April 11, 2005


Iran’s road to democracy: The Islamic Republic of Iran’s presidential election of June 2005 will be a vital moment for the country. But, says Mohsen Sazegara – a former regime loyalist turned vocal critic – even more important is that Iranians campaign to make their constitution democratic and secular. (Mohsen Sazegara, 11 - 4 - 2005, Open Democracy)

Iranians today belong to three generations. The first, my own, I call the “generation of the revolution”: people now in their 50s and 60s who were actively involved in the revolution. We belong ideologically to the mid-1960s and were heavily influenced by revolutionary discourses. Now, we have occupied every position of power in the country, and we don’t want to step aside or open the way for others. Not only in the government, but in the opposition too!

The second generation is the “generation of war”: people who were under 20 years old at the time of the revolution, and are now in their 30s or 40s. They came to maturity during the Iran-Iraq war, when 265,000 Iranians died, mostly young men (around 700 people were killed during the revolution). This generation, who got involved in social and political affairs after the war ended, believed in what we said even more than we did. They had ideals, and were prepared to sacrifice everything. I have to say that they were really pure. Now, they are disillusioned and have become passive. I like the second generation very much and have many friends amongst them. They are really good people.

The third generation are people in their 20s and younger – the majority of the country’s population. This generation, our children, knows little and cares less about the revolution or the Shah. You had your revolution, they say, but we have a different agenda. We want jobs. We want comfort. We want life. We want happiness.

During this post-revolution historical cycle, Iran has undergone a profound social transformation. This has five key, and interrelated, dimensions: demography, education, technology, travel and ideas.

First, there has been a vast increase in population, from 35 million in 1979 to 69 million in 2004. Moreover, Iranians are increasingly city-dwellers: the urban population is approaching 70% – at least half of them in the capital, Tehran. This is a striking change in a country where the vast majority of people have historically worked on the land.

Second, for the first time in Iran’s history the majority of the population can read and write. Around 92% of the young are literate. There has also been an expansion of university education, and it is significant that more than 61% of all university students are girls. During their school years, they must be at home, and they do not have opportunities to be involved in society as boys do. One result is that they study more and better, and almost every index of public behaviour – voting, social affairs, employment – reflects this.

Third, Iranians are communicating with each other more than ever before. There are 3-5 million internet users in Iran – perhaps the highest number in the middle east. The young generation in particular is online and blogging; there are 60-70,000 weblogs, making Persian the fourth most-used weblog language. Internet cafés abound.

Over 3 million homes have satellite television – and the average Iranian family has 4.6 members. These people can watch Voice of America, CNN, BBC World, and over 700 other stations. BBC radio has more than 7.5 million listeners in Iran; the BBC’s website has more than 250,000 Iranian visitors every day. The most popular newspaper in Iran has a circulation of around 450,000.

All this is a window on the outside world for Iranians. The regime tried to interfere with satellite waves in Tehran two years ago, but the effort was difficult, expensive and controversial. It’s simpler to prevent shortwave radio, and some websites have been blocked. But if the regime tries to close channels of communication, they’ll have to close everyone’s minds and isolate Iranians from the world. The changes of the last twenty years have made that impossible.

The fourth of these changes is that Iranians are travelling back and forth more than ever. Around 2 million Iranians live outside Iran – mostly in western Europe, Canada, and the United States, but there are large numbers too in Japan. Every summer about 200,000 Iranians travel abroad, and approximately 400,000 Iranians return for a visit. So there is an active conversation going on: people talk about the world, about the future of Iran, everything.

This is bad news for the regime in another respect. After the revolution, foreign travel without permission was banned and the country closed. Now, many people face problems in acquiring foreign visas, which leads them to ask themselves: why do we have a government like this, such that no one wants to issue visas to us?

This interaction is only the latest phase in a long historical reality. Iranian people, throughout our history, have always been active in the international realm, encountering other societies and their ideas. Ordinary people as well as intellectuals follow what is happening in the outside world, in the west especially.

Fifth, there has been an explosion of new ideas in Islamic intellectual life. This started during what I have called the “second republic” with a circle of intellectuals around journals of reformist theology, and quickly spread among university students.

This trend arrived in the context of an exhaustion of ideas among what I call the four political tribes in Iran: Marxists, monarchists, nationalists, and Islamists. Now, at this juncture in Iranian history, all four approaches have reached a dead end. A new paradigm is emerging. [...]

Those in power in Iran have created a fascist version of Islam – an absolutist and authoritarian system. Everything has to be unified, singular, one, a total state. They even use the methods of fascism, like that militia of thugs, the Revolutionary Guards. They are called “white shirts”, a variant of Nazi Germany’s “brown shirts”. They are at every demonstration in Iran, violently attacking all opposition groups.

But now things are really changing. That’s what I told my interrogators: “it” has happened and is happening in Iran. By “it” I mean one thing: the promise of democracy.

This promise is being led by what I call the “reformation movement”, based on a fourfold set of principles: democracy, human rights, civil society and involvement in the international community. This is something much wider and deeper than the “reform process” of President Khatami, which is now dead.

It is vital to grasp that the reformation movement precedes Khatami’s election in 1997 and will outlast him.

What made the Shi'ites so frightening to Americans was the fear that totalitarian Khomeinism was its natural culmination. Recognizing that it is instead a heresy and incombatible with Shi'ism has gone a long way to reconciling us to them, such that Shi'ites--from Lebanon to Pakistan--stand to be the main beneficiaries of our current intervention in the Middle East.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 11, 2005 5:19 PM
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