Iranian Islam and Democracy
The History of an Appropriation
‘Can Islam Do Democracy?’ This was the theme repeatedly expressed in headlines in the German media at the height of the events in Egypt in January/February 2011. The call for democracy and freedom has now been taken up in other countries of the Arab world, however, giving the impression that there is little doubt here that, to employ this dubious formulation once again, ‘Islam can do democracy’.
This article examines the discourse about democracy and human rights in Iran – from both a historical and a contemporary perspective. It will describe how democracy was viewed by several renowned intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s – namely, in a negative light. And it will demonstrate how at the beginning of the 1990s it then came about that a few outstanding thinkers did turn towards democracy. This reorientation was a consequence of the existing Islamism, which had had a deterrent effect. Democratic post-Islamism, however, as it will be referred to here, needed to be well founded in argument. In a country in which democracy and human rights were deemed to be un-Islamic – according to Ayatollah Khomeini’s dictum – an explanation had to be given as to why they are in fact Islamic, or at least do not contradict Islam.
Democracy and violence
One notable event was crucial to the discourse that took place in the 1960s and ’70s. This event determined the way in which people thought about the West, which claimed to stand for democracy. This event was the overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The US secret service toppled Mossadegh because he had nationalised Iranian oilfields, and it returned the dictator Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had already fled the country, to the Peacock Throne. From this point on, with American assistance, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi extended his dictatorial rule. Since then, the democratic West has been considered by many Iranian intellectuals to be discredited.
Mohammad Hosein Tabataba’i (1903-1981), known as Allameh, the Great Scholar, wrote about democracy under the impression of this event. He was regarded in Iran as the Great Scholar because he was the author of the most important Shiite Koranic commentary of the twentieth century, the Tafsir al-Mizan. Tabataba’i was also a philosopher and thus represented a discipline that, although little appreciated by the clerical establishment, was appreciated all the more by the younger clergy.
In 1961 Tabataba’i published a text examining the political rule of the clergy. Up until then the prevailing belief had been that until the return of the twelfth Imam all political rule was illegitimate. The clerics were therefore not permitted to rule, but had to practise waiting patiently. Hosein Boroujerdi, the most important religious authority of his time, had decreed in the 1950s that a secular authority should be recognised. Borourjerdi saw the monarchy as promising greater continuity and respect for the Islamic laws than a republican system, and had forbidden any alternative opinion on the subject. The majority of clerics, including Ayatollah Khomeini, had followed him unquestioningly in this attitude, but now, in 1961, his death had recently prompted fresh questions as to who was the legitimate ruler in a Shiite state.
What Tabataba’i formulated as an answer to the question of the legitimate ruler must be seen against the background of a monarchy that called itself constitutional and claimed to be democratic: it had a prime minister, elections, and a parliament. Tabataba’i seems to assume, or does at least claim, that this state corresponds to what the West calls a democracy. This is probably because of the support the Shah was receiving from the West. So because the Iranian system claims to be a democracy and yet is nonetheless tyrannical, Tabataba’i turns away from democracy altogether. He writes:
It is more than half a century since we accepted the rule and the precepts of democracy and took our place in the line-up of progressive Western countries. Yet we see how our situation deteriorates day by day and gets worse. And from this tree, which for others is full of blessings and fruits, we pluck only the fruits of adversity and disgrace.
Tabataba’i does not actually directly demand political rule by scholars of law instead of the political leadership, and only explains that he regards democracy as discredited as a form of governance. But on the other hand he does say clearly that the people need a kind of uncle who will act as a guardian to the orphans. The guardian must be a legal scholar, because only a legal scholar will be just. He should be assigned a velayat, an authorisation to lead the people, because this is a law of Islam.
Reception of Western cultural critique
In the 1960s the fundamental question of whether to try to emulate the West, and thus also its system of government, or whether it was better to reflect on one’s own heritage was not restricted to the clergy. For secular intellectuals, too, the most important topic was the confrontation with the West, with its ideas, its culture, and its impact on Iran. The secular intellectuals of those years were inspired by the West while at the same time also being critical of it. After Hiroshima and Vietnam, Algeria, the Cold War and Soviet expansionism, liberalism and socialism had lost their attraction as ideas and many Iranian thinkers agreed with the criticism being formulated in the West by intellectuals such as Albert Camus, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre.
This was true in particular of Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923-1969), who translated several of these authors into Persian. In 1962 Al-e Ahmad published the essay Gharbzadegi, ‘The Obsessed-With-The-West’, or more literally ‘The-Being-Smitten-By-The-West’. In this he wrote:
I say gharbzadegi, the state of being-stricken-with-the-West, like being stricken with cholera (vaba zadegi). Or if you don’t like that term: like sunstroke (garma zadegi), or like a chilblain (sarma zadegi). Or – no. It is at least like being bug-ridden (senzadegi). Have you seen how they blight corn? From the inside. The corn stands there with its husk intact, but it is nothing but a husk. Like the husk of a butterfly that remains on the tree. In any case, what we are talking about here is a sickness.
It is generally accepted in the field of Iranian studies that if there has been one single truly influential text in the history of modern Iran, it is this. Gharbzadegi is the ‘sacred text’ for several generations of Iranians. This essay provided the vocabulary of Iranian social criticism and formulated the essence of the anti-Western nature of the discourse for more than two decades. Al-e Ahmad’s theses were defining ones for all intellectuals, and on the eve of the Revolution there was probably no one who would have questioned Al-e Ahmad’s analysis of Iranian society.
Al-e Ahmad claimed that Iran’s sickness consisted of the unthinking adoption of Western conduct and ideas. This was not in itself a direct attack on democracy, but Al-e Ahmad rediscovered Islam as the sole authentic component of Iranian culture. Al-e Ahmad explained to an astonished, secular public the potential might and power of the religion and declared the clergy to be the most significant part of the authentic identity: the clergy were the only ones who evaded the negative influence of the West, and it was Islam that had prevented the West from christianising, colonising and exploiting Iran. Al-e Ahmad, the most important secular intellectual of the 1960s, took Islam as his subject – and in doing so prepared the way for the greatest and most influential critic of democracy of the 1970s.
Progress through revolution
It is scarcely possible to overestimate the influence of Ali Shari‛ati (1933-1977) on the generation that would later make a revolution to shake off the impact of the West. One of his most influential texts, and the aforementioned essay by Tabataba’i, together with the now famous lecture by Ayatollah Khomeini about Islamic government, all have exactly the same argumentative thrust: they all criticise the West in general, and are therefore against democracy and for an Islamic government instead. Let us not concern ourselves here with how naïvely and uncritically the three authors view the government they describe as Islamic, or how flawed their definition of Western democracy is. The point here is to record that the West, and with it the idea of democracy, was so ferociously attacked by these three thinkers, and the wise leader praised so highly in comparison, that it became almost inevitable that an entire generation of students would turn to Islamism. They were all intellectually socialised by these thinkers, and when Ali Shari‘ati wrote that the West claimed democracy was the form of government that most respected human rights, yet it only wanted human rights for itself, hundreds of thousands followed his lead. Shari‘ati wrote:
The governments we have to thank for colonialism, which brought with it the mass murder of peoples, the destruction of the cultures, treasures, histories and civilisations of non-Europeans, were democratically elected governments that believed in liberalism. These crimes were not committed by priests, inquisitors and Caesars, but in the name of democracy and Western liberalism.
But for Shari‘ati it is not only the conduct of the democrats that speaks against democracy. Another question he asked was whether democracy was always in the interest of the masses, in every place, in every society, and at every time. Shari‘ati’s objections were directed above all towards democracy as a form of government for Iran. He claimed that it was not possible to achieve through democracy what he considered to be most important: progress. Shari‘ati wanted revolutionary change, but he considered it inconceivable that the Iranian people would elect the government that would bring this about, namely, according to Shari‘ati, an imamic leadership. Shari‘ati even considered their totalitarian policies to be justifiable, as otherwise they would have no chance of overwhelming the encampment of the existing entrenched forces.
The next thinker who contributed to a one-man leadership prevailing over democracy after the 1978/9 revolution was of course Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989). In the 1960s Khomeini’s criticism of the Shah’s government was initially directed at the increasing control by the state, above all in the administration of justice; at secularisation in general, and the accompanying weakening of the Islamic institutions; at state repression, and the influence of the United States on politics.
Sent into exile in Najaf as a result of this criticism, in the winter of 1971 Khomeini gave a series of lectures that were transcribed and published under the title Hokumat-e islami: ‘The Islamic Government’. They contain Khomeini’s fundamental thoughts about the instructions of Islam, on the Islamic state, and on the need to create such a state – his aim. Long sections of the lecture, however, read like an anti-imperialist polemic: he declares that the only true Iranian identity is the Islamic one, which is why only a return to Islam can save the country from ruin.
This was why Khomeini also attacked clerics who steered clear of politics. According to Khomeini the Islam being taught in the theological universities was a false one, because it was apolitical. The clerics, he said, had adopted a colonialist attitude, and now they too believed what the exploiters, oppressors and colonialists wanted them to: that Islam, the state, and politics should all be kept separate. Khomeini, on the other hand, claimed that for hundreds of years the consensus among the clergy had been that the duty of a cleric was to assume the responsibilities of the Prophet and of the imams. This he justified as follows:
Firstly: It is historically proven that the Prophet established a state. […]
Secondly: At God’s command he designated a ruler for the time after his passing. If God, the Sublime, designates a ruler to rule over society after the time of the Prophet, this means that the state is also necessary after the passing of the Prophet. And as the Prophet communicates the commandment of God in his testament, in so doing he declares to us the necessity of establishing a state.
Another of Khomeini’s arguments is the fact that God has revealed a law, for example penal law. This must therefore also be applied. In saying this, however, Khomeini deliberately disregards the fact that most people believe that enforcement of the penal law is one of the prerogatives of the hidden twelfth Imam, and therefore, according to the traditional Shiite view, suspended during the great period of concealment. Khomeini makes his postulations with a degree of certitude that admits no contradiction.
No man can say that it is no longer necessary […] to pay or to collect taxes, poll tax, khums and the alms tax, or that penal law, blood money and retributive justice should be suspended.
However, what was more important than this contentious line of argument was that Khomeini was a perfect candidate for the role Shari‘ati had described. Everyone in the 1970s who heard and read Shari‘ati’s declarations about the imamic leadership thought of Khomeini – the inflammatory cleric who fulminated about the Shah from his exile in Iraq. Shari‘ati brought Khomeini a tremendous number of followers, perhaps more than Khomeini himself won with his own book on the Islamic state, which hardly anyone had read, hardly anyone understood, and no one took seriously. Shari‘ati, on the other hand, was considered cosmopolitan because he studied in Paris for his doctorate in sociology. He was a stirring speaker, a charismatic man, well-read and good-looking. When he spoke in the Tehran meeting-place Hosseini-ye ershad in the 1970s thousands hung on his every word.
Yet Shari‘ati by no means favoured velayat-e faqih, or a legal scholar as leader, as Khomeini had described. Shari‘ati does not take up the idea; it is impossible to tell whether he was even aware of Khomeini’s lecture. Furthermore, Shari‘ati certainly did not have a cleric in mind as his prototypical leader, because he was very critical of the clergy. In spite of this the fact remains: it was impossible to translate the concept of democracy into the Iranian context, either practically or theoretically. What was more successful in the 1970s in pre-revolutionary Iran was the idea that challenged that of democracy: the idea of a philosopher’s state, if you will. The result was the establishment in 1979 of the system of so-called velayat-e faqih, the rule of the Supreme Legal Scholar.
Since the Revolution of 1978-9 Iran has called itself the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’. Certainly the Iranian system, unique in terms of state structure, does have republican elements, even if these are consistently replaced by theocratic ones. In the run-up to the referendum on the future governmental reform, Khomeini had explicitly objected to the term ‘Democratic Islamic Republic’. He had declared that the nation wanted an Islamic republic, not just a republic, not a democratic republic, not an Islamic democratic republic. He said that the term ‘democratic’ should not be used, because this was a Western concept. The fact that ‘republic’ is also a Western term was something Khomeini deliberately chose to ignore.
Iran may not have become more democratic since Khomeini announced his rejection of democracy in 1979, but in recent years the dialogue about democracy has completely altered. One example of this is Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari (b. 1936). Shabestari is one of the most important thinkers in Iran today. He too was intellectually socialised by Shari‘ati, Tabataba’i and Khomeini, but has over the years emancipated himself from their views. Shabestari has very explicitly presented the case for democracy. He supports democracy for many reasons, as long as it does not contradict the will of the Creator – as Khomeini contended it did. Shabestari’s central argument, however, is that democracy puts into practice what Imam ‛Ali, the Shiite’s first imam, called for the ideal government to do in his governmental mandate.
During his time in office as Caliph, ‛Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, made Malik al-Ashtar his governor in Egypt and gave him a governmental mandate to take with him. Western Islamic scholars doubt that this document is in fact authentic, but this is of no significance as far as its effectiveness is concerned, because regardless of its authenticity or otherwise the governmental mandate occupies a central position in the Shiite philosophy of state. In it, ‛Ali explains to his governor how he should rule in order to be certain of securing God’s approval. This governmental mandate thus establishes the norm for good governance in Shia Islam.
Because the governmental mandate is regarded as normative by most Shiites, Shabestari’s argument plays on a very familiar keyboard. The content of the governmental mandate bears out Shabestari’s claim that government must be one thing above all: just. Detailed or concrete instructions with regard to content, like the necessity claimed by Khomeini of applying the penal laws mentioned in the Koran, are not, however, to be found in this document. This too is emphasised by Shabestari, and it is indeed significant insofar as ‛Ali is regarded by the Shiites as the most important interpreter of the Koran. If ‛Ali, the Shiite’s First Imam, does not instruct his governor to apply the ius talionis or the hadd punishments, for example, his understanding of the Koran was obviously not that this had to be done. Instead, ‛Ali writes to his governor:
O Malik, be just in your dealings with God and with the people. Whosoever oppresses the servants of God makes an enemy of God and also of those he oppresses. The worst thing that can happen to a people, which irrevocably calls forth the wrath of God and his vengeance, are oppression and tyranny over God’s creatures. May the ruler guard against these things, for the merciful God hears the cries of the oppressed.
From an empirical point of view, Shabestari says, democracy is the form of governance that is most effective in preventing oppression and tyranny, the most essential of the criteria for good governance as set down by Imam ‛Ali. What is decisive for Shabestari – and in this, incidentally, he is very much in the tradition of the constitutionalist movement of 1906 to 1911 – is that democracy is a form of government that prevents tyranny – and creates justice.
Abdolkarim Soroush (b. 1945), probably the most important intellectual in Iran, holds a similar view. At the beginning of the 1990s Soroush, who can look back on a similar experience of socialisation to that experienced by Shabestari, turned his back on Islamism and began to propagate the idea of a so-called hokumat-e demukratik-e dini, a religious-democratic government. In his opinion, a government can be both religious and democratic, because any religious precepts that contradict democracy can be subjected to fresh interpretation. Soroush advocated this thesis in numerous writings and supported his argument with the theory of the so-called ‘Theoretical Narrowing and Broadening of the Sharia’.
The religious democracy Soroush envisions is no different in this from an ordinary Western democracy, and its acceptance of human rights is not conditional but absolute. This is already remarkable insofar as Ayatollah Khomeini described human rights as a collection of corrupt norms that had been dreamed up by the Zionists to destroy all true religions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was criticised for this reason, not only by Iran but also by Sudan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, for its failure to take into account the cultural and religious aspect of non-Western countries. There were vociferous complaints that it was a secular interpretation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition which Muslims could not abide by without breaking Islamic law.
Religion as the conscience of society
Soroush, however, argues that there are also, in principle, extra- or meta-religious values and laws. These, he says, do not originate in religion, but do not contradict it either. He states that, in principle, no sensible commandment or law can contradict religion – certainly not Shia Islam, which is especially orientated towards reason. To give an example of what Soroush means by this: whereas Sunnis say that lying is bad because the religion says so, the Shiites say – in the tradition of the Mutazilites, the great rationalists of Islam – that because lying is bad, the religion also states this to be the case. For precisely this reason, Soroush concludes, Shiites must accept human rights, because one thing they patently are is reasonable.
In saying this, Soroush is also calling into question Khomeini’s claim that Islamic law has to be applied. Unlike Khomeini, for him it is more important that the soul of government should be religious. His argument is: it is not the society in which Islamic law is applied that is religious, but the society in which people profess the faith of their own free will. One does not create a ‘religious society’ through the application of the shari’a, only one that ‘lives according to Islamic law’. What is more important to Soroush than the application of Islamic law is that religious actions should be piously motivated. This piety is not, however, something that can be enforced.
Hypocrisy and dissimulation are the greater sins, not the enjoyment of alcohol and gambling. But in the government of Islamic law more importance is accorded to the external action and not to the acquisition of the heart.
Soroush’s ideal is a religious state that is governed by faith, but not as a legislative or political authority; rather, as the spirit and conscience of the society. Their aim is piety, but this can only be achieved through freedom. Freedom, in Soroush’s utopian idea of an Islamic state, is a necessary, godly precondition for freely chosen religiosity and thus an argument for the superiority of the democratic order. There is therefore no formal difference between Soroush’s religious-democratic government and a normal democratic government. Soroush writes:
Indeed, one must not expect a religious government to differ in essence from a non-religious one. After all, it is not the case that the sensible people in this world walk on two legs and the religious on their heads. What is wrong with it if people of other societies have accepted the same methods regarding the question of government as those we have come across through our definition of a religious government?
Here the traditional norm is translated into a modern principle or modern norm. The ethnologist Sally Engle Merry has called this ‘vernacularisation’, or ‘framing’. This form of translation seems to be very helpful and cannot be rejected as apologetic: the framing of democracy as a key Islamic concept of justice mobilises society to strive towards this social and political goal. Framing is also necessary for another reason. Only when a culture truly appropriates ideas such as democracy and makes them its own – the philosopher Seyla Benhabib has called this process ‘iteration’ – does the suspicion of Western paternalism fade away.
The degree to which the attitude towards democracy has changed is apparent not only in the positions of progressive thinkers like Shabestari and Soroush, who are referred to in Iran as nouandishan-e eslami (literally, Islamic newthinkers). It is also apparent in the reaction of the non-democrats. The current president of parliament, Ali Larijani (b. 1958), for example, refers to the dictum of Abraham Lincoln that democracy is the government of the people by the people for the people. In this sense, he says, the Iranian system, the velayat-e faqih, is also a democracy; after all, the velayat-e faqih is also ‘for the people’. The other two components, he argues, are less important and can be ignored. The revolutionary leader Khamene’i (b. 1939) argues in the same way.
Democracy as a benchmark
The nonsensical nature of this remark is not what is key here. Far more important is the fact that democracy has obviously now become so much the norm, and a general benchmark against which one is prepared to be measured, that both these men would rather declare their own system a democracy than reject democracy outright as Khomeini did with absolute confidence several decades ago. Naturally their definition of democracy leaves something to be desired, but nonetheless it does offer the theoreticians of democracy Soroush and Sabestari alternative starting points if even undemocratic rulers start to engage with the concept of democracy.
What is significant, though, is that theoreticians like Soroush and Sabestari have given democracy an argumentative foundation, an inner-Islamic framing. Whether it is indeed thanks to them that the Iranian people today seem more ready than ever to accept democracy (this is the impression one gets from observing the events of recent years) is another question. But it certainly can’t hurt to have an Islamic rationale to justify democracy.First published in German in the magazine Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 11/2011.
is Assistant Professor for the Modern Islamic World at the University of Zurich. This text is based on the author’s inaugural lecture on taking up the post in May 2011, and was first published in German in the magazine Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 11/2011.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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