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The Civil Society Approach to Iranian Studies

Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, the director of Middle East Studies at Rutgers University, New Jersey, has written extensively on contemporary Iranian affairs. This analysis is partly based on observations during his visit to Iran in July.

The post-revolutionary Iranian studies has experienced two approaches. In the beginning, scholars focused on the driving forces of the 1979 revolution, Islam in particular. By the mid-1980s, attention shifted toward an understanding of the Islamic Republic in place, notably is theocratic nature and probable teleology.

Ever since, those studying Iran have fallen into what I like to call "the government trap." By this, I mean the preoccupation of research and writings with the Islamic Republic in terms of its ideology, power structure, social and cultural visions, economic policy, political behavior and foreign policy.

The West's hostility toward Tehran's visions and actions in the region beyond was a major reason for the dominance of this lopsided approach to Iranian studies. The focus on the Islamic Republic was also influenced by the activist nature of the government, particularly with respect to its call for export of the revolution, ideological foreign policy, domestic political behavior and social practices.

Other contributing factors included the war with Iraq, economic failure and unstable policies. Meanwhile, many of those writings on Iran were influenced by their ideological opposition vis-a-vis Tehran.

The approach not only led to the neglect of developments in the Iranian civil society, it did not also lead to a better understanding of the state's bureaucracies and their linkages, decision-making mechanisms and internal dynamism.

For example, we still know very little about the power structure and relationships in the Islamic Republic, or how actually the institution of the velayat-e faqih operates and what sets limits to its theoretically immeasurable authority.

This narrow focus on the surface of the Islamic Republic has not also been helpful to friends and foes for developing a constructive engagement with Tehran. It has, especially, become a source of confusion that currently prevails about the country's future prospects and approaches to political reform.

I believe time has come for another approach. Specifically, while we need to develop a deeper understanding of the state, attention should increasingly focus on developments within the civil society.

By civil society I mean a public sphere that exists between the state and individual citizens. It is the realm of organized (or well-defined), voluntary and autonomous social trend, institution or activity that is bounded by a common purpose and a legal order or set of shared rules and values.

Such associations, tendencies or activities aim at developing members' potentials and protecting them from abuses by the state, organized groups, or individuals. The civil society is distinguished from political society which either controls state power or seeks to control it, such as a political party.

Refocusing research on Iran is particularly warranted because of certain recent developments in the world and Iran. Specifically, the global trend toward democracy has received a significant boost from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reactivation of civil societies in the former socialist bloc.

From this perspective, the study of the civil society in Iran becomes critical for those interested in development and democracy in the country. This is particularly so because signs of an emerging civil society can be seen in a variety of fields in today's Iran, where the population is anxious to redefine its old civilization into a more dynamic and modern one.

Additionally, the study of civil society is at the heart of the choice between alternative approaches to political reform in Iran. There are those who advocate the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. But this may be neither possible nor do the majority in the country consider the approach desirable.

Those advocating reform from above also ignore the fact that the first-generation revolutionary leaders can hardly undertake meaningful political reforms. Advocates of reform from below, who focus on the civil society but ignore the state, are only half right because they tend to underestimate the role of the state in democracy and development.

What seems more plausible is a simultaneous movement for reform from below and above, an approach that requires a more careful understanding of civil and political societies, as well as their interaction.

While early in post-revolutionay Iran, the civil society remained dormant under state control, its growth has become increasingly noticeable in the last few years.

There are several reasons for this positive development, including factionalism within the state, the bureaucracy, and the existence of democratic forces within and outside the state.

The continuing pressure from the West and the domestic problems facing the state have played a contradictory role in this regard. While they have tended to make the state more accommodating, these factors have slowed the civil society's development by diluting the power of pro-glasnost forces within the state, thus enabling the reform-resisters to limit even intellectual freedom.

To identify the civil society in Iran, one has to look at a variety of emerging philosophical, ideological and political tendencies, idea leaders, charismatic politicians and daring intellectuals. Included in the civil society are also cultural, social, professional and economic institutions, associations and groupings, either nascent or established, private or semi-public.

Because parts of the civil society in Iran are still hidden behind safer covers, or are as yet latent, it is important that field research, deeper observations, and conceptual foresight be employed to uncover them. While most of what constitutes the civil society has emerged from the citizens outside the political society, the state has also spun off the civil society as it has purified its power bloc.

The research must also be keen to the fact the emerging civil society remains vulnerable to various predatory forces. Its growth could be hampered if the state were unable to find a solution to its problems with the West and negative domestic trends. The sustained pressure on the state would reduce the effectiveness of pro-prestroika forces within the political society.

The emergent civil society will particularly suffer if the reform-resisters were to strengthen their position before the public sphere is reached a critical level of growth. Yet, the main obstacles could come from within the civil society, namely, its probable over-politicization and the traditional tendency to challenge the power of the state. In the past, the obsolete political culture of the Iranian elite has bolstered this tendency.

While these are real possibilities, there is a good chance that the ongoing trend toward the expansion of the public sphere will continue. This is largely so because the pro-democratic forces have already gained significant ground in the civil society and the country's political culture is in transition toward new values, including political and ideological pluralism and multiculturalism. Rationalism has also become a major trend in the political culture of the elite.

More importantly, reformism is taking hold among the population. Additionally, the populist nature of the Islamic state tends to promote the public sphere at the same time that it tends to maintain its monopoly over state power.

In this context, intellectuals and academics have a social responsibility to develop a better understanding of the civil and political societies and forces that hinder or facilitate their growth. Only then are they in a position to promote future democratic reforms and development in the country.

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