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The challenges facing Iran, the world’s only Revolutionary Islamic state

Muzaffar Iqbal

Last month, the people of Iran went to the polls to elect a new president, the ninth presidential elections since the Revolution. In the first of two articles, MUZAFFAR IQBAL discusses the situation faced by the new president and challenges facing the world’s first and only modern Islamic State twenty-six years after the Islamic Revolution.

Even before the first vote was cast in Iran’s ninth presidential election since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, US president George W. Bush had passed his verdict: “Iran’s electoral process ignores the basic requirements of democracy.” He did not have the moral courage to make the statement himself; instead, it was issued by the White House. It was so absurd that within hours Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, had to explain to the press his administration’s “logic” in condemning Iran’s electoral process while it had praised the sham elections in Egypt: “Egypt has not had an election for 7,000 years. They are trying to start one up, and it won’t be perfect,” Hadley said, “[Iran and Egypt] couldn’t be more different cases. Iran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terror. Egypt is fighting terror. Iran’s policy is to get rid of Israel. Egypt is fostering the peace process.” This statement exposes the reality of the White House’s black logic: judgments on Iran’s presidential elections are not based on electoral process, but on its policies toward Israel.

This criterion is not surprising, as US foreign policy has always been based on safeguarding Israeli interests. What is morally and ethically reprehensible in Hadley’s statement is the fact that it was issued on behalf of a president who came to power by stealing an election, and who has shown complete disregard for the views of an overwhelming majority of the world’s citizens against his invasion and continuous occupation of Iraq. There is, however, much more to be said on the matter. Iran’s presidential elections have been held under a constitution approved and adopted by the people of the Islamic Republic through an open and unprecedented process in which millions of men and women decided how they wished to run their affairs. Instead of acknowledging and respecting the decision of the Iranian people, Bush and his administration demand that Iranians follow what the US prescribes for them. This is their vision of democracy: all nations must adopt this model of democracy and freedom, otherwise their system is not democratic.

A month earlier, Counselor Philip Zelikow of the State Department had articulated this arrogant view unabashedly while speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies inWashington. Referring to a previous statement by Bush about the lack of democracy in Iran, he said: “What the president is arguing is that there are universal ideals—and they are definable –we urge all countries to find the way to express the ideals which we believe their own citizens hold dear—and we believe that assertion is no more true than in Iran.”

What is apparent from all this is a continuous disregard for international agreements and policies that is rooted in arrogance. Commenting on Bush’s statement, Iran’s foreign minister,Kamal Kharrazi, stated diplomatically that the statement was issued “due to [Bush’s] lack of knowledge about Iran”. It is not merely lack of knowledge but ignorance of and hatred for the ideals upon which the Islamic Republic is established.

The American attitude toward Iran is not new and there is no reason to believe that it is going to change in the near future. Expressed more openly on the eve of Iranian elections by USsecretary of state Condoleezza Rice, this view declares one of the most remarkable developments in the modern history of the Muslim world as being backward: “the sad thing about Iran isit’s moving backward, not forward. I think everyone would say that the Iranian system, political system, was more open a few years ago than it is now.” By “a few years ago” she presumably meant the time of the Shah, when the CIA had its headquarters for the Middle East in Iran and the Shah’s police and secret service were kidnapping, torturing and killing people.

Regardless of the US’s attitude, the ninth presidential elections in Iran are historic in many ways. With close to 70 percent voter turnout in the first round of elections on June 17, they may very well prove to be a landmark for the future of the Islamic Republic, and not merely because this was the first election since 1979 to require a second round of polls. The importance of these elections lies elsewhere: in the nature of the electorate. A vast majority of those who voted in these elections are young people who have no personal experience of the events of a quarter century ago, when the Islamic Revolution established a unique system of governance in Iran. Twenty-five years after that major restructuring of Iran, the Islamic Republic’s present demographic, social, economic and political realities pose two kinds of challenge for the new leadership: internal and external. This section focuses on some aspects of the internal challenges; the next will, insha’Allah, discuss some of the most significant external challenges.

Twenty-five years after the Islamic Revolution, the men and women who took part in that epoch-making event are now in their fifties and sixties. That generation of Iranians is now on its way out. The most significant event for the generation that followed the Revolution was the Iraq-Iran war. This was a heroic generation that sacrificed everything for the defense of their land and its ideals and, though a large number of them are now in important positions in economic, political, and cultural fields, they do not really make up the demographic landscape of contemporary Iran; it is the new generation of men and women in their late teens and early twenties that is now the most important asset of Iran.

This generation participated in neither the Revolution nor the defensive war. Raised in relative comfort and stability in a country that was making significant advances in education, health and economic growth during their childhood, these men and women are more interested in careers, jobs, comfort, and “life” as they conceive it through the prism of their own immediate past, which is the product a profound social transformation. This tremendous remaking of Iranian society during the past quarter century has taken place through the following significant routes.

Firstly, Iran’s population doubled between 1979 and 2004, to 70 million. This increase has been unevenly distributed demographically: Iranians are now increasingly city-dwellers, with the urban population approaching 70 per cent, at least half of them living in the capital, Tehran. This is a very significant aspect of contemporary Iran, not merely because previously the vast majority of people historically lived outside the cities, but also because the move to cities in such large numbers brings with it a tremendous amount of social and economic pressure for the entire system.

Secondly, thanks to huge investment in the country’s education system, Iran has achieved near-complete literacy for the first time in its history: around 92 per cent of young Iranians are now literate. There has also been a corresponding expansion of higher education, with the significant indicator that more than 61 percent of all university students are women. This means that the current generation of young educated men and women expect jobs and career opportunities commensurate with their education, but the economic sector has not evolved in sync with this increased educational attainment, so there is a certain amount of disillusionment and discontent in this sector of the population.

Thirdly, the increase in literacy and higher education also comes with an increasing awareness of the world outside Iran. Because of the peculiar isolation imposed upon the Islamic Republic, this desire to know and communicate with the outside world has become a pronounced need of young Iranians, who are among the highest users of the internet in the Middle East. Estimates of the number of Iranian internet-users vary between 3 and 5 million, and there are approximately 60,000 to 70,000 weblogs run by Iranians, most of them in Persian, making it the fourth most-used weblog language. Another aspect of this new social revolution in Iran is the presence of over 3 million satellite connections with access to all the major Western channels—from CNN and BBC World to 700 other media outlets. A recent statistical survey suggests that BBC radio has more than 7.5 million listeners in Iran, and the BBC’s website has more than 250,000 Iranian visitors every day. This tremendous growth in the literate population requires a corresponding increase in the internal production of reading and viewing material, but this need has not been met, despite significant developments in the production of films by the private sector. This means that a very large number of Iranian youth are now directly exposed to the Western media, without a significant and credible counterbalance. Although there is a very large readership of Persian-language newspapers (the most popular newspaper in Iran has a circulation of around 450,000), the print media are not a substitute for the electronic media. The ideals of the new generation of Iranians are thus being shaped, to a large extent, by the West; this brings them into direct conflict with the centuries-old social and religious norms of their society.

Travel has also opened new doors of perception for Iranians. Today, there are around 2 million Iranians who live outside Iran, mostly in Western Europe, Canada and the US, with significant numbers in Japan too. Most of these expatriates have kept their links to Iran, and every year about 200,000 Iranians travel abroad to visit relatives or for business. This has made a significant impact on social awareness in Iran.

All of this has produced a new mini social and intellectual revolution in Iran. Men and women who are part of this mini-revolution have a tendency to view the Islamic Revolution without a proper historical consciousness. They lack knowledge of the nature of life in the country before the Revolution that brought them the fruits of education, distribution of national wealth unlike any previous era, and the very freedom to be part of this new mini-revolution. Shaped by the new intellectual forces that came into existence during the late 1990s, this mini-revolution is based on discontent and disillusion, and is fired by the undefined, yet powerful, ideas of “reform” and “freedom”.

Covertly and overtly supported by hundreds of foundations, the so-called “pro-democracy” and “pro-change” organizations funded by the US, this new social and political force within Iran is doubly handicapped: firstly, most of its young members have little or no knowledge of the vast historical process that shaped their own society in the post-World War II period; and secondly, they have an unrealistic, idealized and often erroneous understanding of the West.

Yet, regardless of the limited historical understanding of this generation, the leadership in Iran has to face the fact of this social and political revolution that has taken place in Iranian society caused by lapses in the guidance of the Revolutionary process especially after the death of Imam Khomeini. Needless to say, what is being called as “lapses” were mostly the direct result of the conditions imposed on Iran shortly after the Revolution that amounted to a battle for survival of the country itself. Nonetheless, the newly elected president of the Islamic Republic, along with the Parliament and the Guardian Council, face a challenge that needs a thorough and well-planned strategy. There are various aspects of this challenge, including social, political and economic, but perhaps none is as important as the intellectual challenge that has re-opened the question of the role of Islam in Iranian society.

The young populace of Iran has access to the works of many secular thinkers who advocate separation of religion and state. These young people are not always rooted in their own tradition, and this one-sided exposure to ideas of men like Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt has created confusion in young minds. They have also seen some of the religious people involved in corruption, and this has added fuel to their desire for change.

A characteristic peculiar to the Iranian situation is that most of these young men and women are not abandoning religion; rather they are viewing Islam from the Western perspective, which construes it as a private affair. This view is not only in direct conflict with the founding principles of the Islamic Revolution, it is a concept foreign to Islam itself. Yet, for something as serious as this, there seems to be a lack of proper intellectual response to this challenge that has many other aspects, in addition to its political aspect. In fact, it comes with a bag full of some of the most vicious attacks on Islam by the West—a bag especially prepared for the discontented and disillusioned Muslim youth in all the traditional lands of Islam. This bag includes questions about women’s rights, personal freedom and autonomy; it questions the nature of traditional social interactions in Muslim societies, and it attempts to create illusions of unrestrained freedom for the youth. All of this is packaged in attractive wrappings and high-sounding words: human rights, liberalism, democracy, pluralism, and the like.

Acceptance of this package actually means a complete secularization of society and adoption of Western norms of social and personal behaviour. The so-called women’s rights are a disguise to make women a commodity in the market place; the so-called pluralism and manifestos of human rights declare that all truths are relative, and hence each person’s religious, moral and ethical beliefs should be respected and considered equal to the rest. In other words, it advocates that there is no such thing as true or false, Haqq and Batil, because one person’s truth is his or her own truth. It proposes that there is no such thing as Absolute Truth, and hence it makes each person an autonomous source of truth. The embodiment of this concept in a polity makes revelation and revealed truth a thing of the past, and effectively reduces a people to a society without a center, without any orientation toward the One Who sent the Glorious and Discerning Qur’an with a Truth, a Truth that comes from the One Who Himself is al-Haqq (The Truth).

This subjective belief system is in direct conflict with the vision of Islam. For Iran, it is doubly dangerous because the Islamic State is based on a foundation that takes Islam’s revealed Truth to be the supreme principle. Thus one of the most important internal challenges faced by the new leadership in Iran is to address this intellectual crisis faced by the new generation of Iranians. Preaching and sermonizing alone will not solve the problem; these men and women require subtle and delicate handling. How well the new leadership in Iran meets this challenge may very well determine the course of future events in Iran.


Article from

Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 5

Jumada' al-Ula' 24, 14262005-07-01


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