<!–:en–>Civil Society and Democracy in Iran<!–:–>

(Global Encounters: Studies in Comparative Political Theory)

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Editor: Ramin Jahanbegloo


Payam Akhavan, Sohrab Behdad, Mehrzad BoroujerdiYousefi EshkevariAkbar GanjiNader HashemiFarhad KhosrokhavarAmin Reza KoohestaniMojtaba Mahdavi, Omid Memarian, Haideh MoghissiFarhad NomaniSaeed RahnemaShadi SadrVictoria TahmasebiPeyman VahabzadehFarzin Vahdat

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Why is understanding the democratic process in Iran of such great interest to many of us? Perhaps because it allows for a shift in attention from a stereotypical consideration of the Iranian theocracy and Islamic fundamentalism—followed by the question of the country’s nuclear ambitions which has dominated the analyses of Iranian politics for the past thirty-two years—to a discussion of Iranian society and its sociological and political actors. These include women’s groups, youth and students, intellectuals and some workers’ groups, representing a wide spectrum of ideologies, tactics and demands. Some are seeking only minor changes, others serious reforms within the existing system and still others an immediate end to the regime through a revolution.

One way or another, civil society has become the subject of intense debate in Iran today, in part because of the limits of accountability and political decentralization in the country. The key actors in Iranian civil society are most concerned with the structures that mediate between government and citizens; they are as important as were the members of civil society in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the Communist period. Civil society in Iran today does not merely mean running a market economy separate from the state. Rather, it represents an alternative sphere of citizenship which holds a promise of individual autonomy beyond the political and religious sectarian attitudes.

More than serving as just a ‘voluntary sector’ or a ‘charitable sector’, Iranian civil society is an ‘ethical sector’. It is an everyday effort to feel more at home as a citizen as opposed to being part of a society organized on a theological-political basis. Because of their role in giving meaning to what does not currently exist, the moral responsibility of members of Iranian civil society is greater than at any other previous time. As such, the idea of civil society has moved to the centre-stage of political discourse in Iran today. Iranians rightly believe that they are witnessing a most fateful turning point in the history of their nation.

It was Iranian civil society that produced the post-electoral events in June 2009 and no one, inside or outside Iran, predicted such a major shift in Iranian politics before it happened. There is common agreement among the demonstrators and civil activists that the main contradiction in contemporary Iran is one between authoritarian violence and democratic nonviolence. This is due to the fact that the protest movement is nonviolent and civil in its methods of creating social change, while simultaneously seeking to infuse an ethical dimension in Iranian politics. This judgment implies that Iranian civil society is ready to make a distinction between two kinds of approaches to social change: searching for truth and solidarity versus lying and using violence. Today young Iranians couch their conversations about politics in a moral vocabulary. Regardless of how things ultimately turn out, it nevertheless seems clear that the Islamic Republic will never be the same again.

Ever since the initial days of the Islamic Republic of Iran there have been two contending sovereignties in Iran, a divine and a popular. The concept of popular sovereignty, which is derived from the indivisible will of the Iranian nation, is inscribed in Article I of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic. The divine concept of sovereignty, in contrast, is derived from God’s will which, through the medium of Shi’i institutions of an Imamate, is bestowed on the existing ‘faqih’ as the rightful ruler of the Shi’ite community, a perception which forms the foundation of the doctrine of the Velayat-e Faqih.1

Increasingly, however, divine sovereignty has been less about religion than political theology. As for popular sovereignty, it has found its due place in the social work and political action of Iranian civil society. The presence of these two incompatible and conflicting conceptions of sovereignty, authority and legitimacy have always been a bone of contention in Iranian politics, often defining the ideological contours of political power struggle among the contending forces.

The advocates of civil and democratic liberties in Iran have tried to give the popular conception its due place in the framework of Iranian social and political institutions. The present crisis in Iran following the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, is thus rooted in the popular quest for the democratization of the state and society and the conservative reaction and opposition to it. Furthermore, there is another factor distinguishing the current political crisis from previous instances of political factionalism and internal power struggles in Iran – a crisis over a deep-seated ideological structure inherited from the Iranian Revolution.

On the one hand there are those like Mousavi and Karubi, among the architects of the Islamic regime as also contenders for the presidency in Iran, who believe that the Islamic nomenclature provides adequate scope for reform and renewal, and who find themselves at the head of a pro-democracy and pro-reform movement that continues to defy the results of the presidential election, seeing it as the very essence of illiberalism and authoritarianism in Iran. On the other hand are the demonstrators questioning the entire legitimacy of Iran’s electoral process, and who are not, unlike their parents, revolutionaries. They belong to a new generation that did not experience the revolution of 1979 and want another Iran. They also constituted one-third of the eligible voters in the recent presidential election. These youngsters remind us that a monolithic image of Iran does not necessarily reflect the mindset of seventy per cent of its population who are under the age of thirty. A young Iran’s quest for democracy thus presents a serious challenge, not only to the status of the doctrine of the Velayat-e Faqih, questioning its legitimacy, but also to the reform movement and its democratic authenticity.

Having said this, one needs also to add that Islamic Iran is today more divided than at any time since the Islamic Revolution, a deep divide between traditionalists and modernists. The recent election has only exacerbated the divide between the state and the nation. It has also created a gap between those who believe that normal economic and political relations with the West are vital to Iran’s future and those who hold such relations in disdain as a violation of the Islamic Revolution’s ideals. Clearly, the outcome of the ninth presidential elections, which led to Ahmadinejad’s victory, is indicative of an internal crisis at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s political framework, as exemplified by the conflict between popular sovereignty and authoritarian rule.

The current conflicts between pro-reform and pro-Ahmadinejad groups after the re-election of the former president represent a political struggle between the republican essence of Iran and its clerical oligarchy. The republican tendency pays attention, almost exclusively, to the legitimacy of the public space, but the clerical establishment refuses to grant any legitimacy to the judgment of the public space. At such moments it should not be forgotten that each time democracy is intimated, silenced and postponed for another day by a show of force in a country like Iran, it represents a loss of credibility for those in charge and creates a crisis of legitimacy for the entire political system.

The crisis in Iran thus is not simply between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad; nor is it merely a conflict between pragmatists and utopians or between reformists and conservatives. It is basically over how political agency and political sphere are to be defined in Iran. What we have witnessed in the past two years in Iran is a conflict between the realm of politics, which aims at imposing an absolute sovereignty through the practice of violence, and the realm of the political, meaning the resumption of popular agency in the public sphere. The multiple actors of the Iranian civil society are not only trying to challenge the legitimacy of an extant sovereignty, but also to discover the better ‘angels’ of their social nature in an effort to form and express moral capital. In essence, the level of future success of democratization of the Iranian society is closely related to the level of moral capital expressed and practiced by the Iranian civil society.

Iran with its young population has today become a society that has achieved moral and political progress through an ability to understand the motives and meanings of dissent as resistance to unjust laws. It is interesting to underline that even as the Iranian political structure is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy and the current power holders have lost moral credibility by virtue of misgovernment and lying in politics, Iranian civil society is redefining its legitimacy by rediscovering and refining its republican principles. The Iranian public space is faced, then, with the problem of combining a rejection of absolute sovereignty with the need to infuse faith in a challenge ‘from below’ – in the independent life of ‘civil society’ outside the frame of state power.

This possibility, of course, resides in the self-organization of Iranian civil society that defies the violence embodied in the Iranian state and its instruments of control and domination. But it is also closely related to new ethical standards against which Iranian political reality might be measured. By assuming an ethical stance, Iranian civil society can make a stronger political case. In a violent political society in which most of the ethical values have been largely discarded, the notion of nonviolent action needs once again to be highlighted. Violence is after all violence, even if it holds up the banner of populism under the cloak of religious institutions. There is no way today for Iranian civil society to fight against lies in politics without holding to the truth of nonviolence.

Post-revolutionary Iran has experienced the failure of two major political paradigms in the last thirty years: Marxist-Leninism and Islamism. Both have failed in practice as well as in theory, and the Iranian people no longer trust the groups associated with them. It is evident that nonviolent action is the new paradigm that is attempting to carve out a distinct space and overcome the intellectual and political weaknesses of its predecessors. Though this nonviolent paradigm is still in the making, it can nonetheless be characterized as ‘post-ideological’. This is due to the fact that the protest movement in Iran is nonviolent and civil in its methods of creating social change, while simultaneously seeking to infuse an ethical dimension in Iranian politics.

Today, the most difficult challenge before Iranian civil society is to face the violence of the dominant political system without itself descending into violence. True, many among us believe that it is not possible to turn the Iranian political system around through nonviolent action. That might well be the case. Nevertheless, many of us also realize the total inability of violence to change anything for the better. What is necessary or sufficient for successful invention of democracy in Iran is, today, as intensively debated among Iranians as it has ever been. Democracy is a concept that has been thought, but also fought for and against in Iran in the last hundred years. Today, once again, a great many versions of democratic Iran are being explored, as it is the case in this edited volume, but truly much that matters deeply to millions of Iranians depends on the results of future political constructions.

In sixteen chapters, practically all presented at a conference organized on the same topic by the Centre for Ethics and Department of Political Science at University of Toronto, that make up the present book, major Iranian scholars and civic actors address some of the most pressing questions about Iranian civil society and the process of democratization in Iran. Under what conditions do we get to talk about the role of Iranian civil society in the process of transition to democracy in Iran? What has been the enduring legacy of the previous social and political movements, starting with the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, in the struggle for democracy in Iran? What particular role has been played by the reformist religious movements and thinkers in prevailing democratic thought? What are the implications of recent Iranian women’s rights movements for the quest of democracy in Iran? What of the demands of religious minorities and of the working class within Iranian civil society when these continue to be suppressed and threatened by the theocratic order? Last but not least, in which way could we say that the work of Iranian civil society has strengthened the idea of secularism in Iran?

The contributors address these and related questions in all their richness and complexity. Altogether, they offer a set of discussions that is both accessible and illuminating for the reader, a delicate combination of transparency and scholarship.

“Theorizing Civil Society in Iran” is a debate which attempts to locate the sociological actors of Iranian civil society by understanding the particular political and social transformations of modern and contemporary Iran. Farzin Vahdat wants to help us understand the intellectual history of the notion of civil society in Iran. According to him, “In the last two decades in Iran, the notion of civil society, or jame’ye madani, has come to occupy a significant place in discussions pertaining to the development of democracy and modernity. The idea of civil society does not have a long history in Iran, as only in the late 1980s was the concept seriously discussed by some intellectuals.” Drawing on the philosophical arguments of Hegel and Habermas, Vahdat attempts to develop the theoretical preconditions for the formation of civil society in Iran. “My contention”, says he, “is that Iranian society in the past 150 years, especially during the past three decades, has acquired a significant sense of subjectivity and is now in transition toward universalization of that subjectivity, to intersubjectivity, which is the foundation of a viable civil society and therefore democracy.” For Payman Vahabzadeh, “In countries like Iran, civil society remains a spectral concept, as well as a social experiment, and the struggles of the Iranian people will determine the concrete outcome of Iranian version of civil society, whose contours, at the moment, remain rather vague.” Vahabzadeh argues that the formation of civil society and its historical encounters with repressive states in Iran raises two issues. On the one hand, “the continual erosion of participatory citizenship and growing alienation of the people from their statesmen” and on the other hand, it could result into a vernacularized modernity that “can derail the century-long struggle of Iranian people for democracy and human rights.” As for Mojtaba Mahdavi, he directs our attention to relation between Iranian civil society and the rise of post-Islamism in Iran:

Interestingly, today’s Iran under the first modern Islamic state represents the most complex form of post-Islamism in the Muslim world. The main features of post-Islamism in post-revolutionary Iran are twofold: first, it is more than an intellectual discourse; it is deeply rooted in the civil society. The reform movement in the late 1990s and the current Green Movement symbolize the socio-political features of Iran’s post-Islamist movement. Second, post-Islamism in Iran is not monolithic; it can be divided into three main intellectual trends with each trend subdivided into various views: Quasi/semi-post-Islamism, Liberal post-Islamism and Neo-Shariati post-Islamist discourse.

In the same manner, Farhad Khosrokhavar analyzes the Iranian Green Movement as “the reflection of the new Iran” which “set by the evolution of the mores and the cultural involvement of the new generations, has made obsolete the old divide between the “religious” and “secular” people.” For Khosrokhavar, “The dividing line is between a non-organized secularized Islamic society on the one hand, and anti-modern, violent, Islamist groups on the other hand, backed and organized by the theocratic government.” Yousefi Eshkevari exemplifies in his thought and in his social attitude Khosrokhavar’s point. As a cleric who was de-frocked and served four years in prison after being charged with apostasy, “waging war against God,” and insulting Ayatollah Khomeini’s legacy, he is today one of the eminent representatives of Iranian religious intellectuals who struggle to reconcile Islam with liberal democracy. On Eshkevari’s view,

In a civil society, religion and followers of established religions, can contribute to the expansion of public services and provide succor to the downtrodden, as well as national minorities. They can also contribute to the expansion of tolerance and spread of justice and promotion of social solidarity. In fact, religion is the most effective instrument in these fields and in a secular, democratic, free and law-abiding society the role of religion is more efficient and positive than in purportedly religious and ostensibly theocratic societies. There is no need for sophisticated philosophical and theological arguments to demonstrate this point as repeated historical and contemporary experience is the best evidence to support this thesis.

Eshkevari’s anti-theocratic view of the role of religion in the Iranian public sphere is a strong lesson that can be derived from observing the intellectual and political debates in Iran today. For Nader Hashemi, however, “there is a deeper and more profound lesson that democratic theorists can take away from a study of Iranian politics and history.” In his essay, Hashemi reminds us that “one of the most divisive and difficult issues for any emerging democracy to resolve is the normative relationship between religion and politics (or, more precisely, the normative relationship between religion and state). In reconciling these tensions, there are no blueprints to follow, nor can the political experience of one country, culture or civilization be easily transferred to another.

Anyone with an appreciation for history will know that the conflicts between religious and political authority were not resolved in the West in a fortnight; rather, it took hundreds of years, accompanied by bloodshed, violence and political persecution, before a broad, democratically negotiated consensus could be arrived at.” For Mehrzad Boroujerdi, this tension cannot be solved through a “post-secular” public sphere, but only in accordance with what he calls a “humble” practice of secularism. As a “humble secularist” Boroujerdi calls “for the rejection both of a secularism that wants to privatize faith and of the religious views that present a hegemonic role for religion in public life.” Akbar Ganji’s preoccupation with the tension between the religious and the secular in Iranian society is more explicitly related with the education of citizens in Iran. In Ganji’s view, “We should educate people that secularism is not the same as rejecting religion or banishing spirituality from our lives. Secularism is to let the religion to resume its proper original role. Oddly enough, that role is denied from religion by the clergy, particularly by fundamentalists, who want to make a heavenly people on earth instead of making a heavenly life on earth.”

But how does this tension between the religious and the secular affect the life of Iranian women in general and the action and thought of those involved as civic actors in particular? One response to this question is to “depart from Shari’a-based classification to a gender one” on the relationship between women and law in Iran, as suggested by Amin Reza Koohestani. As such, Koohestani deepens the inquiry into the relationship between constitutionalism and gender in Iran by “avoiding the essentialization of Shari’a/Secularism dichotomy in theories of gender and constitution in Iran.” According to Koohestani, “One can seek the constitution’s social acceptance source in the design of the constitution itself. In fact, it is attainable through a well-designed composition of constitutional council, that is democratically elected, and inclusive of women with diverse ethnic, ideological, and socio-economic identities.” Victoria Tahmasebi can agree with Koohestani that finding a non-essentialist and pluralist answer for the making of the future constitution in Iran is vital for the women’s rights movement in Iran. Her point, however, is more focused on the “transvaluation of Iran’s social and cultural values, including a re-ordering of priorities according to which Iran’s democratic movement should be proceeding.” For Tahmasebi, this active engagement against patriarchal institutions and a male-dominated discourse “that sets the priorities of struggle according to its own vision and its own formula” is in accordance with the nonviolent spirit of women’s struggle in Iran: “Unlike workers’ movements and, to some extent, student movements who have historically followed a more militant and confrontational style of resistance, women’s movements in Iran have always insisted on non-violent means such as peaceful campaigns, strikes, sit-ins, boycotts and civil disobedience to achieve social, cultural and political change in their struggle for gender equality.”

Shadi Sadr’s essay shifts our attention to a different aspect of women’s movement in Iran: from feminist theory to praxis at the collective level. Commenting on the events of June 2009 in Iran, Shadi Sadr reminds us that “The robust presence of women in street protests after the elections had many characteristics that in their totality would challenge all gender stereotypes.” In fact, Sadr argues that “The first message of the forceful participation of women in street protests was the breakdown of the laws related to compulsory hijab and to segregation of sexes in public space.” The struggle of Iranian women for democracy and social justice is reflected in the case of the One Million Signatures Campaign and the Women’s Coalition Movement in the pre-elections of June 2009. Haideh Moghissi approaches this issue by providing a concise analysis of the women’s movement in Iran during the 2009 presidential elections. According to Moghissi, “some of the characteristics and practices followed during the protest movements of post-2009 elections were modeled after women’s activism. These included decentralized forms of social organization, commitment to non-violent forms of protest, insistence on leader-less forms of coalition, and serious efforts towards focusing on shared goals rather than ideological differences, among others.” For Moghissi, though the role played by women’s activism in the making of the Green Movement is clear, the central problem would be to understand that Iranian women’s demands are not specific and short-term, but a radical part of the quest for democracy in Iran. That is why Moghissi elaborates the idea that

The Green Movement is an open, informal and certainly unplanned coalition whose many supporters have different visions about what the country’s future and its government should look like. Its symbolic representatives or leaders have specific objectives and ideas that are not necessarily shared or acceptable by many of its supporters, but they share some specific common goals regarding the immediate future which, even though limited in scope, are necessary for more fundamental changes in future.

The last contributions to this edited volume shift our attention to a different aspect of Iranian civil society: the working class, the Baha’i community and the youth. In their joint contribution, Sohrab Behdad and Farhad Nomani present a different perspective on the process of democratization in Iran which, according to them, is not teleological but “the result of the historically shaped power struggles between classes.” While developing the long history of struggle for independent labor organizations and labor laws in Iran, they take a strong account of the role that has been and will be played by the working class in the process of democratic transition in Iran. According to them, “The power of the working class of Iran can no longer be ignored. Despite all the historical, political, legal, and structural obstacles for its development, and in the face of repression and intimidation, its power, with ebbs and flows, has grown within its fragmented existence. Now, its struggle is once again on the rise.” Although Saeed Rahnema does not reject in any manner this conclusion, he focuses his contribution more intensely on the evolution of workers’ councils in Iran. Underlining the confusion concerning these councils after the Iranian revolution of 1979, Rahnema explores their difficulties in managing the industries. “What needed to be done” affirms Rahnema, “was to focus efforts on establishing industrial unions, and turn the councils into their participatory arm in management. What was needed was to push for political democracy at the national level and industrial democracy at the factory level, and as unions become stronger, push for higher level of participation.” Rahnema takes issue of the important role of trade unions in the making of political democracy in Iran today, but he also underlines strongly the necessity of democratic governance for the proper functioning of a labor movement. According to Rahnema,

The most important lesson of the failed revolution of 1979 is that democracy and political freedoms, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and free press are the most crucial factors for the success of national movement, and in this case, the labour movement. A major pillar of a democratic system is the existence of a strong trade union movement. There is a combined and reciprocal relation between unions and democracy. There cannot be any trade unions without political democracy, and there cannot be political democracy without trade unions. This chicken and egg relation is an integral part of this democratic process.

Payam Akhavan focuses on what Rahnema describes in his article as “Over thirty years of brutal, corrupt and obscurantist rule of the Islamist fundamentalists [that] has crushed labour and union activism, has killed, jailed and maimed labour leaders.” But he offers a different critique of the Islamic regime in Iran with regard to what he calls “the logic of hate-mongering against Baha’is.” Interestingly, for Akhavan,

The ideological constructions that justify violence against Baha’is (or other minorities, for that matter) have very little to do with religion. The persecution is not about theological differences. It is not about the merit of arguments on the interpretation of Quranic texts or traditions. The persecution is about how differences are accommodated in an authoritarian political system rather than a government ruled by human rights and democratic freedoms.

As an international lawyer for human rights Akhavan is concerned not only with the past violations of civil liberties in Iran, but with what lies ahead. He concludes his contribution on an encouraging tone by painting an optimistic image of Iran’s future. The emancipation of Iran, affirms Akhavan, is about “building a future in which a divided and backward looking Iran is transformed into a nation that unites its diverse peoples under the banner of human dignity and true civilization and reclaims its place as a leader among nations; an Iran in which the measure of patriotism will be compassion and respect for the rights of all Iranian citizens. At long last, that day is within our reach.”

The future of Iran without a doubt takes its significance in the last chapter of this volume. Omid Memarian, a young Iranian journalist and blogger, recalls the major role which is played by the Iranian youth in Iranian civil society. Youth movement power in Iran is certainly not a new concept, but what is new is Iranian youth’s competition with technology and its challenge to develop a new way of thinking beyond and against the discourse of Iranian Revolution. “All of this,” suggests Memarian, “is indicative of the deep transformations marking Iranian society. The first generation of young men who participated in the revolution was deeply ideological, committed to a charismatic leader, anti-imperialist and idealistic. The new generation is realistic, favorably inclined towards the modern world culture’s accomplishments (thanks to the internet) and, though still religious, has clearly distanced itself from the official ideology.” However, Memarian situates his analysis within the specific account of the presence of the Iranian youth in the post-election events of June 2009:

The presence of youth, male and female, during the post-election protests was overwhelming. Iran has 5.3 million university students, more than three million unemployed youth, many of whom have the means of accessing information from multiple locations. Without claiming that all those who filled the streets, like the three million protesters on 25 June in Tehran, were demanding the overthrow of the government, it would be fair to argue that many Iranian youth believe that any improvement in the quality of their lives is dependent on changing Iran’s political structure.

By reading all of these contributors, who discuss the role of Iranian civil society and its impact on the political future of Iran, one can conclude that there is a big agenda in waiting, and many tests for Iranian civic actors who carry crucial democratic responsibilities: connecting freedom and good governance, creating a culture of democracy, and shaping a civic pluralism where the religious and the secular can establish and nurture a process of mutual listening and learning. This is the challenge for the Iranian public sphere. The core principle that should shape its future work is a pluralist acceptance of a common ethical horizon in the process of democratic development. What will happen next in Iran, and when it will happen, cannot be predicted. Though uncertain, this is the time Iranian people occupy, a social-historical time that gives rise to a new public sphere in Iran and also must account for the future of politics in Iran and in the Middle East.

Ramin Jahanbegloo

University of Toronto

March 2011


1. As this volume includes many contributors, some variations in spelling and formatting will be encountered. Thus Velayat-e Faqih and other terms may be rendered differently in the other essays, as with names of Iranian politicians and others. Most follow a phonetic pattern closest to the Persian pronunciation, with q meant to be sounded at the back of the throat and glottal stops indicated by apostrophes. A couple of the essays also feature both notes and references, an intentional choice on the part of the authors.


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