Islamic Iran’s latest crisis: internal debate about the nature of governance

Developing Just Leadership

Basheer M. Nafi

Jumada' al-Ula' 04, 1420 1999-08-16

Special Reports

by Basheer M. Nafi (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 12, Jumada' al-Ula', 1420)

The student demonstrations in Tehran during the second week of July were widely interpreted, especially in the west, as a major crisis in the Revolution and possibly even the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic. Western media and government officials welcomed them as the beginning of a popular uprising against the Islamic state. In fact, Iran came out of the July ‘crisis’ having suffered little serious damage (see August 1-15, 1999 issue - Ed.). That is not to say, however, that Iran is not going through a difficult period of renewal and readjustment which needs to be understood.

The protests were initially aimed against the judicial suspension of the publication of the daily newspaper Salam, run by Ayatollah Ko’iniha, a radical but reformist cleric and a close ally of the president Sayyid Muhammad Khatami. Pro-Khatami activists at the University of Tehran saw the closing of Salam as part of a wider scheme to stifle the pro-reform voices and frustrate the drive for change in the country. What began as a peaceful expression of protest turned into ugly rampage of destruction, and an attack on the symbols of Islam and the state. The students - not more than five thousand - were clearly penetrated by pro-royalist, liberal, nationalist and ‘Mujahideen-i-Khalq’ (MKO) elements whose aim was to create an atmosphere of conflict and disorder, to undermine the Islamic state. Khatami, realizing the danger, dissociated himself from the disturbances. A generally moderate security response (the initial heavy-handedness which resulted in the death of one student notwithstanding) and a gathering of more than half a million Iranian Muslims in the streets of Tehran, showing their firm support to the republic and its leadership, restored a relative normality.

The episode was engendered by two intertwined causes. The first is the inevitable difficulties facing an Islamic regime of a relatively small country surrounded by a world system that is fundamentally and overwhelmingly hostile. The second is the atmosphere created by the ‘reformist’ discourse adopted by President Khatami.

The difficult questions relating to the establishment of a political and social system on the basis of Islam in the midst of a hostile environment have rarely been addressed by Muslim intellectuals. Muslims have long recognized that the cultural values of the west have become dominant, but have tended to believe that an Islamic state and society can survive the encroachment of the western culture by the will of the Muslim masses. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has survived a long and bloody war of aggression, as well as economic and trade embargoes, and will certainly survive again if it faces similar situations.

The cultural challenge, however, is a different matter. The accumulation of wealth, mass exploitation of the world’s resources, and advances in technology, have enabled a small number of western countries to monopolize the production of culture and deploy it on a world scale. Mass media, visual arts, music and other forms of culture all over the world, including modes of dress, architecture, communications and patterns of consumption, have come to be largely dominated by western values. Western systems of governance, in which only a powerful minority counts, are presented as democratic and ‘the rule of the people’; the destruction of the global ecology is defined as progress; and destructive wars are launched in the name of human values. Western culture is hedonistic, seductive and caters for the most primitive of human instincts. And, like any gigantic enterprise, it is self-sustaining. Culture is no longer the creative enterprise of individuals like Michaelangelo or T. S. Eliot, but a commodity manufactured for profit by gigantic corporations run by faceless executives.

For countries like Iran, searching for genuine independence and the re-establishment of moral social values, facing up to western cultural domination is an agonizing process. President Khatami is not only an alim and a political leader; he is also a Muslim intellectual. Following the footsteps of the late-nineteenth-century Islamic reformists, like Mohammad ‘Abduh, Rashid Rida and Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, he believes that the way forward is to create a synthesis of Islamic and modern (essentially western) values. Muslims, he maintains, be reconciled with the universal and positive aspects of modernity. He rejects the attitudes of both the traditionalists, whose implicit position is to resist western cultural invasion by whatever means, and the modernists, who advocate a wholesale embrace of the west.

His programme, however, is problematic, not least because of the divisions it seems to engender among the ruling circles and within society at large, fed by genuine and imagined fears. By advocating and pursuing change without securing a broad consensus, Khatami risks dragging the country to the brink of civil war or prevailing over his opponents with heavy costs in terms of freedom, justice and dignity that are the central themes of his project.

Khatami’s opponents believe that many amongst his prominent supporters, if not he himself, are intent on undermining the institution of wilayat al-faqih upon which the very foundation of the Islamic republic rests. Khatami sometimes does sound ambiguous on the issue. As a student of philosophy and political science, Khatami is certainly aware that no society can prosper without a stable system of government and a broad consensus on the principal values and philosophy underpinning this system. For more than two hundred years, almost all major western countries have maintained and protected the stability of their founding institutions. In the 1960s, when student forces seemed to threaten the state in France, Britain and USA, their governments did not hesitate to deploy the armed forces in the streets and campuses.

More important is that modern Islamic political thought is still in its infancy, and still developing answers to the questions of what an Islamic state should be and how it should function. Each state, of course, requires a legitimating referential point of history. In Islamic history, this was the power and pervasive presence of the ulama that guarded the Islamic ethos of society. But over the past two centuries, the ulama have been dislodged from their position as the sole spokesman of society, and could no longer perform their historical role of preserving the Shari’ah as basis for societal discourse. In Islamic Iran, which has adopted a largely modern system of governance, wilayat al-faqih plays that vital role. If Khatami is serious about revitalizing and protecting Iran’s Islamic system, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity, the protection of the institution of wilayat al-faqih should be one of his top priorities.

In contrast to his predecessor, Hashmi Rafsanjani, who was also a reformist thinker, Khatami seems to focus more on constructing a critique of the traditionalists than on presenting a critical understanding of modernity and the west. This may be merely a matter of perception; but in politics perceptions matter. It is certainly the case that themes of freedom and democracy float very lightly in the Iranian discourse of reform without adequate, and much-needed, attempts to analyse and contextualize the western historical experience of democracy and freedom. Democracy - unlike Marxism and Fascism, for example - was not born as a defined political system, but evolved through a long history of wars, social conflict and change. In the absence of definitive texts, understandings of democracy must be based on its historical experience, its evolution, value systems, forms, impact and outcome.

Why, for instance, did modern western European democracies evolved out of mercantile capitalism and the imperialist enterprise? How closely related are democracy and secularism? Is the individual the only unit for political participation and the founding of a just political system? If people are really equal in a democratic system, why do some people count so much more than the others? Why are ordinary people in western democracies becoming increasingly alienated from the political process, which is virtually run by an professional and economic elite? And finally, is democracy really a universal system?

At the heart of the present situation in Iran is the speed at which the reform project has been launched. In the abnormal circumstances that have surrounded the development of the Islamic Republic, debate about Islam, politics, society and the state has been almost nonexistent. And no program can safely be implemented, especially when politics has strong ideological connotations, without exhaustive debate and consensus- building. Prudence is not only a pragmatic virtue but also the everlasting lesson of the long journey of mankind. In contrast, the idea of radical and swift change, a brainchild of the enlightenment philosophies, totalitarian ideologies and their arrogance, has caused havoc and despair in human life.

Yet opponents of the president, the so-called ‘conservatives’, are no less responsible for the precipitation of the crisis. Many cannot see the intensity of the cultural challenges facing Iran, the difficulties in providing a viable cultural alternative to the west, and the impossibility of insulating the Iranian Muslim people from western influence. Their disagreement sometimes seems to be not only with Khatami’s proposals but with the very idea of change. On other occasions, the intolerance enveloping the treatment of reformist voices raises strong suspicions that the aim of the President’s opponents is simply to maintain a monopoly of power. Even worse is the questioning of Khatami’s loyalty to Islam and the state, and the projection of his supporters as enemies of the Islamic state. While Khatami’s Islamic credentials are beyond any doubt, one can only wonder whether there is a serious attempt to understand the soul of the student from Hamadan who was quoted in the Guardian newspaper as saying “We are not against Islam, Islam is in our blood. We don’t want secular state, we want freedom and reform”.

Some opponents of reform seem not to realize that the Islamic revolution was a major force for the modernization of Iran witnessed during the past two decades. By building thousands of miles of new roads, extending the electric grid to thousands of new villages, asserting the rights of the oppressed sections of society, making all levels of education available to virtually all Iranians, improving radio and TV services, and augmenting the reach of the printed word, the Islamic state has heightened the expectations of the people. Iranian Muslims now have greater expectations from their government, in terms of dignity, their abhorrence of corruption and their search for participation, than before the Islamic revolution. Khatami’s discourse should still be subject to vigorous examination, but there is something fresh, powerful and appealing in his diagnosis of the current situation.

Islamic Iran will survive this phase in its development, and will perhaps emerge more powerful and confident than before. The progress of the Islamic Republic has been punctuated by a series of crises; after overcoming each, Iran has appeared more stable and united. It is perhaps the destiny of Iran to be the laboratory of modern Islam.

Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1999

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