Pragmatic and human reasons for respecting religious values
January 31, 2001
This article is in reply to Sohrab Mahdavi's "Minority
Mr. Sohrab Mahdavi's thoughtful response to my open
letter particularly calls for a response. Since my open letter was
in Persian, allow me first of all, for the benefit of those readers who
do not read Persian, summarize its arguments. Please forgive the brevity
as well the extensions of the argument. I invite all your readers to participate
in this dialogue.
Three megatrends characterize our own era and perhaps the rest of the
21st century. Globalization, regionalization, and democratization are the
three forces that are currently shaping the future of the world.
Globalization is perhaps the oldest of the three trends. It has gone
through three phases in human history. The first round of globalization
took place along the Eurasian landmass from ancient China to Rome through
the Silk and Spice Roads.
The second round started with the sailing of Columbus to the "New
World" in 1492 followed by massive population movements and colonization
of Africa, Asia, and America by the Europeans.
The third round has been assuming increasing momentum in the post World
War II period by the technological revolutions in transportation and telecommunication.
This round has led to the rise of a global economy, communication networks,
and cultural ethos.
Regionalization is a more recent phenomenon responding to the challenges
of globalization. Faced with the American Challenge ("le defi americaine"),
Western Europe came together by establishing the European Economic Community
followed by the European Union.
Other regions of the world have followed suit, organizing around NAFTA,
MERCOSUR, ASEAN, SAARC, CIS, ECO, etc. The trend continues in a variety
of modalities at different paces.
Democratization, by contrast, is a process of broadening and deepening
of political participation that has a long history. However, following
the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern European dictatorships in the
early 1990s, democratization has become an unmistakable force throughout
The modalities of democratization vary enormously from region to region
and country to country. Its main features include popular sovereignty,
constitutions and rule of law, periodic elections, as well as checks and
balances by increasingly autonomous centers of power in government (legislative,
executive, and judiciary) and civil society (political parties, trade unions,
media, as well as professional and voluntary associations).
Although the three trends are deeply intertwined, there are significant
lags and leads among them. While globalization is rapidly moving forward
under the leadership of transnational corporations (TNCs) and intergovernmental
organizations such as the World Bank, IMF, and WTO, regionalization and
democratization have a significantly slower pace.
The result is a widening of wealth and income gaps within and among
countries and regions of the world. Continuation of these trends clearly
undermines the social compact within and among nations and threatens global
peace and stability. If they wish to survive, countries such as Iran have
no choice but to come to terms with these three megatrends.
I understand and respect Mr. Mahdavi's objection to my letter as "well-intentioned
idealism" that may lead to "hell". But I contend that my
arguments are solidly based on the reality of the world as I and many other
scholars perceive them.
I accept his point that the present regime in Iran is not facing the
challenges of our times. That is also the central point of my open letter.
Where do we go from here? It seems to me that there are three possible
alternatives: (1) assume indifference, (2) oppose the present regime by
all means, or (3) approach the problem of regime change only by peaceful
I have chosen the third way. The reasons for that are both political
and personal. Personally, since early youth, I have committed myself to
non-violence. That is why I also decided at age 30 to give up a political
All states, democratic or not, are in my opinion based on violence.
As Ibn Khaldun well understood, all states also are ultimately controlled
by a solidarity group (asabiya) based upon common material and moral interests.
The United States today is ultimately controlled by corporate interests
hiring a battalion of one million lawyers, among them Clinton and Bush,
to manage the system.
As Antonio Gramsci well understood, in a relatively democratic polity
such as the United States, other interest groups (workers, farmers, the
middle class professionals) are co-opted through a hegemonic project characterized
by flexibility and discipline.
Bush's compassionate conservatism, for instance, succeeded to co-opt
some elements of the Democratic constituency to narrowly win the election
by the Supreme Court's intervention. The rules of the game dictated to
Gore to accept a result that was patently anti-majoritarian.
What about Iran?
Before the Pahlavis, all ruling dynasties were based on tribal solidarity
(the Qajars, Zands, Afsharieh, Shahsavand of the Safavieh, Saljuqs, etc.)
and the co-optation of the other important elements of the elite, namely
other tribal chiefs, landlords, ulama, and the merchants.
The Pahlavi Dynasty came to power by a modern standing army. The new
solidarity group was the armed forces at the head of which stood Reza Shah
and later his son, Mohammad Reza Shah. Once Mohammad Reza Shah left them
headless, his armed forces disintegrated.
The new regime that came to power is based on another solidarity group,
the Shiite clerics. There are an estimated one million of them, the size
of a good mass political party. They initially co-opted the Tudeh, Mojahedeen,
Fadaiyan, National Front, bazaar merchants, and some intellectuals.
Gradually, however, the clerics have pushed aside their allies except
for the merchants and loyalist intellectuals.
Since power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, the Islamic
regime has managed to do within 20 years what the Pahlavi regime did in
50. They have de-mythologized Islam almost as effectively as the Pahlavis
Why does then my letter appeals on behalf of democracy to Islamic values?
We must make a distinction between Islam as a spiritual path and the clerics
as the presumed custodians of the faith. History shows that no regime can
last in this day and age if it denies religion or democracy.
If the clerics are wise enough to accept democracy and rule of law (as
President Khatami does), they may have a chance. If they don't, they will
be swept away by historical forces with considerable bloodshed.
Similarly, any future regime that repeats the Soviet or the Pahlavi's
mistake in repressing religious institutions, will suffer the same fate
suffered by those regimes.
These are pragmatic reasons for respecting religious values. But there
are also profound ontological reasons. So long as the human condition is
one of finitude, fragility, and moral frailty, religion and religious values
can and do harness some of our ontological insecurities and aggressiveness.
Islam happens to be the religion of over 90 percent of Iranians. Disrespecting
the sanctities of Islam is not only counter-productive to any political
project, it is profoundly contrary to the human need for spiritual values
In my open letter I have tried to appeal on the one hand to the highest
values in our Islamic-Iranian traditions of civility, but on the other
hand to give warnings on religious intolerance and monopoly of power by
a religious faction.
Mr. Mahdavi rightly objects that many of these lofty Iranian-Islamic
values have been violated by the regimes in power, past and present. But
that does not mean that we should not appeal to them in order to set the
record straight and induce the present regime to respect its own professed
Any great religion can be interpreted in a complex variety of ways.
My pacific and democratic interpretation of Islam has solid backing from
some ulama while being opposed by others. We need to engage both sides
in an open and democratic dialogue.
Majid Tehranian is professor of international communication at the
University of Hawaii and director of the Toda
Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research.