Alireza Alavitabar is a key theoretical tactician of Iran’s religious New Left, an ideological trend to which President Khatami belongs. Alavitabar’s greatest impact has been as the editor of the path-breaking Bahman (1996), Rah-e No (1998) and Sobh-e Emrooz (1999), publications that have advocated democratic reforms within Iran’s existing constitution. Iran’s press now plays the de facto role of political parties. Alavitabar has lucidly delineated Iran’s emerging political factions and clarified their identities. The accuracy of the opinion polls conducted by the Ayandeh Research Group under Alavitabar’s co-direction encouraged the pragmatic faction, led by Ayatollah Rafsanjani, to throw its support behind Khatami’s candidacy. Kaveh Ehsani spoke with Alavitabar on March 17, 1999 and translated the interview from Persian.
A couple of journals helped to close the gap between religious and secular intellectuals by initiating a discourse of national reconciliation and emphasizing the empowerment of civil society and democratization. Two outstanding journals in this regard were Rah-e No on the religious side and the secular Goft-o-Gu. Rah-e No was bolder in inviting intellectuals of different leanings who shared a common commitment to social tolerance and democracy to write in its pages. Was this a conscious strategy on your part?
We analyzed Iran’s history over the past 150 years and concluded that we have several “active social fault lines” in this society. Every society is divided along certain cleavages, but only some will catalyze the formation of active political factions that bestow a political identity upon those involved.
Iran has experienced at least four active social cleavages in recent history. First, a secular-religious cleavage between those who wanted a polity based upon religious tenets and those who wanted a polity based on secular rules and norms. Second, a cleavage between traditionalism and modernism. Third, a cleavage between left and right, which has divided our society according to socio-economic principles; and fourth, a cleavage between authoritarian versus democratic tendencies.
According to my analysis, one of these fault lines predominates over the others at each historic juncture. Currently, the authoritarian-democratic cleavage is the primary contradiction shaping our political landscape. At Rah-e No, we made a new assessment of our allies and opponents based on a conception of a democratic “us” versus the anti-democratic “them.” We concluded that anyone who can help advance democratic discourse in Iran and establish the conceptual bases of a democratic movement can and should be our interlocutors and collaborators.
Most of your recent work has centered on typologizing and analyzing political factionalism in Iran. Would you describe your views on the subject?
Until the revolution, there were four major politicai trends in Iran: monarchist, nationalist, socialist left and Islamic. The revolution eliminated the monarchist trend from the scene. The other three currents were present during the revolution, but afterward, distinctions emerged between and within these trends.
The initial break occurred immediately after the revolution between supporters of the new Islamic order and its secular opponents, the nationalist and the socialist trends. Then another split occurred within the ranks of the supporters of the new order between 1979 and 1982, ejecting the religious-nationalist forces from the power structure. The Iran-Iraq war years, between 1981 and 1988, witnessed the polarization of supporters of the system into leftist and rightist factions. At the end of the war, a pragmatist trend split off from these two poles, while the left and the right factions also fragmented further into modern and traditional tendencies.
The distinctions you are using, such as left and right, are by nature modern distinctions.
True. We can detect two general opposing perspectives throughout our history, between confrontationism and comformism, between the acceptance of inequality as a natural phenomenon versus the critique of inequality as a byproduct of domination. Nevertheless, the left as we are describing it is the result of the modern era and modern thought.
The cleavage you emphasize is between supporters of the Islamic Republic. Why do you leave out an earlier break, between secular and religious forces, which occurred at the beginning of the revolution, expressed through violent confrontations over the closure of independent newspapers, the enforcement of the hejab and the replacement of the Constitutional Assembly with the Assembly of Experts (which is actually a clerical and religious assembly). Why didn’t the democratic religious left defend these democratic rights, since they expressed the political needs of a complex society that was not solely religious, even then?
If you look at the ruling political factions of the Islamic Republic in the late 1970s, you will notice that discussions about democracy and secularism existed within the ruling Islamic Republican Party. They were overshadowed, however, by the two main fault lines of the period: the contradiction between the religious-secular factions and tensions between supporters and opponents of the Islamic Republic. At the beginning of the revolution, the defense of the revolution itself overshadowed everything else. Our critique of the groups that launched the armed struggle begins here, because we think they strengthened the hand of anti-democratic forces in our leadership and paved the way for their political ascendancy.
Soon thereafter, the Iran-Iraq war overshadowed everything else. The active contradiction then was between left and right within the ruling religious power. With the end of the war, certain segments of both the left and right split off, weary of the ideological posturing of these factions. The new pragmatist faction, active today under the rubric of the “Executives of Construction,” is conservative in its social views though modernist in its economic positions. Its ideal model is the authoritarian modernism of Singapore or South Korea.
An issue central to the left’s discourse is the social basis of political opinion and action. Is there any coherent social basis to these political factions?
The processes of social structuration remain incomplete in Iran. That is why you see individuals from different social classes supporting the same political trend. Someone may be able to mobilize both workers and capitalists simultaneously. At present the political field forms a spectrum, the two poles of which evidence differing commitments to democracy. We have two criteria for judging political development in Iran. First, the degree of popular participation, and second, the level of competition. For example, within the religious left faction, the traditionalists want to see 90 percent of the population participating in elections, but they don’t like to see too many real choices on offer.
The new left, on the other hand, is committed to the democratic game to the very end, just as it accepts modernity with all its consequences, realizing that we may not always be the winners in this democratic game. What matters is that we accept and adhere to this game and continue it. So, just as we encourage participation, we must also encourage competition. The polity must be opened up and the choices must be diverse.
In the domain of economics, the traditional left views any state intervention in the economic sphere as positive; in certain junctures, fascists also support state intervention in the economy, while we criticize this view Not every state intervention in the economy is a leftist strategy. The same holds true for resource allocation through market mechanisms. Does reliance on the market mechanism always signify an orientation toward capitalism and the right, or can we use the market as a mechanism for allocating resources? Our primary differences concern issues of modernity and our commitment to democracy. Because of its democratic leanings, the New Left no longer supports state intervention in all spheres of life. We want to safeguard civil society and avoid becoming servants of the state.
How, then, does the new left differ from the liberal trend? Both favor empowering civil society, but the liberal tendency seems to equate civil society with the private sector.
Our view of civil society includes all sorts of voluntary associations, which are not necessarily economic in nature. They include charities, cooperatives, political parties and citizens’ groups — any association that brings people together, thereby transforming Iran’s massified and fragmented social condition and allowing people to follow their interests and collective goals within the framework of an autonomous organization. But civil society must be based on open competition. The new left is struggling to devise non-conventional ways of achieving equality. What is at stake is whether the individual’s autonomy can be protected against an all-powerful state. Yet we do not want our society to be plagued by appalling class inequalities, either. Iran’s religious new left is struggling to combine the ideals of equality with liberty, and we view the newly elected local councils as an experiment toward that end.
What, then, remains specifically “religious” in this movement?
This is a serious and vital issue in Iran. What I call the new left is historically a religious movement. It still holds that religion and religious commitment should be present democratically in the political sphere. The difference between the traditional and the new left lies in the new left’s insistence that every individual should be able to make personal choices in their private lives. The public sphere, however, must be administered by a law that reflects the will of the majority without negating the rights of the minority. We must not fall into the trap of advocating a dictatorship of the majority or offering a Jacobean interpretation of democracy.
Our view of religion is based on new interpretations as well as critiques of traditional interpretations that are more in tune with modern reason and a defense of religious pluralism. Politically, we argue that it is fine for religious currents to partake in politics — on two conditions. First, people’s private lives should be left alone. Second, only through democratic channels can religious rules become dominant in the social sphere, while safeguarding the rights of the minority.
What about the issue of the hejab?
A serious debate is underway between the new left, the traditional left and lay intellectuals: In a recent discussion with lay intellectuals, I argued that we must first define whether the hejab is a private or a public matter. If we conclude that the hejab is a private matter, then no one has the right to dictate its use. But the use of coercion to enforce hejab should never be permitted.
Many of these issues overlap. The question of velayat-e faqih (regency of the jurisconsult) is not merely a religious issue; it has direct hearing on the question of democracy and popular sovereignty.
You are right. Look, there are different interpretations of velayat-e faqih. Some are more democratic, others more totalitarian. The first difference of opinion is whether God or the people give the Leader his legitimacy. Within the democratic religious front — at least among those who believe in velayat, since many of them do not — some argue that God gives the right of self-rule to the people, so the people themselves can bestow this power upon whomever they choose. In other words, a vali-e faqih (leader) who comes to power through a coup d‘etat is not legitimate. The second difference concerns the nature of the relationship of the vali-e faqih to the people. We believe this is a representative relationship, not a pastoral form of power based on people’s inadequacy to rule themselves. There are also differences concerning the boundaries of the vali-e faqih’s power. We maintain that the constitution defines the boundaries of this power and the leader has no right to overstep these legal boundaries, which form the basis of our contract with him. Once this boundary is overstepped, the law is broken and we no longer follow his leadership. But we will not exclude anyone because they believe in velayat-e faqih. We simply ask them: Do you believe in the limits and accountability of political power? Do you believe in the people’s right to self-governance? Do you believe in institutionalizing the changing of incumbents in power? Do you believe in the separation of public and private spheres in government? Do you believe that we have to strive to expand both participation and competition? As long as our interlocutors answer in the affirmative, we can collaborate.
When I talk about democracy, I am referring to a form of rule that displays five characteristics: First, power is limited and accountable. Second, it is possible to change rulers in a peaceful manner. Third, people are considered sovereign and capable of self-rule. Fourth, the private sphere is left to individual discretion, but the public sphere is administered by the rule of law, thus guaranteeing the rights of the minority. Fifth, policies facilitate participation and competition, rather than limiting them. This is the conception of democracy we defend in Iran. Collaboration based on these criteria requires mutual respect and acceptance. If someone maintains that religion is a reactionary force that must be eradicated at all costs, he obviously cannot collaborate with religious forces. But if he believes that there can be a modern and democratic interpretation of religion, then we have no problem working together.
There are two conflicting elements in our constitution: velayat and republic. Do you believe that they can coexist? Is there a democratic interpretation of both republic and velayat?
Personally, I find it hard to believe there can be a consistently democratic interpretation of velayat. We believe that the “Islamic Republic” simply means a democratic religious government, because its citizens choose, democratically, to govern their public sphere according to religious tenets. Our constitution has several fundamental contradictions between its components. Our constitutional structure after the revolution had three aspects: charismatic, oligarchic and democratic. The Imam’s presence established the charismatic element, the hegemony of the clergy generated the oligarchic element and popular presence brought about the democratic aspect. At each phase of the post-revolutionary period, one of these aspects has dominated. In the first decade, for example, it was the charismatic element. People were mobilized not as individuals or groups, but as indistinguishable masses and crowds. The oligarchic element dominated the second phase, when participation was based on personal connections and influence. It is only now, in the third phase, that spontaneous and democratic mobilization has become important. Experience has shown us that poor laws are better than lawlessness. Under lawlessness, victory belongs to those who wield naked force. That is why we still defend the constitution despite its problems and contradictions.
You’ve stated that being marginalized from power taught you a lesson about the coercive nature of the state and the necessity of democracy. Could you elaborate upon your own experience of marginalization?
I think that period of marginalization was the greatest blessing for the left. The current new left is the product of that period, when differences within the left came to the surface. The left found time to open channels of dialogue to others and, above all, to witness and experience the obverse side of power. Let me share an experience with you. During Mousavi’s administration (1982-1989), we did our best to break the back of the bazaar. But we were unsuccessful. Later, we realized that their resilience was due to their self-reliance. They were not financially dependent on the state so we could not simply “cut off their bread.”
As soon as they got the chance, the merchants demolished us, because we were all salary earners and state employees. We were expelled from universities and our jobs. But this was also a period of tremendous growth for the left: We refined our strategy, perceptions and goals. Having been eliminated from all executive positions of power, we had the time to read and reflect. Of course, not all the left made use of this opportunity; it was mainly the younger forces that underwent this transformation.
Did those of you who formulated such a critique constitute a coherent group and trend?
Not really. This trend still lacks its own political organization, but it is an effective force that can no longer be ignored. This was the group that originally supported Khatami and helped formulate his campaign platform. Of course, when it came to the post-election distribution of power, the new left was completely left out, aside from certain key vice ministerial positions in a couple of ministries and some presidential advisory seats.
Because Khatami had to make compromises?
Because this would have provoked the other faction. So this left is a nagging force, constantly critical and dissatisfied. It is a difficult movement to control, because its activists have a hard time accepting an iron discipline.
So you do not regret not having returned to power?
Let me put it this way: I think the government lost a good portion of its theorists and strategists, people who could have been problem solvers and pioneers. On the other hand, this situation is very good for us, since it gives us more freedom of action, even the freedom to criticize Khatami himself. But the fact that the new left was not brought into the government has begun to show its negative effect upon Khatami’s administration, for example, the lack of coherence in economic policy and the dearth of serious strategies for implementing cultural policies. We are not unhappy to have been left out, but we are worried about the harm this may cause to Khatami’s reformist platform.
Do you envision the construction of a serious political party?
There is a lot of discussion, but I feel our intellectuals are averse to party discipline. In the short run I doubt that we will go beyond the kind of activism we see in the press and similar organizations.
Where do the armed forces stand in Iran’s evolving equation?
In the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), the upper echelons belong either to the traditional or the extremist right. But the traditional left dominates the main body of the Pasdaran. The same is true of the Intelligence Ministry. That is why many of their superiors’ violent threats or acts are actively resisted from below. Bear in mind that the majority of votes cast by the Pasdaran, as well as by the Intelligence Ministry staff, were for Khatami!
If you could offer any advice to other movements in the region, what would it be?
Our main issue in Iran has been democracy and the democratization of Iran. At one point I felt that the shortcomings of underdeveloped societies resulted from insufficient capital. But then I realized that we have injected over $300 billion of capital into this society over the years, yet there is little to show for it. Our lack of democracy is a key problem.
I don’t know what the problems of other societies are, but for us in Iran, tackling the issue of democracy has opened up new horizons, even concerning the question of religion. This is what I think is crucial for Iran, but I am not sure if I can prescribe the same remedy for Palestine or Egypt. You must identify the key problem in each society, the bottleneck that prevents the contents from pouring out, the potential from being released.
We have been in a state of transition for over a century. Iranian society has left its traditional stage behind; it wants to become modernized and industrialized while maintaining its religious sensitivities and commitments in the modern age. God hasn’t died in this society yet. God is still present here. How can we overcome this transitional state? Through political reform and democratization. Empowering civil society and institutionalizing democracy seem to be similarly crucial concerns in other countries throughout the region.
The project of democratizing Iran is 150 years old. Khatami argued that merely changing governments would not achieve democracy. It is only through expanding participation and competition and by strengthening civil society that we can achieve this goal. We need to create equal power blocs to enable the public to emerge from its atomistic state and thereby limit the coercive power of the state.