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Before Satan
There is an inviolable connection between political means and ends

July 9, 2003
The Iranian

There is much disagreement amongst Iranians, sometimes vague and outwardly theoretical and other times overflowing with frustration and contempt as you would expect from an exiled people. But where there is agreement ought to give us hope.

The answer is a clear one, and one we should all be mindful of when discussing Iranian political life. Iranians want human rights and democracy. Sit in, protests, demonstrations in Iran as well as polls have all revealed the desire for greater freedoms and greater participation in the management of public affairs.

I say we should be mindful of this, because the question we as Iranians should be answering, and actively engaging in, is in the understanding of transition and its consequences. Does it grow organically like a flower coming into bloom? Is it put together like a house, with the creation of a foundation and slowly built brick by brick? Or can it be cooked, served and fed to a public which yearns for it?

There is no one answer, instead a variety of voices. However, there is history, and if history has taught us anything it is that forced democratization will inevitably act like a foreign disease and ultimately either be rejected by the body or poison it from the inside.

But as with any issue, we must first begin with the basics. What is a democracy? There is no one version of democratic governance. It is as diverse as the taste of kabab, sheeshleek being my favorite. The fact is that modern democracies have no one mold. There are democratic socialist governments in countries like Canada. Or liberal two-party federalism like the United States.

The fact is that ways of voting and electing representatives in national democratic systems vary. There is no one way to achieve rule by the people because ultimately different values produce different democracies. At its most basic root, democratic governance concerns itself with one thing; giving citizens equal rights to participate in decision making and to hold public office based on the Athenian belief that there is equality among citizens.

However, there are some, like Henry Steiner, a prominent professor in human rights from Harvard, as well as Sanford Lakoff, a professor at the University of California San Diego and author on the history of democratic governance, who articulate that the concept of democracy has evolved. In their analyses the concept of freedom and democracy becomes relatively synonymous. It is here where my concern resides. More importantly, it is here that my message to Iranians begins.

While the concept of democracy is important it is relative to the protection of freedoms and rights. History has given us democracies that have given rise to totalitarianism in Germany, the protection of slavery in the United States, and intense nationalist movements at the sacrifice of fundamental rights such as in Israel, China, and Egypt to only name a few.

Modern democracies are dominated by interest groups and corporate muscle such as in Italy and the United States while excluding the poor, illiterate, unemployed, and abused. It is, in general, political utilitarianism but too often political capitalism. Nivedita Menon, professor in political science at the University of Delhi, argues that modern democratic ideas initially grew in order to facilitate the growth of capitalism. As a result western democracies have become vulnerable to the same factors they have developed.

Ultimately, without human rights democracies are useless. More importantly, the creation of a democratic state in and of itself cannot produce respect of rights. Does political participation guarantee freedom of religion, freedom of speech, a free press, the protection of a healthy environment, the right to an attainable standard of health, or the often neglected right to food? Does it give us rule of law or judicial independence?

The fact is that it has not in Kuwait, Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina, China, Uganda, and even the United States. Human rights, on the other hand, are the bricks for which we build a stable democracy. The right to political participation and nondiscrimination are the backbones of any free political system.

I have been critical of the United States because it troubles me to see how civil rights are trumped by post 9/11 legislation such as the USA Patriot Act. It troubles me more because these laws are passed in order to protect democracies from terrorism. The "coalition" went to war to bring democracy to the Iraqi people. All around the world, the paradigm of democratization has taken front stage over human rights. But how do you eat pomegranates with no seeds?

Amongst us Iranians in the Diaspora the fervor for regime change increases by the day. Let us always be mindful, however, that there is an inviolable connection between the means and the end.

Gandhi once said "I am not likely to obtain the result flowing from the worship of God by laying myself prostrate before Satan." If therefore anyone were to say "I want to worship God; it does not matter that I do so by means of Satan" then that person would be an ignorant fool. Iranian democracy must be born from the seeds of its troubles, the protection of human rights. Without human rights development Iran will remain a deserted house for a people looking for a home.


Nema Milaninia is a Graduate Student, International Human Rights Law at the American University in Cairo.

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By Nema Milaninia





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