Many Iranians, both inside and outside of Iran, view the Islamic Republic as an obstacle to Iran's greatness. They believe that the fascist Islamic government should be removed so that freedom, peace, and democracy can spread. They believe that the concept of a theocracy (or more specifically, the velayet-e-faqih) has been thoroughly discredited by history and view the Islamic government as a throwback to medieval ways of thinking. In short, they would like to see Iran take its place as one of the civilized nations of the world, and they believe that the first step is to adopt their institutions.
These critics are right in many ways, but they are wrong in one very crucial way. Democracy is not a magic elixir that can cure all of a society's problems. In fact, history has shown us that democracy without the proper ingredients often leads to disaster. Democracy without economic prosperity often devolves into communism. Democracy without national unity and political stability invites intrusions and interventions from more powerful neighbors. Worst of all, democracy without rational thinking devolves into fascism.
The key piece to the democratic puzzle that Iranians have been missing throughout their history has been rational thinking. For most of their history, Iranians have been trained to follow the commands of one man (the shah), the clergy (akhound), or their culture (farhang). The great Iranian populace, as a whole, have never learned to make use of their god-given gift of reason. Usually, they have depended on a shah, an ayatollah, or tradition for their belief system. This lack of reason has been, in a word, Iran's downfall. Even after the European powers experienced the Enlightenments hundreds of years ago, Iran has still been living in the dark ages.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to instill the population with rational thinking overnight. People's beliefs, attitudes, and habits are shaped by their experiences, and no political upheaval can change that. For example, imagine it is 1979 and the shah has just left Iran. Imagine that instead of the clerics taking power, Iran becomes a genuine democracy. This scenario, of course, is what most people wished would have happened. However, this Iran would have been an utter failure.
Why? Because the Iranian population still had not embraced rational thinking. People all throughout Iran still clung to their antiquated belief systems. Many identified themselves as Muslims while others had a pan-Iranian consciousness. Others still clung to traditional ways of living and were not ready to accept change. Either way, they were still not ready to become a democratic nation because they were not yet rational. Here is an example. Many Iranians bemoan the lack of rights women have under the Islamic Republic.
However, if Iran had become a democracy after the Shah, women still would not have had rights. Under the Islamic republic, women did not have freedom because the government would not allow it. Under an Iranian democracy, women would have not had rights because their culture would not allow it. Most Iranian women, despite their nominal freedom, would have voluntarily stayed in the home and been traditional Iranian wives. Instead of the irrational master of the Islamic Republic, they would have retained the irrational master of Iranian culture. There is no difference.
In fact, it is safe to say that in short time a fiery demagogic Iranian nationalist movement or an Islamic fundamentalist movement would have quickly ended Iran's experiment with democracy. Germany in the 1930's showed the world that a desperate people without rational thought will inevitably turn to extremist ideology. Furthermore, Iran was being menaced by its ominous communist neighbor to the north, the USSR, which would have liked nothing more than to include Iran in its communist empire by taking advantage of its gullible people.
This raises the question: how can a people and a society achieve their full potential as rational beings? It cannot happen overnight. The German philosopher Hegel believed that the “spirit” or “culture” of a society must go through a historical process until it can end in the promised land of rationality and the ideal state. He outlined this progression of world history in his book The Philosophy of History. As Hegel put it, “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” However, it must be noted that Hegel's definition of freedom is that of a rational freedom in a similarly rationally organized state.
World history, Hegel believed, started with Persia. While all the oriental countries were despotic (one man ruled), Persia was a little different. Persia was a theocratic monarchy, based on the religion of Zoroaster, which involved the worship of light. To Hegel, light was something pure and universal, something which, like the sun, shines on all and confers equal benefits to all. Even though Persia was still not free or egalitarian, the fact that the emperor's rule was based on a general principle meant that development was possible.
Hegel believed that the first important conflict of world history was between the ancient Persians and the ancient Greeks. The Persians represented oriental despotism (the rule of one man) while the Greeks were experimenting with democracy. After the fateful battle at Salamis, the torch of world history passed from the Persians to the Greeks. No longer were the Persians the masters of the ancient world.
However, the Greeks were not completely free either. Even though they were not under the control of a monarch, they were irrationally bound with their culture. The Greeks were free in a way the Persians were not, but they still did many things out of custom and habit, as opposed to rational thought. Furthermore, the Greeks saw themselves as so indissolubly linked with their own particular city-state that they did not distinguish between their own interests and the interests of the community in which they lived.
The next state of world history, to Hegel, was Rome. Rome had a political constitution, a senate, and a legal system. There was not complete freedom yet, but at least the individual and the government lived in a state of tension that had never existed before. Furthermore, Rome was a polyglot empire that ruled over a wide variety of diverse people lacking patriarchal or customary bonds. Thus, when Rome conquered Greece, the Greece were freed from their previous master, which was culture. As they say, when a culture recognizes itself as one culture among many cultures, it loses its individuality and dies.
The next step is, of course, Christianity. Christianity gave the Romans a new kind of freedom. To Hegel, human beings were spiritual beings and they can only become free when they discover their spiritual nature. Of course, this Christianity that conquered Rome quickly took on a different and disgraceful character. To Hegel, the Christianity that gripped Europe in the Middle Ages was a perversion of true religious spirit, inserting itself between man and the spiritual world, and insisting on blind obedience from its followers.
However, this step was necessary because mere inner piety cannot bring a person closer to their spiritual nature. The change that takes place in the pious heart of a believer must transform the real external world into something that satisfies the requirements of humans as spiritual beings. So, even though this era looked like a step back away from freedom, it was actually a necessary phase in the logical progression of freedom and spirituality.
Now, we all know how the story ends. After the doom and gloom of the Christian-dominated Middle Ages, the sun broke free and the Reformation and the Renaissance brought the modern world (or, the West) to what it is today. The Reformation resulted from the corruption of the Church, a corruption that was in Hegel's view not an accidental development but a necessary consequence of the fact that the Church does not treat the Deity as a purely spiritual thing, but embodies it in the natural world.
Ceremonial observances, rituals, and other outward forms are its basis and compliance with them is essential to religious life. To Hegel, the Reformation was important because it proclaimed that every human being can recognize his or her own spiritual nature, and achieve his or her own salvation. Since then, the role of history has been to transform the world according to this essential, rational principle.
If every human being is freely able to use his powers of reasoning to judge truth and goodness, the world can only receive universal assent when it conforms with rational standards. Therefore all social institutions — including law, property, social morality, government constitutions, etc… — must be made to conform to general principles of reason.
And this brings me to my point. Iran is now undergoing its phase of religious fundamentalism, which is a natural phase in its progression to freedom and a rational society. The Iranian people, especially the youth, will eventually rebel and cause a Reformation in Iran that will allow them freedom and the ability to pursue their faith individually, without earthly interlocutors interfering.
However, for Iran to achieve its rational potential, it must free itself from all of its masters. It has freed itself from the despotic shah and it is slowly freeing itself from its antiquated traditions and customs that were keeping it from realizing its true potential. Only after Iran has undergone this historic and spiritual process will its people truly be free.
A religious person may read this and think, “This is ridiculous. A person does not need to discover their Œspiritual nature' to be free. Iranians need democracy and they need it now!” However, one must not forget all the good things that Islam has brought Iran.
Islam, and its cousin Christianity, give people a rational basis for morality. Islam has replaced the customary morality of Iranian society (which consists of taroof, badjensey, and masnoey boudan) with the spiritual idea of morality. Furthermore, Islam introduces a universality into the minds of Iranians so that each unit of mankind has the same essential infinite value. One of the main problems of Iranian culture was the way that Iranians would look down upon their surrounding neighbors and even distant cultures. A society that does not embrace universality can never progress or learn from its neighbors or leave in peaceful coexistence with the world.
In the final analysis, the Islamic revolution was good for Iran. If Iran had become a democracy after the shah the people would have stuck with their old cultural ways and Iran would have remained in its backward state indefinitely. However, after struggling under the doom and gloom of the ayatollahs, Iranians will be ready for rational thinking and success. They will join the ranks of the powerful nations of the world and put their terrible, violent, past behind them.