Muslim Politics 3: Iran's reverberations

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor  |  Sept. 29, 2003 at 11:59 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 29 (UPI) -- Editor's note: This third installment of the UPI series on the compatibility of Islam and democracy considers the Iranians' impatience with the pace of their country's reform.

A paradigm shift is under way in Iran, heir to one of the oldest civilizations on earth. According to Udo Steinbach, director of the eminent Orient Institut in Hamburg, Germany, this change is occurring in philosophical and theological debates that accompany Iran's heated political discourse, which the country's neighbors observe with excitement and apprehension because of its core issue -- the relationship between Islam and democracy.

In the German journal Internationale Politik, Steinbach related that after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution of 1979 this topic was at first the province of the Islamic traditionalists then dominating the debate. They viewed Islam as a "democratic" religion but insisted that the institutions of state and society were to follow Muslim coordinates. "Thus parliament corresponded to the Koranic commandment of 'Shura' (consultation)," wrote Steinbach.

Now, however, the Western concept of democracy has moved into the center of the national debate, according to the German scholar. Reform proponents argue that religion must be conformed to democracy, not the other way around.

Abdol Karim Soroush, perhaps the leading religious philosopher of the country, insists that the intellect be used as the tool for this transformation, which is tantamount to religious renewal. The intellect is to coordinate religious tenets "with other principles and commandments." But what are these "other principles and commandments" if not secular? Hence Soroush's thought is dangerous. To enunciate it can still land you in jail for many years in contemporary Iran.

Saroush argued that Iran is heir of three cultures -- Iranian, Islamic and Western. "This legitimized the appropriation of Western ideas and prepared them for authentification through traditional Iranian/Islamic discourse," wrote Ali M. Ansari of the University of Durham in England, in the Washington Quarterly.

He went on: "Herein lies the central paradox of the Islamic Republic of Iran: it is both antagonistic toward the West and philosophically intimate with it. Khatami said as much in ... a CNN interview." President Mohammad Khatami, a reform-minded cleric, personifies, in a way, his nation's legacy to these three cultures.

According to Bahman Baktiari, director of the International Affairs program of the University of Maine, the Iranian president is "a man of integrity, palpably honest, intelligent, shrewd, as well as being well-read. In his intellectual development ... Khatami has signified a new brand of clerical thinking, one that is not averse to acknowledging the importance of civil society, as well as the need for a better understanding of Western civilization. He speaks English, Arabic, and German and can converse on the works of Alexis de Tocqueville and Immanuel Kant. He has published several books, one of them on Western political thought."

In a paper that is part of a significant research project on Prospects for Pluralism and Democracy in the Muslim World, sponsored by Boston University's Institute on Religion and World Affairs and Washington's Pew Forum, Baktiari reminded his readers of Khatami's recent complaint that Iran is suffering an "identity crisis" brought on by its "failure to understand the freedoms at the heart of Western civilizations."

In this context, Baktiari named three pillars of Khatami's thought:

1. "A cosmopolitan Islam, the product of his conviction that Islam must be creatively and at times substantively reinterpreted and reformulated in order to be responsive to the demands of modern life."

2. "The belief that Iranian Islam must reflect and respond to a diverse population that includes several ethnic groups."

3. "The conviction that in the post-revolutionary Iranian polity, Islam should not be the state religion but rather an inclusive religious, democratic, pluralistic force. As an ideology of government alone, Islam cannot solve the problems of a world that, for better or worse, is dominated by the West."

Iran watchers Baktiari, Ansari and Steinbach agree that reformers such as Khatami have -- in Bakhriati's words -- "the heart and mind of most Iranians." This corresponds with tangible pro-Western attitudes. According to Ansari, "In a recent poll conducted by Iranian government agencies, an overwhelming majority of Iranians (approximately 70 percent) were sympathetic to the United States and wanted their government to initiate dialogue with Washington."

Even more stunning, "According to one poll conducted by the Ministry of Intelligence, general public dissatisfaction was so great that some members of the hard-line establishment concluded they could not depend on popular support if the United States attacked."

Ansari went on, "The Khatami-led Reform Movement seized on this shocking revelation as a warning that a failure to implement a democratic settlement was weakening Iran against external enemies. Conservatives, outraged by these revelations, characteristically lambasted the results as forgeries designed to weaken national morale."

The trouble is that, as Baktiari pointed out, "conservatives control all the important instruments and levers of power" -- not the president or parliament whose members are overwhelmingly reformist. The conservatives dominate the Council of Guardians, an unelected body that during every election since 1997 "disqualified prominent reformists, especially women, from the parliamentary and presidential races," according to Baktiari.

He described how in 2001 "Iranians witnessed a campaign of repression unprecedented since Khomeini's death 11 years earlier. Conservative leader Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazsdi went as far as to preach that recourse to violence is 'obligatory' if the Islamic Republic cannot otherwise defend itself, 'even if thousands of people must perish.'" Baktiari quoted the ayatollah as saying that devout Muslims must "kill on the spot" anyone who "insults Islam or the Prophet."

He then related the conservatives' persecution of reform-minded media, resulting in a decline of Iran's total daily newspaper circulation from 3.1 million in 2000 to 1.75 million a year later. "Academics, journalists, lawyers, liberal clerics, publishers, student leaders and even some mid-level officials were arrested." Eminent theologian Hassan Yusseki-Eshkevari was sentenced to death for defending the principle of separation between mosque and state; the sentence was later reduced to 30 months in jail.

The conservative backlash after Khatami's reelection in 2001 included a public flogging of 400 young people for allegedly consuming alcohol, having illicit sex, or harassing women. Chief justice Ayatollah Mohammed Mohammedi-Gilani insisted that offenders "should be beaten to the point where the whip breaks the skin and scars the flesh underneath."

But to read Baktiari and Ansari, it seems unlikely that the Islamists will prevail with such draconian measures, even though President Khatami seems now less assertive as most young Iranians wish. Young Iranians are increasingly restive -- for secular as well as religious reasons. Their situation is desolate.

As Baktiari wrote, "Out of 1.5 million high school seniors who took (the entrance) exam in 2001, the university system accepted a mere 150,000." But when they graduate from university, only one in 23 will find a job; 85 percent of Iranians under 25 are unemployed, which means that they cannot afford to get married.

"Arguably, these bleak prospects for economic stability, self-actualization, and companionship have intensified other social maladies among youths," related Baktiari. Some 5,000 kilograms of narcotics are used in Tehran daily. Among the drug addicts are school children. The average age of a prostitute has dropped from 27 to 20.

No wonder, then, that according to Ansari, "the Iranian public is acutely aware of the deficiencies of its political system" and has become "very antagonistic to the state apparatus." In this situation, the public has developed an interest in a specifically Iranian identity, "which is defined against the Arabs and Islam."

This puts the United States in a particularly delicate position. The U.S. "should align itself with the aspirations of the Iranian people." A prominent reformist journalist, Hamid Reza Jalalipour remarked to Baktiari, "We are witnessing the decline of the fundamentalist movement. ... Fundamentalism is good for protest, good for revolution and good for war but not so good for development. No country can organize its society on fundamentalism."

From this, Baktiari arrived at a conclusion, which may be significant for much of the Muslim world: "Iranians, especially youths, may not wish to forsake religion altogether. Arguably, they hope to see religion returned to the private realm, where one can worship and experience his/her relationship with God without compulsion -- not necessarily a post-Islamic Iran, but rather an Iran where the citizens may decide freely what role faith plays in their lives."

Next installment: visions of a young Khomeini

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