Democracy is a relative concept that can differ depending on personal interpretation, cultural background and historical time. It is often considered an European idea in contrast with the political absolutism of the Asian kingdoms and whose roots are thought to be alive in the policy making of modern Middle Eastern states. On the other hand “democracy” is not a simple recipe to be adopted just because it sounds more “civilised” or it is supposed to generate development.
Sophists of Ancient Greece invented a vision of knowledge where “man is the measure of all things”. If we accept such an hypothesis – that has the unique advantage of looking truly “democratic” – , we can hardly delineate a definition of democracy accepted by all as satisfactory. Aristotle for instance argued that democracy is a degeneration of “citizenship” and is likely to change into demagogy.
The debate on democracy in Iran becomes more complicated since traditionalists perceive it as a consumer good imported from the West. Democracy in Iran can effortlessly be associated to imperialism, secularism or capitalism and other “exogenous” ideologies that represent by definition a threat against Islam, Iranian culture and people. Democracy is alleged to be serving foreign interests and against the moral values of those who are the succcessors of Persian civilisation enriched by Islamic culture.
Lack of formal political parties – intented to provide platforms for the expression of public opinion and negotiations among political forces – seriously limit public debate in Iran. The principle of velayat-e faqih is opposed to a (Western) political party system and it is sponsored as the authentic expression of pure Iranian politics. The supreme role of Faqih, both a human and divine model of emulation for Iranians as consecrated by the 1979 Constitution, ensures political stability and the maintenance of the status quo. Political parties by definition are supposed to represent a “diversity” in contradiction with the “uniformity” reinforced by the revolutionary system.
Democratisation would necessarily include separation of politics from religion. How to conciliate this revolutionary idea (or anti-revolutionary, depending on points of view) with the clerical order that monopolizes Iranian politics? The principles of theocracy seem to be difficult to bring together with the ideas of a civil society that should act as a buffer between state power and the citizen's life.
An important step towards political democratisation in Iran was achieved in 1997 with the ascendancy of Mohammad Khatami as President of Iran. Khatami benefited from both popular recognition and religious legitimisation that embodies the traditions of revolution. He represented a hope of change for Iranians – especially the new generation – and an opportunity for the conservative leadership to withdraw with dignity from the political scene.
The political agenda of Khatami is by far more ambitious than the cautious pragmatism of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. There is a special emphasis on the creation of a civil society, the rule of law and a more pluralistic philosophical outlook that avoids any claim to monopolisation of truth. But it is evident that the call for a more civil society threatens the clerical monopoly of public appointments. The rejection of absolutism implies a re-thinking of the institution of the faqih. These factors would imply a major change in the orientation of the Islamic Republic itself.
In a context where the political system is based on an uncompromising ideology that eventually tends to favour political inertia, Khatami has been meticulously following the consensual paradigm in both its legal and rhetorical aspects. Even though this can be seen as a serious setback, the purpose was to protect the reformist agenda from the threat of the post-Khomeini establishment. The continuous support for reforms – despite the persistent sabotage by the conservatives – and the power of a mobilised young society constitutes conditions for a sustainable democratisation in the long run.
Democracy has a strong appeal in Iran. Iranians have gone through a revolution, a bloody war, isolation from the international community and continuous struggles in order to experiment a genuine Islamic democracy independent from external interferences.
Moreover, there are some preconditions for further changes pushing toward democratisation such as the revolutionary traditions of Iranians, the advantages of reforms implemented so far, the willingness to experiment new political solutions, the originality in finding a genuine path of political emancipation and the power of the immense heritage of Iranian humanism and civilisation.
Mr Alessio Loreti is a graduate student in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Homepage