Challenging the myth

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 and 13-be-dar.

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 ideals.

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 from fair-minded.

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 over again?

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.

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