Reform Islam
Can Iran do democracy?

A great deal of thought has been devoted to the issue of democracy in the Arab world over the last few decades. Katajun Amirpur examines the discourse with specific reference to Iran and its unique political system

In 1953 the US secret service toppled Mossadegh, Iran's democratically elected prime minister, because he nationalised the Iranian oilfields, restoring in his place the dictator Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. With the help of America, the Shah consolidated his dictatorial rule, discrediting the democratic West in the eyes of many Iranian intellectuals. For decades now, this sequence of events has coloured the country's attitude towards democracy.

In the direct aftermath, Muhammad Husayn Tabataba′i (1903-1981) – ″Allameh″ (the Great Scholar) – set down his musings about democracy. Tabataba′i′s response to the question of a legitimate ruler must be seen against the background of a monarchy that called itself constitutional and claimed to be democratic: it had a prime minister, elections and a parliament. Tabataba′i appears to assume, or at least claims, that this state corresponds to what the West calls democracy – taking the Shah′s puppet state as the perfect example. Yet the tyranny of the Iranian democratic system causes Tabataba′i to dismiss democracy altogether. He writes,

″It is more than half a century since we accepted the rule and the precepts of democracy and took our place in the line-up of progressive Western countries. Yet we see how our situation deteriorates and worsens from day to day. And from this tree, which for others is full of blessings and fruits, we pluck only the fruits of adversity and disgrace.″


For secular intellectuals in the sixties, too, the most important topic was the confrontation with the West, with its ideas, its culture and its impact on Iran. They were inspired by the West, while at the same time also being critical of it. After Hiroshima and Vietnam, Algeria, the Cold War and Soviet expansionism, liberalism and socialism had lost their attraction as ideas and many Iranian thinkers agreed with the criticism being formulated in the West by intellectuals such as Albert Camus, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre.

In 1962, Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923-1969) published the essay "Gharbzadegi" (′Occidentosis′, or more literally ′Westernstruck′). In this he wrote:

″I say gharbzadegi, the state of being Westernstruck, is like being stricken with cholera (vaba zadegi). Or if you don′t like that term: like sunstroke (garma zadegi), or like a chilblain (sarma zadegi). Or – no. It is at least like being bug-ridden (senzadegi). Have you seen how they blight corn? From the inside. The corn stands there with its husk intact, but it is nothing but a husk. Like the husk of a butterfly that remains on the tree. In any case, what we are talking about here is a sickness.″

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