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God go home
How far will we go in establishing a secular democracy?

Ardavan Bahrami
July 7, 2004

According to the Chambers dictionary secularism is defined as; the belief that the state, morals, education, etc. should be independent of religion. Have those of us who have defended democracy for a long time but been more vocal about secularism in recent years asked ourselves how secular are we prepared to be in a future democratic Iran?

Majority of the democratic governments are secular in one shape or another. From the French and the Turkish forms of republics where principles of secularism is strictly observed and defended, to those European monarchies where religious minority immigrants have been allowed to impose their customs to a degree that is beginning to test the host nation's level of tolerance.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords." My question to our fellow Iranians is that how aggressively are we prepared to defend such noble principles once democracy and secularism are established by a majority vote in our country?

One of the recent challenges and at times heated debates in the Western secular democracies has been the issue of banning the religious symbols including that of the Islamic headscarves in French schools. The new regulation bans Muslim headscarves as well as Jewish yarmulkes and wearing of other ostensible religious symbols in French public schools.

Such decision has even invited opposing views from within Western democracies. Many journalists in Britain for example, have objected the French decision, regarding it as interference in one's personal freedom. However, they have failed to iterate the fact that the French government's proposal was democratically submitted to the French assembly which was in turn accepted by a majority who equally address all religious symbols including that of the Catholics who make the majority of the French nation. Nevertheless some fanatic Muslim groups like to portray such decision as a fight against Islam.

E.J. Dionne Jr. in an article in Washington Post dated December 23, 2003, under the title of "In France, Scarves & Secularism" wrote: "The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Assefi, condemned the Chirac government for 'an extremist decision aimed at preventing the development of Islamic values'." He continued, "Imagine being called 'extremist' on a religious question by an official of the Iranian government!"

Secularism and democracy are like two sides of a brain. In order to have a fully functional body, both sides of the brain with their specific responsibilities are needed in order to achieve the desired being. Therefore, those who comically advocate baseless concepts such as the Islamic Democracy can never deliver the true freedom our people are fighting for when divine rules and restrictions would oversee every aspects of their daily life.

The question that eventually we have to face is are we going to adhere to principles that would declare Iran a country with no official religion; hence, no advantages given to an Iranian Muslim over those Iranians from other religions? I am talking of a society that goes further than pre-1979 where an Iranian Jew, Bahai, Christian or a Zoroastrian can become our country's prime minister or in case of a republic, its president.

Prince Reza Pahlavi if not the only Iranian political leader believing in such principles, is definitely the only one who has been brave enough to publicly state his vision for a country with no official religion. He has defended the freedom of all political beliefs/parties, guaranteeing individual rights such as; regional languages and dialects, sexual orientations, religious beliefs as well as all social freedoms that many other progressive and democratic nations in the world enjoy or may take for granted.

However, he or any other Iranian politically active cannot and will not succeed if we as individual Iranian do not participate or take steps for our future. At times in meeting other compatriots I feel we are still blurred in our understanding of secularism or that of a true democracy. Do we really understand what it is all about? If we do, how far are we prepared to go in a free, democratic and secular Iran of the future to defend its principles? Will we make concessions every now and then and therefore, undermining the principles of secularism for religious beliefs of one or two religious public figures or groups?

In order to guarantee and protect the sacrifices of so many pro-democracy and secular activists, we need a modern constitution written by elected experts to meet the modern world's requirements; to respect our true national values and to promote the two unbending pillars of that society; secularism and democracy.

In an article "Defending Secularism, Turkey's Military Warns Islamic Leaders" in New York Times, dated March 2, 1997, journalist Stephen Kinzer wrote; "The communiqué issued by the Turkish military states that the Turkish National Security Council had decided that 'no steps away from the contemporary values of the Turkish Republic would be tolerated.' 'It has been decided that destructive and separatist groups are seeking to weaken our democracy and legal system by blurring the distinction between the secular and the anti-secular," the communiqué continued "It has been decided that in Turkey, secularism is not only a form of government but a way of life and the guarantee of democracy and social peace."

The communiqué further adds: "It has been decided that it is impossible to step back from our understanding of the social and legal principles which form the structural core of the state, and that out-of-date measures which are taken without regard for these principles do not coincide with our legal system."

It may seems at times; in particular in countries where some believers take religious beliefs out of proportion that it is the secularist factor which comes to the rescue of the democratic values of those societies; hence, giving secularism even a more important of a role to play.
What force is going to safeguard our future secularism? Is it going to be the will of the majority - a new constitution?

That can change or be influenced, particularly in countries like ours. Or is it going to be a strong army as in the Turkish case to stand by the constitution? But then again our history has already proved that our military may abandon once again the constitution and hence, jeopardizing the principles of our secular state. Or do we need to achieve a Kemalist like ideology and developing it into a national party that would stand by its principles no matter what the case may be?

Unlike what the leaders of the Islamic Republic like to portray secularists are no atheists. A secular Muslim woman or a man could be a staunch secularist while observing her/his religion in the privacy of their home.

Today our country has a majority of nearly 97% Muslims, but this majority are composed of youths who are the main forces of change in today's struggle against the Islamic Republic's barbarity. Masses that are least religious and most eager to grasp the most progressive ideas the world can offer. These youngsters very rightly do not care what Western politicians think or like in Washington, London or Paris. They are an educated generation with access to the latest communication equipments and are quite well aware of what is going on around the world.

This generation demands total transparency, freedom of expression followed by all social liberties thinkable to mankind. A democratic political system based on a society with its foundation on secular principles; demands that an Islamic republic under whatever shape or form cannot deliver.

Whether the West, or for that matter the world supports us or not is not going to alter the path our movement has chosen. Though their understanding and acceptance of our nation's will can speed up the process and therefore, guarantee a better life for them as well as for my compatriots. The European allies of the Islamic Republic can continue their "constructive engagement" for as long as they find it profitable; but the reality is that when almost forty million Iranians mobilize, no power in the world can stop them.

Iranians have made it very clear and have given enough chances to those who had promised them heavens but instead opened the doors to hell. Establishment of democracy and secularism through a national referendum is the only solution we see for the future of our country. Today is the last chance for those who want to be with the people of Iran.

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By Ardavan Bahrami



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