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.″

Jalal al-e Ahmad (photo:
No truck with Western ideals: "Al-e Ahmad explained to an astonished, secular public the potential might and power of religion, declaring the clergy to be the most significant part of authentic identity: the clergy were the only ones who evaded the negative influence of the West and it was Islam that had prevented the West from Christianising, colonising and exploiting Iran," writes Amirpur

"Gharbzadegi" was the seminal text for several generations of Iranians. This essay provided the vocabulary of Iranian social criticism and formulated the essence of the anti-Western nature of the discourse for more than two decades. On the eve of the Revolution there was probably no one who would have questioned Al-e Ahmad′s analysis of Iranian society.

Al-e Ahmad claimed that Iran′s sickness consisted of the unthinking adoption of Western conduct and ideas. This was not in itself a direct attack on democracy, but Al-e Ahmad rediscovered Islam as the sole authentic component of Iranian culture. Al-e Ahmad explained to an astonished, secular public the potential might and power of religion, declaring the clergy to be the most significant part of authentic identity: the clergy were the only ones who evaded the negative influence of the West and it was Islam that had prevented the West from christianising, colonising and exploiting Iran.

Talking about a revolution

Al-e Ahmad was followed by Ali Shariati (1933-1977), whose critical stance towards democracy had a massive impact on the Revolution generation. One of his most influential texts and the aforementioned essay by Tabataba′i, together with the now famous lecture by Ayatollah Khomeini about Islamic government, all have exactly the same argumentative thrust: they all criticise the West in general and are therefore against democracy and for an Islamic government instead. Shari′ati wrote:

″The governments we have to thank for colonialism, which brought with it the mass murder of peoples, the destruction of the cultures, treasures, histories and civilisations of non-Europeans, were democratically elected governments that believed in liberalism. These crimes were not committed by priests, inquisitors and Caesars, but in the name of democracy and Western liberalism″

Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989) naturally played a major role in one-man leadership prevailing over democracy following the 1978/9 Revolution. During the 1960s Khomeini criticised the Shah′s government for the increase in state control and repression, the accompanying weakening of Islamic institutions and the influence of the United States on politics.

Sent into exile in Najaf as a result, Khomeini gave a series of lectures in the winter of 1971 that were transcribed and published under the title Hokumat-e islami: ′The Islamic Government′. They contain Khomeini′s fundamental thoughts about the instructions of Islam, on the Islamic state and on the need to create such a state – his aim.

According to Khomeini, the Islam being taught in the theological universities was a false one, because it was apolitical. The clerics, he said, had adopted a colonialist attitude and now they too believed what the exploiters, oppressors and colonialists wanted them to: that Islam, the state and politics should all be kept separate. Khomeini, on the other hand, claimed that for hundreds of years the consensus among the clergy had been that the duty of a cleric was to assume the responsibilities of the Prophet and of the imams.

Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari (photo: Humboldt University, Berlin)
″O Malik, be just in your dealings with God and with the people": Shabestari′s central argument is that democracy puts into practice what Imam ‛Ali, the Shia′s first imam, called for in his governmental mandate

Another of Khomeini′s arguments was the fact that God has revealed a law, for example penal law. This must therefore also be applied. In saying this, however, Khomeini deliberately disregarded the fact that most people believe that enforcement of the penal law is one of the prerogatives of the hidden twelfth Imam and therefore, according to the traditional Shia view, suspended during the great period of concealment.

″No man can say that it is no longer necessary […] to pay or to collect taxes, poll tax, khums and the alms tax, or that penal law, blood money and retributive justice should be suspended″

More important than this contentious line of argument, however, was that Khomeini was a perfect candidate for the role Shariati had described. Everyone in the 1970s who heard and read Shariati′s declarations about the imamic leadership thought of Khomeini – the inflammatory cleric who fulminated about the Shah from his exile in Iraq.

Indeed Shariati brought Khomeini a tremendous number of followers, perhaps more than Khomeini himself won with his own book on the Islamic state, which hardly anyone had read, hardly anyone understood and no one took seriously.

Iran today

Iran has called itself the ′Islamic Republic of Iran′ since the 1978-9 Revolution. Certainly the Iranian system, unique in terms of state structure, does have republican elements, even if these are consistently replaced by theocratic ones.

Indeed, although Iran may not have become more democratic since Khomeini announced his rejection of democracy in 1979, the dialogue about democracy has completely altered in recent years. Take Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, for instance. Shabestari is one of the most important thinkers in Iran today. He supports democracy for many reasons, as long as it does not contradict the will of the Creator – as Khomeini contended it did. Shabestari′s central argument is that democracy puts into practice what Imam ‛Ali, the Shia′s first imam, called for the ideal government to do in his governmental mandate. This governmental mandate established the norm for good governance in Shia Islam.

Because the governmental mandate is regarded as normative by most Shias, Shabestari′s argument plays on a very familiar keyboard. The content of the governmental mandate bears out Shabestari′s claim that government must be one thing above all: just. Detailed or concrete instructions with regard to content, like the necessity claimed by Khomeini of applying the penal laws mentioned in the Koran, are not, however, to be found in this document. Instead, ‛Ali writes to his governor:

″O Malik, be just in your dealings with God and with the people. Whosoever oppresses the servants of God makes an enemy of God and also of those he oppresses. The worst thing that can happen to a people, which irrevocably calls forth the wrath of God and his vengeance, are oppression and tyranny over God′s creatures. May the ruler guard against these things, for the merciful God hears the cries of the oppressed″

What is decisive for Shabestari – in this, incidentally, he is very much in the tradition of the constitutionalist movement of 1906 to 1911 – is that democracy is a form of government that prevents tyranny – and creates justice.

Abdolkarim Soroush (photo: ISNA)
Meta-religious values: "Soroush argues that, in principle, no sensible commandment or law can contradict religion – certainly not Shia Islam, which is especially orientated towards reason," writes Amirpur

Abdolkarim Soroush, another of Iran′s foremost intellectuals, holds a similar view. At the beginning of the 1990s Soroush, who can look back on a similar experience of socialisation to that experienced by Shabestari, turned his back on Islamism and began to propagate the idea of a so-called hokumat-e demukratik-e dini, a religious-democratic government. Soroush has advocated this thesis in numerous writings, supporting his argument by ′theoretically narrowing and broadening the Sharia′.

The religious democracy Soroush envisions is no different in this from an ordinary Western democracy; its acceptance of human rights is not conditional but absolute. This is already remarkable insofar as Ayatollah Khomeini described human rights as a collection of corrupt norms that had been dreamed up by the Zionists to destroy all true religions.

Religion as the conscience of society

Soroush, however, argues that there are also, in principle, extra- or meta-religious values and laws. These, he says, do not originate in religion, but do not contradict it either. He states that, in principle, no sensible commandment or law can contradict religion – certainly not Shia Islam, which is especially orientated towards reason.

In saying this, Soroush also calls into question Khomeini′s claim that Islamic law has to be applied. Unlike Khomeini, for him it is more important that the soul of government should be religious. One does not create a ′religious society′ through the application of the Sharia, only one that ′lives according to Islamic law′.

Hypocrisy and dissimulation are the greater sins, not the enjoyment of alcohol and gambling. Yet, in the government of Islamic law more importance is accorded to the external action and not to the acquisition of the heart.

Soroush′s ideal is a religious state governed by faith, but not as a legislative or political authority; rather, as the spirit and conscience of society. The aim is piety, but this can only be achieved through freedom. Freedom, in Soroush′s utopian idea of an Islamic state, is a necessary, godly precondition for freely chosen religiosity and thus an argument for the superiority of the democratic order.

″Indeed, one must not expect a religious government to differ in essence from a non-religious one. After all, it is not the case that the sensible people in this world walk on two legs and the religious on their heads.″

Here a traditional norm is translated into a modern principle or modern norm. Ethnologist Sally Engle Merry has called this ′vernacularisation′, or ′framing′. The framing of democracy as a key Islamic concept of justice mobilises society to strive towards this social and political goal. Framing is also necessary for another reason. Only when a culture truly appropriates ideas such as democracy and makes them its own – the philosopher Seyla Benhabib has called this process ′iteration′ – does the suspicion of Western paternalism fade away.

Democracy as a benchmark

The degree to which the attitude towards democracy has changed is apparent not only in the positions of progressive thinkers like Shabestari and Soroush. It is also apparent in the reaction of the non-democrats. The current president of parliament, Ali Larijani (b. 1958), for example, refers to the dictum of Abraham Lincoln that democracy is the government of the people by the people for the people. In this sense, he says, the Iranian system, the velayat-e faqih, is also a democracy; after all, the velayat-e faqih is also ″for the people″. The other two components, he argues, are less important and can be ignored. The revolutionary leader Khamenei (b. 1939) argues in the same way.

The nonsensical nature of this remark is not what is key here. Far more important is the fact that both these men would rather declare their own system a democracy than reject democracy outright as Khomeini did with absolute confidence several decades ago.

Theoreticians like Soroush and Sabestari have given democracy an argumentative foundation, an inner-Islamic framing. Whether it is indeed thanks to them that the Iranian people today seem more ready than ever to accept democracy (the impression one gets from observing events of recent years) is another question. But it certainly can′t hurt to have an Islamic rationale to justify democracy.

Katajun Amirpur
© Goethe-Institut / Fikrun wa Fann June 2012

Translated by Charlotte Collins

Katajun Amirpur is Assistant Professor for the Modern Islamic World at the University of Zurich. This text is an abridged version of the Fikrun wa Fann article, which was first published in German in the magazine "Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik", 11/2011.

More on this topic