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Changing mindsets
Opening closed societies to democracy

By Fereydoun Hoveyda
August 5, 1999
The Iranian

A dispatch from Jordan informed us that King Abdullah II, disguised in worn-out clothes and posing as a taxi driver, roamed the streets of his capital in order to hear the complaints of his countrymen. This reminds one of Harun-al-Rashid in the One Thousand and One Nights. Indeed the celebrated 8th century caliph used to mingle incognito with the crowds.

We Iranians, too, have heard childhood tales about Shah Abbass roving the streets of Isfahan by night. So did Nasseredin Shah Qajar. Even the last Pahlavi king had set up a special agency for this purpose. As for today's Iran, it would be rather difficult for the clerics to conceal their identity, unless they shaved their beards.

At the threshold of the 21st century, do rulers and politicians really need to resort to medieval devices to take the pulse of their fellow citizens? Can't they just hire professional pollsters?

From time to time ordinary citizens in closed societies explode into violence in order to evince their suppressed desires. Such was the case in Iran in 1995, when workers rioted in Iranshahr and last month when students took to the streets. Such also was the case in 1978-79, when people marched for greater freedoms.

Nevertheless, the safer and more scientific solutions which have been successfully experimented and refined in other parts of our planet. Through democracy and implementation of human rights, people can express their opinion and resolve their problems. Free elections allow citizens to anonymously select their leaders.

Freedom of expression, political parties and truly-representative parliaments can provide smooth and peaceful transitions. This would help solvie the formidable economic and social problems facing the nation.

Alas, King Abdullah's performance tells us one other thing: the medieval mind-set is still towering the Muslim world. It exhibits the paternalistic philosophy that pervades our societies. I certainly do not deny the young king's good intentions. But does Prince Charles of England lurk the streets of London to gather news? He simply reads the press.

My contention is that our people are not infants. They must be treated as adults. Up to now, the Muslim world has bowed to the mantra of "Father knows best". Well, in the era of computers and cyberspace, it is the sons and daughters who have the real knowledge to better manage the economy and political affairs.

What our countries badly need is overall democracy which could change traditional mindsets.


Fereydoun Hoveyda was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations from 1971 to 1978. To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their web site ... TO TOP

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