eager to participate in a process that, necessarily, leads to the election of a just and moral leader.

By the early 2000s, state planners had turned this narrative on its head. Now instead of an assumed moral ending, the revised and still current version of "Class Representative" presents a scenario in which the class representative behaves immorally. Outcomes become more uncertain, and the children of the story must actively reclaim their classroom democracy. Rather than simply regurgitate received knowledge taught to them in top-down fashion by their teacher, the students learn by doing, in this case through the negative experience of having an elected leader fail in his role because of a lack of virtues.

Newly elected, Amin arrives early to school on his first day on the job, well before his teacher and classmates. Drawing a line down the center of the blackboard, he divides the class into two categories: "Good" and "Bad." Even though none of the students have yet arrived, Amin writes the name of Hassan under the "Bad" column. Amin had forgotten to bring his cup to school the day before. Hassan had refused to loan his own to Amin, rightly reminding him that it was not allowed, and that each person is supposed to drink from his own cup.

Not surprisingly, Hassan becomes upset when he sees his name on the chalkboard: "I haven't misbehaved!" Unwilling to admit the true reason for Hassan's demerit, Amin justifies his act of petty retribution by accusing Hassan of turning the pages of his textbook too loudly, therefore breaking the concentration of the other students.

In short order, Amin unleashes a torrent of sanctions on the remainder of the class, using a variety of arbitrary excuses to fill the "Bad" column with names, including that of Saeid, whose crime was to crawl under his desk in order to pick up a fallen pencil. When Saied demands that Amin explain himself, Amin responds by placing three more marks by Saeid's name.

Demoralized and frightened into silence, the students sit motionless until their teacher arrives, at which point the children break into a chorus of protest and complaint. Recognizing the teachable moment before him, the teacher engages in a process of consultation with his students. He breaks them up into groups of three and, reversing the pedagogy of the earlier lesson, encourages his students list on their own the virtues expected of the class representative.

This is a crucial development in the curriculum on democracy. If the earlier version of "Class Representative" introduced students to the moral bases for rule, then today's lesson teaches its readers that it is acceptable to question and protest authority unjustly practiced. When those protests fall on deaf ears, the children seek relief by appealing to a higher authority, in this case, directly to their teacher. The only grownup in the room, the teacher quietly defuses the situation, and convinces a chastened Amin to seek forgiveness from his peers. He reminds his students that although the class representative is responsible for maintaining discipline and order in the classroom, a good representative must above all be just (adel) and honest (amin), driving the point home by drawing on the well-worn but effective device of the corny joke: "Thanks be to God that we have in our class an Amin."

* * *

Such was the scenario on the morning of June 19, 2009. A week of mass demonstrations and counter-protests not seen in Iran since the revolution more than 30 years earlier drove the country into crisis. Just as Amin's classmates had turned to their teacher for help, Iranian citizens and voters waited with anticipation for the Supreme Leader's verdict on the presidential elections. There was yet a sincere hope among many that Khamenei would intercede, if not directly on behalf of Mousavi and the millions of Iranians convinced that their votes had been lost, then to at least reign in and shame Ahmadinejad, a public official who, not unlike the fictional character Amin, had shown a marked capacity for dishonest and vengeful behavior towards his political opponents, behavior that was, according to the standards of the Islamic Republic, unbecoming of a democratic and Muslim leader.

Such relief, it turned out, was not forthcoming, a reminder that quite unlike the rarefied world of children's textbook stories, in the real word interventions by grownups are prone to disappointment. In its own way the disputed presidential election and its aftermath proved to be a teaching moment like no other. The experience caused many ordinary Iranians to question the disposition to be subjects in search of a sponsor, to look to the powerful for help in moments of crisis, a concept already anticipated in the Mousavi campaign slogan, "Each citizen, a headquarters." These same Iranians would go on, over weeks and months of protests, to imagine in their own terms the moral virtues that make democratic authority, religious or otherwise, fit for rule.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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