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Islam's pioneer

Iran's revolution, 20 years ago, set off a cycle of Islamist radicalism. Now its struggle to reform itself is being watched and, perhaps, may even be copied

The Economist
October 8, 1999

AS ISLAMIST militancy smoulders or erupts at the edges of the Muslim world-most recently in the Caucasus (see article 25)-the central flame, which seemed a few years ago to be threatening to consume many parts of the Arab Middle East, has subsided. All is not yet calm: outcasts in Algeria, beyond the reach of the ceasefire, keep the killing fields alive; the security forces in Egypt and elsewhere are vigilant; no Arab government is as yet relaxed. But the greatest dangers of revolutionary upheaval in the Middle East, most would acknowledge, have passed. The debate is tentatively turning to ways of accommodating non-violent Islamic radicals within the system.

At the same time, Iran, the non-Arab country whose Islamist revolution 20 years ago was the pilot light for the Arab furnace, is going through a second revolution, much quieter but hardly less important than the first. Iran's struggle between reform and conservatism is precariously balanced: the outcome will determine whether or not a theocratic republic, founded on one man's rigorous vision of the perfect Islamic state, can peacefully evolve into a more tolerant regime that takes democratic account of the wishes of its citizens.

Iran is a Shia Muslim country, whereas most of the rest of the Muslim world is Sunni. Even so, Muslims the world over are again beginning to look to Iran as a pioneer. Believers, deeply unhappy with current regimes or rulers, wonder about the nature of a state based on Islam. Reform-minded Islamists-people who believe that government should be founded on Islamic law but that the law should be interpreted in a way that allows the individual considerable freedom of choice and expression-discover a model in Iran's reformist president, Muhammad Khatami.

And where else, indeed, can would-be reformers look? One established Islamist state, Saudi Arabia, is an autocracy bound by a stringent, and often harsh, interpretation of Islamic law. It is inching forward into the modern world of technology and economics, but it cannot yet be said to be entering those areas of modernism where democracy or freedom can flourish. A new Islamist state, Afghanistan under the Taliban, is in an angry ferment of creation, whipping people into Islamist line by applying its own exacting and exaggerated version of the law. It may mature-even as Iran has-but it has a long way to go.

Iran's own maturing process is at a crucial stage. By appointing liberals to key jobs and by allowing a number of finicky rules to go unobserved, Mr Khatami has, in his two years as president, turned Iran into a more agreeable (though, alas, no more prosperous) place for an independent-minded person to live in. But he is still far from the "civil society" he has promised, and the hardline establishment is fighting him, with skill, cunning and authority, every trudging step of the way. The conservatives' latest manoeuvre, described on article 50, is to put a straitjacket on the election next February, which had been expected to produce a less hardline parliament.

The president, under siege, has two powerful weapons on his side. The first is public support: he was elected by 70% of the voters on his pledge of reform. This is useful, but by no means decisive. His second, and indispensable, strength is the tacit support of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who under the constitution has the final say on just about anything that matters. The conservatives have tried to appropriate Ayatollah Khamenei for their cause, and he has at times allowed himself to be numbered among them. But he and the president have discreetly worked as a team, and last weekend he expressed his support with unprecedented openness, reproaching the hardliners for exploiting religion for their political advantage.

The president, said Ayatollah Khamenei in his Friday sermon, "is a cleric, he is pious...and he is working for the rebirth of Islam." This statement from on high on Islamic rebirth is enormously encouraging to Iran's reformers, pointing to a more enlightened interpretation of Islamic law. But, at the same time, the statement underlines the limits to reform.


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