by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 9, Rabi' al-Thani, 1423)
Twenty-three years after the Islamic Revolution, Iranians continue to debate vigorously several issues that have important implications for the future of the Islamic Republic. Heading their agenda is the question of relations with the US, which were severed by Washington in early 1980. The country’s economy and the roles of the press and judiciary are also debated with great passion.
Despite his undoubted decency and integrity, president Mohammad Khatami, according to some observers, has not addressed the country’s economic problems adequately. He is respected as a man of culture, but his economic team has not found solutions to unemployment, for instance. With at least 300,000 people entering the job market each year, job prospects for the young are limited. This leads to great frustration, especially among the young, who have little understanding of why the Revolution occurred, and little memory of the sacrifices that were required to bring it about. This has been one of the failings of successive governments in Iran.
There is also the problem of nepotism. One Majlis deputy has estimated that about 20,000 senior government officials and their relatives hold 120,000 jobs (Iran Daily, June 9). Even if this is an exaggeration, it is still a serious problem. It is clear that people holding two or three jobs cannot possibly perform their duties properly in each; they also deprive others of employment. Nepotism seems to have escaped notice, or it is accepted as normal practice in society. The Rahbar, Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, has pointed out these problems and urged officials to address them, but they appear not to have been taken seriously at every level of government yet.
Culturally, America’s hedonistic and seductive influence is much more noticeable today, especially among the young and some women, than it was even as little as four or five years ago. In North Tehran, where the rich and westernized Iranians live, observance of hijab has become much more patchy. The universities have become fertile breeding-grounds for western values and ideas. This is largely because many professors, especially in the humanities, are western-educated. Their western training and outlook have created a peculiar phenomenon: they are producing a generation of students for the Islamic State who are alienated from their own cultural roots and values. This is a tragedy.
One is struck by the contrast with the experience of Muslims living and growing up in the West. Aware of the destructive influences of Western culture, most Muslim parents in theWest take great pains to preserve as much as possible of their Islamic values and Muslim culture, to ensure that their children do not fall prey to such corrosive influences. Many young Muslims in the West are also turning away from the West of their own accord.
It is also in Iran’s universities that debate about restoring relations with the US is conducted most vigorously. This could have been a healthy development, but what is disturbing is that it is conducted in a largely fact-free environment. For instance, advocates of restored relations with the US are not sure what the framework for negotiations would be. They seem to be oddly divorced from reality, arguing that the US is sincere in wanting to establish friendly relations and that the Islamic Republic has nothing to worry about because it is “strong”. When asked whether they have any proof that the US is prepared to deal with Iran on the basis of mutual respect, they appear to harbor a great many illusions. One is that Iran will benefit economically by the US-imposed sanctions being lifted; another is that the US will behave better this time; yet another argument is that the Americans have already made restitution, with former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright admitting that overthrowing the Mussadeq government (by means of a CIA-engineered coup in 1953) was a “mistake.” According to this line of thinking, Iran should now grasp its opportunities.
Washington has laid down several conditions for a dialogue. Iran must stop supporting “terrorism,” it must stop opposing the “peace process” in the Middle East, and it must stop acquiring “weapons of mass destruction”. Of late, US president George Bush has also branded Iran part of the “axis of evil,” an insulting designation that fits the US’s own behaviour far more closely than that of any country it accuses. Since the US succeeded in toppling the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, it has become even clearer that Washington is not prepared to tolerate any expression of political Islam anywhere at all. The Islamic Republic is the leading edge of political Islam in the contemporary world; given the US’s behaviour towards other Muslim countries and Islamic movements, it is very strange indeed that those in Iran who advocate ‘normalization’ of relations with Washington should approach the subject so naively and over-optimistically.
This is not necessarily to suggest that the Islamic Republic should never have any relations at all with the US. Indeed, any Islamic State will have to deal with it in some manner, sooner or later, but there is an old saying that is worth remembering: “when supping with the devil, use a long spoon”. The late Imam Khomeini (ra) called the US the “great Satan” with good reason; no one has ever come up with a better description. The leadership of Islamic Iran must approach this subject by thinking through the issue very carefully. That there is debate in the highest echelons of State is reassuring, but there is no hurry to arrive at any decision. It is better to be cautious and sure than to rush in and make errors that may well prove costly.
There is no escaping the fact that the US has enormous military, economic and diplomatic muscle and, therefore, immense capacity for mischief. It is better to keep it at arm’s length than allow it into the Islamic Republic, where its capacity for mischief and wrongdoing would increase immensely. The economic price the Islamic Republic has paid is more than compensated for by the protection, albeit partial, afforded to its culture and society by keeping America and the West at arm’s length. Islamic Iran should not expose itself to the disruptive tactics of the US. It should also be borne in mind that in 1995 the US congress allocated US$20 million annually to “overthrow” the Islamic government. Since then the US, through the CIA, has authorised millions of additional dollars to beam anti-Iran and anti-Islam propaganda into the Islamic Republic. These are certainly not friendly acts; in fact, they are acts of aggression from a country whose rulers really behave like international thugs and bullies, while trying to convince everyone of their decency by their suavity, sophistication and cool good manners.
Fortunately the pro-US camp in Iran is small. The overwhelming majority of people have no illusions about the US; they are fully aware of Washington’s own crimes around the world and its support for zionist crimes in Palestine. Much closer to home, they have witnessed the suffering visited upon the hapless people of Afghanistan with the excuse that they were fighting the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. The US’s military presence in Afghanistan and the Central Asian states is another source of worry for the Islamic Republic. It is clearly aimed at encircling Iran, the ultimate objective being to destroy the Islamic state. These are facts that must not be lost sight of in assessing how to deal with the US.
In his address on the occasion of Imam Khomeini’s death-anniversary on June 4, the Rahbar called upon the people to confront these machinations by remaining united. “So long as the people are on the scene,” said the Rahbar, “the US will not succeed in its mischief.” He also warned against both fanaticism and secularism. In the context of Iran, and indeed the entire Muslim world, this is important. Both are destructive tendencies and tend to feed eachother. While secularism is an alien ideology that has no place in Islam, fanaticism is equally destructive because it alienates sincere Muslims and hinders the achievement of Islam’s goals in society. Iran is a laboratory for Islam today; the Islamic Revolution defeated secularism, but it must guard constantly against fanaticism as well.
In his wide-ranging address, the Rahbar also dealt with problems facing the people: inefficiency in the system, corruption, lack of job opportunities, and so on. However, he cautioned against people blaming Islam itself for such failings. He urged officials, specifically mentioning the three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — to rectify their weaknesses. There are weak points in each; at times, they seem to be working at cross purposes, leading to frustrations for ordinary people.
An issue of particular concern is the law relating to press freedom and the role of the judiciary. There appears to be considerable confusion about both. For instance, there are no clear guidelines about the role of the press. Certainly journalists cannot act merely as cheerleaders for government policy; that would defeat the very purpose of the press. At the same time, there seems to be a lack of journalistic ethics and a deplorable irresponsibility. As an example, consider a recent allegation against the current mayor of Tehran. One newspaper accused him of amassing a fortune greater than that of Jacques Chirac (the French president, who at one time was the mayor of Paris). The allegation was completely false and the newspaper editor made little effort to verify before printing it. This does not mean that every allegation made against officials is false, but this example illustrates the problem. Press law needs to be clear and journalists must have leeway to unearth wrongdoing. The judiciary must establish clear guidelines under which the press can operate. While there is no such thing as absolute freedom, arbitrary and uneven application of the law is also not a solution.
While the Islamic Republic has many problems (which country does not?), it would be wrong to assume that the Muslims there have been alienated from the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic State. This is a point the enemies of Islam understand better than the Muslims themselves. Despite all the difficulties, whether created by external manipulation or by internal weaknesses, the Iranians’ attachment to the Islamic Republic is strong. In fact, recent developments have helped to expose the true nature of the US and its utter animosity to Islam. No people understand this better than those of Islamic Iran.