|Challenging the myth
Can Iranians have democracy?
By Ataollah Togha
April 18, 2002
In what follows, like many fellow Iranians who write about democracy and its urgency
for our country, I will leave the word "democracy" undefined. I will therefore
ignore the fact that if one is serious about talking on the issues related to freedom,
tolerance, civil society, and democracy, to mention a few of the buzz-words we have
been hearing for quite some time, then one must be more precise, because if one is
going to use these terms in arguments, then it must be as clear as possible what
one is really talking about. For the purposes of this note, however, I find it sufficient
to use "democracy" in a rather loose sense.
I also follow the footsteps of many respectable Iranian advocates of democracy --whatever
they might mean by that term-- in that I will not dispute the "fact" that
democracy is the cure-all of Iran's ills, and in spite of democracy's failure in
neighboring countries, I will assume that once a full-fledged democratic state is
established in Iran, we will not need to worry anymore, because then all Iran's problems
will be solved.
It is as if many of us, perhaps except the wishful monarchists,
have stopped waiting for a heroic figure to come and save us from our misfortunes
and thus have instead put our hopes in an abstract notion --that is, democracy--
to become our savior. Nobody, however, seems to target the issue that to what extent
we are ready for the reign of democracy.
There seems to be an unspoken consensus, as far as I can tell, among most of our
political activists that if only those who are currently in power in Iran yielded
their posts to them, then democracy would get a chance to thrive in our beloved homeland.
Iran would become as "good" as America and Iranian expatriates could all
go back home and live happily ever after. Of course, this is a sweet dream, but if
as an old nation with die-hard habits we took a severe sober look in the mirror,
we would have known better.
In a recent article [I
accuse Mr. Khatami], the writer argues that since dogs want to be free, freedom
is a universal value. Her argument reminded me of an equally solid argument conveyed
by some graffiti I had seen on the walls of Tehran: "If being civilized means
not wearing hejaab, then animals are much more civilized than humans." It seems
that we cannot leave poor creatures out of our internal debates!
So even though like many Iranian proponents of "democracy, and freedom",
I am offering neither a definition of these terms, nor an argument for why we should
strive for democracy and freedom (an argument more meaningful than the doggy argument
cited above) , I am nonetheless going to challenge the prevalent belief that by a
formal change in the Iranian constitution or our system of government we will automatically
enjoy the fruits of democracy.
In the remaining part of this short note I will spare you the detailed reasons why
I am convinced that at the time being we may well be far from ready for embracing
the democratic values regardless of whether democracy is good or evil, and also regardless
of the form of government that Iran is ruled under. That will be, I hope, the subject
of a well-researched piece of writing. But in order to illustrate the plausibility
of my point I invite you to use your imagination and envision the following unlikely
course of events.
Imagine that, God forbid, an incurable curious disease is quickly spreading across
the American continent and the only individuals who are miraculously immune to this
formidable disease are Iranians! It is estimated that if scientists cannot find a
way to prevent or cure this disease then in ten years a great majority of inhabitants
of the U.S. will be those genetically clever people who celebrate 4-shanbe-soori
It may sound quite silly, but for the sake of argument let's imagine that such a
peculiar state of affairs actually takes place and this human tragedy ruthlessly
claims the lives of a great number of non-Iranians in North America, while Iranians
stay alive and healthy and keep adding and multiplying. The question is, do you,
in all frankness, think we can sustain a civil society in this land?
In order to make it easier to answer the above question, it helps to remember that
Iranian expatriates after decades of living in America are not yet capable of starting
a social get-together --such as a concert-- on time. It may also help to notice that
if American highways are left to Iranian drivers, then the same chaos that we witness
in the streets of Tehran will undoubtedly re-emerge. The case of these examples (and
more examples that I leave to your imagination to produce) can be generalized to
those deep-rooted social habits of ours which are by no means reconcilable with democratic
They are similar to language skills in that they are acquired early in one's life
and will hardly bend in later years. If having been constantly in touch with another
language has failed to help you shed your Iranian accent, then it seems sound to
assume that your other behavioral traits will not change easily either.
By putting forward the above hypothetical situation,
I was only going to demonstrate that there are deeply instilled behavioral elements
inside each and every one of us that resist such non-Iranian values and simply blaming
the ones currently in power as the major obstacle in our road to democracy is far
Therefore, I believe our intellectuals should not only stop taking the merits of
democracy for granted and finally start actively looking for much more satisfying
answers to the question of "Why democracy?", but they should also work
towards making the populace realize that there is not much truth in the simple-minded
idea that even a well-intentioned democratic regime will easily change the millennia-long
habits of them. If it could not break the habits of those who have been living here
for such a long time, how could such habits be changed in a milieu where social interactions
which are naturally dictated by Iranian values reinforce these very values over and
Your typical secular intellectual may not really know why democracy is the ideal
we should be heading for. She may not have even thought about this, because to her
it is somehow self-evident. I tend to believe that, despite her openly denying it,
this can still simply emanate from her closeted admiration for whatever comes from
the West. Otherwise, she would argue for freedom by offering more than because John
Stuart Mill (or someone else) said so. I even doubt it that she could repeat their
discourse, let alone take a critical stand.