March 30, 2009


States of Mind: a review of The Road to Democracy in Iran (Boston Review Books) by Akbar Ganji (Negar Azimi, 3/24/09, The Nation)

Ganji recently published a slim volume born of his time in prison. Immodestly called The Road to Democracy in Iran, it opens -- chillingly -- with the words "Today, June 29, 2005, is the nineteenth day of my second hunger strike." The book is not a collection of prison notes, however, but rather a sketch of a future Iranian state, one that would have the most basic human rights principles at its core. This is not Ganji's first prison manuscript. In 2002 he penned the opening notes of his six-part "Republican Manifesto," in which he lamented the trampling of individual rights in contemporary Iran and made his best case for a secular democracy. Ganji's touchstones are Karl Popper and Immanuel Kant. He may owe more to the Age of Reason than to the Koran.

Like many Iranians of his generation, Ganji was at one time an ardent follower of the late Ali Shariati, a fiery and charismatic figure who put forward a reading of Shiism that evoked Marxism and shades of revolutionary Third Worldism. Shariati flourished in the heady climate of early 1960s Paris, as France's turbulent war with its Algerian colony raged. He collaborated with the Algerian National Liberation Front in its revolutionary struggle, was coddled by Marxist scholars, translated Sartre into Farsi and cavorted with Frantz Fanon. He returned to Iran in 1965 and soon thereafter began delivering rousing lectures to budding revolutionaries at Husseinieh-e Ershad, a blue-domed religious institute in central Tehran that has since become inextricably tied to Shariati's image. Shiism, Shariati told his listeners, has a core set of values that stands to resolve many of society's ills. He distinguished this original Shiism from the pernicious faith he saw propagated by the clerics around him, what he contemptuously referred to as "Safavid Shiism," after the Safavids, who established Shiism as Iran's state religion in the sixteenth century. Cassettes of Shariati's lectures were distributed en masse, and Shariati, inadvertently or not, became a primary intellectual architect of the Islamic revolution to come. He was arrested in 1974 -- accused of being everything from a Wahhabi to a Communist to a SAVAK collaborator. Upon release he traveled to England, where he subsequently died of a heart attack (his supporters believe he was eliminated by the shah's secret police).

The Road to Democracy in Iran testifies to Ganji's movement away from Shariatism toward a firm belief that religion cannot possibly survive as the foundation of a modern democracy. Nor can culturally specific conceptions of rights, whether African, Confucian or Islamic in nature. "We are not relativists," he writes. Rather, a chastened Ganji insists that democracy can only be rooted in a universal recognition of the most basic human rights -- perhaps most prominent, the right to shape one's fate. Ganji goes on to ponder the role of the intellectual in bringing about this brave new order ("We must struggle"), but in the same breath he warns that "human rights will not be achieved through academic polemics." He decries the more fundamentalist readings of religion, though he stresses that modernity and religiosity are not mutually exclusive. (Kant's dictum of religion existing only within the confines of reason seems most fitting here.)

It's an open question whether a successful liberal democracy can be built on Shi'ism -- though it meets the requirements on paper -- but we know one can't be built on Reason.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 30, 2009 7:27 AM
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