Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Launched in 1992, Goft-o-Gu (Dialogue) aimed to open channels of constructive dialogue between Iran’s disparate political and intellectual currents. Given the highly polarized and repressive atmosphere at the time, Goft-o-Gu’s publication was a strikingly bold move. The journal discussed issues that have since become the mainstay of the reform movement in Iran: civil society, reformism, regional and ethnic aspirations, the role of the media, Occidentalism, women, youth, modernity, democracy and the city, among others.

Morad Saghafi, the journal’s editor, denies that Goft-o-Gu played a vanguard intellectual role. Rather, he credits the journal for taking seriously the idea of meaningful dialogue between secular and religious intellectuals. It also tried to overcome the historic shortcoming of the secular intelligentsia’s unfamiliarity with pertinent social issues. Goft-o-Gu’s success was based on its closeness to what actually mattered in society, and its willingness to address such issues. This interview was conducted on May 16, 1999 and translated from Persian by Kaveh Ehsani.

What lies at the root of the current social movement for democracy and reform in Iran?

There were two overlapping but profoundly separate phenomena in the Iranian Revolution: the popular versus the religious legitimacy of the new political order. These were both initially embodied in Ayatollah Khomeini. With his passing, the end of the war with Iraq and the dire economic situation, the separation of these two forms of legitimacy became a fact.

This separation began to surface in the elections to the second Assembly of the Experts (1991), when it became clear that one faction was subjecting its rivals to a qualifying test in order to be accepted as legitimate candidates. It was obvious who were the examiners and who the examined. The former included those who had been in a position of weakness during the first decade of the revolution, now known as the “right” faction. Immediately following Khomeini’s death, we confronted new “rules of the game.”

It became clear that the “left” faction was being denied the chance to run its candidates. In my opinion, the left’s defeat had more to do with the public turning against it than these procedural manipulations. Nevertheless, during this competition it became clear to the left that it needed to separate and distinguish between these two spheres of legitimacy, the republican and the Islamic, and to clarify their interrelation. At this point some Islamist forces began to formulate a democratic discourse.

This effort began theoretically in 1987, and culminated in Khatami’s election. We have an intellectual Islamist force articulating a democratic discourse, with Khatami as a spokesperson. Even non-religious forces that believe in pluralism, tolerance and democracy support Khatami. The whole society’s demand for democracy found a leader.

Does this democratic discourse also cut across social boundaries to include the rowhaniat, the Shi‘i ‘ulema)?

This issue is not limited to specific groups and classes, nor is it a recent phenomenon. The Islamic movement in Iran has had to deal with two questions over the past century. First, the relation and conduct of an Islamic individual to the modern state, and second, the place, function and role of the rowhaniat in modern society. Consequently, the historical function and role of the rowhaniat has become an issue. For a young Muslim, the major daily questions are of a different nature than the traditional questions posed to the rowhaniat: Can I vote or not? If so, what is the significance of my vote? Does it count the same as the vote of a secular individual or a woman? Consequently, modern urban identity, with its expanding scale, secularism and egalitarianism, is no longer easily engaged by the senior rowhaniat. On the other hand, the critical Muslim intellectuals who see the need to engage this problematic, whether they wear turbans or not, have to deal with the two fundamental questions that have persisted since the era of Reza Shah: namely, how to reproduce and shape the modern state, and what to do with the rowhaniat.

This debate dates to the 1930s. It marks the beginning of Ayatollah Khomeini’s first public engagement of these issues. These are also the central concerns of Ali Shari‘ati’s earlier anti-clerical writings, in which he said, “if Mossadeq’s glory was to define an economy without oil revenue, my pride is to define an Islam without the rowhaniat.”

This brings us back to the modernized, urban, “fashionable” Islam, one of whose main objections to the rowhaniat is their dependence on revenues from the most conservative social groups, as well as their inability to meet the needs of a modern, urban and educated population.

What then is your analysis of the relation between political Islam and modernization in Iran?

Islam has been continually tempted to modernize itself. At different junctures in this century, there have been attempts to adapt Islam to the dominant political trends of the time: modernization in the 1930s, nationalism in the 1950s, Third Worldism in the 1960s and ideologization in the 1970s. We now face the temptation of democracy. Nevertheless, the basic questions remain the same: Can we build a modern state? What do we do with the rowhaniat? The first question falls in the realm of political philosophy, while the second is a strategic political issue. The rowhaniat’s importance lies in its capability to effect popular mobilization. This ability, and the rowhaniat’s penchant for obscurantism, is what the modernizing Islamists object to. Almost all Islamist intellectuals’ attempts to formulate the praxis of an autonomous and modern “Islamic state” have been defeated. It is not that they have been unable to achieve any results, but rather what they have accomplished is not “Islamic” in any particular way. Abdolkarim Soroush is an example of this defeat. He has gradually arrived at a de facto acceptance of the secularization of the political realm. There are two positions regarding the legitimacy of the modern state. The first secularizes politics by separating religion from the issue of political legitimacy. The second position, propagated by the newspaper Salam, among others, argues that believers exercise a God-given right to choose when they vote. Therefore, the democratic process itself is nothing but the realization of a divine right.

The legitimacy of the state does not bother Islamist intellectuals — they manage to deal with it discursively. As in all other democratic discourses, there are contradictions in their assumptions. The American Constitution itself states that God gives people the right to choose their government, bestowing upon that polity a divine and popular secular legitimacy. Islamist intellectuals have thus managed to put together a sufficient framework for the establishment of a democratic state.

Surely this is not such a smooth and trouble-free process?

True. Paradoxically, the real worry is that some of these intellectuals are withdrawing from politics altogether, by positing as mutually exclusive the engagement in political and religious spheres. This can undermine participation in the political sphere, which is fundamental to democracy in developing societies, where there is little homogeneity in the population. The urban population in the developing world is often predominantly first- or second-generation migrants, who might not consider political processes (such as voting) a serious social duty or of tangible relevance. This is where the mobilizing influence of the rowhaniat can cajole this heterogeneous population away from political participation. Participation is basic for political development. It is wonderful that Islamist intellectuals such as Soroush have begun explicitly to accept secular tenets such as human rights and pluralism. But then what? If these Islamists take essentially secular positions, what will happen to their followers? The danger, paradoxically, lies in these intellectuals abdicating the responsibility of politically mobilizing the religious social forces who look to them for intellectual leadership.

What positions have secular intellectuals adopted in this process of democratization?

Unfortunately, secular intellectuals tend to be very shortsighted about this trend and view it as a victory when some religious activists vacate the political sphere. This is a false and dangerous joy, because it is rooted in the elimination of the “other.” If people who think differently from “us” abdicate the political sphere, there is not necessarily more room for “us” — the vacated space will become less diverse and participatory. That is why secular forces must call for the democratic participation of religion in politics, instead of calling for the separation of religion from politics.

What about the second issue, the role of the rowhaniat?

The religious intelligentsia has to work hard to find a solution to this question. The history of religious political mobilization in Iran is filled with ups and downs, most of which are linked to this very issue. In 1979, an exceptional political mobilization took place because we had a unique situation where one of the highest religious leaders also happened to be a political figure willing to mobilize the public. Therefore, those Islamist forces seduced by the democratic temptation finally have to choose whether to mobilize their followers independently and through alliances with other forces close to them politically (who may be secular), or to continue relying on the clergy’s popular appeal.

How do you compare the problems and pitfalls faced by secular and Islamic democrats?

Throughout this century all religious activists who chose popular sovereignty over an alliance with the rowhaniat have been defeated. Secular forces are most concerned with the question of which groups we should seek to ally ourselves with, or how best to protect ourselves from intolerant forces. Our questions and issues are rooted in a secular tradition as well as the circumstance of living in a society where political religion has attained power.

The great dilemma in the democratic Islamists’ political strategy is that they still are not ready to collaborate with individuals or currents that are not avowedly Islamist. Collaboration with secular forces will make them targets for extremist opponents, who have connections to the conservative ‘ulema who, in turn, will mount the pulpit denouncing them as apostates! The question for democratic Islamists is whether they can withstand the pressure, denunciations and the mobilization against them. Their predecessors either did not or were defeated.

Iranian society has undergone tremendous change over the past two decades. How do you evaluate the effects of these changes on the political strategies and possibilities of these groups?

A crucial factor is the sociological transformation of Iran. We now have a substantial modern population. Khatami’s election is a manifestation of this sociological transformation. During the elections, mosques in cities and towns favored Nateq-Nuri, the conservative candidate. In the end, the mobilization of modern social institutions such as the press, the urban culture houses, schools and universities proved more effective. That is why I think eventually the question confronting the Islamist democrats can be answered positively.

We will be able to speak of Islamist intellectuals’ consistent and total commitment to democracy only when we succeed in establishing the modern civil institutions that mobilize support for their political, economic and social programs. You must, in the end, be able to institutionalize democracy as a consistent process.

The Islamist democrats understand the threat they face: the ‘ulema mounting the pulpit can suddenly mobilize thousands, with destructive results. This contradiction persists and can only be solved through institution-building. My critique of this movement is that it should be more trusting of society; it should dare to test its public support. There have been great accomplishments during the past few years, and if society has a chance to express itself further, as it did during the presidential elections, Islamist democrats will be able to function with greater confidence. Meanwhile, we still maintain a degree of skepticism. The fact that some Islamists are committed to certain fundamental modern concepts, such as pluralism, toleration, democracy and voting rights, does not mean all problems are solved.

How would you assess the Islamist democrats’ accomplishments of the past few years, such as the liberalized press, the local council elections and the debate about “civil society?”

The problem of the local councils is that they were never truly discussed. At times one feels that all the answers to the political obstacles of a society revolve around the answer to one central political issue. Iran’s chief political issue today is the legal equality of individuals. Everything rotates around this.

During the council elections, we never discussed the fundamental issues involved in this experiment: Where will they get their funding? What are they supposed to accomplish? What are the boundaries of their power? It all revolved around who will get elected. The local councils are a continuation of an earlier experimentation during the Revolution. That experiment quickly ran into major hurdles when it became clear that the local councils could become instruments of ethnic separatism, or of extremist opposition groups. Once the early utopia of the councils confronted the threatening reality of their actual existence, only a hollow name survived. Councils will not solve any of our problems because their content and purpose remain unclear.

The issue of decentralizing power is an old topic in this country — there have been serious discussions since the Constitutional Revolution (1906-11). The earlier debates revolved around the establishment of local parliaments having the right to tax and raise independent revenue, to make local decisions and be responsible for local development and decision making. Regional parliamentary deputies know that, without a serious redistribution of power at the provincial level, the councils will become either another instrument of the central state, or a tool in the hands of local elites.As to the second question, the democratic Islamist forces have a fundamental problem with the democratic mobilization of society. Should this mobilization take place through modern institutions or traditional ones? If you opt for modern institutions, then the traditional forces will gradually increase their distance from you and gravitate to your rivals.

As someone who approaches the political sphere with a political project based on “dialogue,” how would you advise these Islamist democrats?

We need to analyze our defeats and our successes. Islamist forces have to study the defeats of their predecessors who did not rely on the rowhaniat. They must also take account of their successes, the greatest of which were the recent presidential (1997) and local council (1999) elections, as well as the failure of the elections to the Assembly of the Experts (1998). The latter was virtually boycotted by the public and reformist forces due to the conservative Guardian Council’s disqualification of the reformist candidates.

During one of Khatami’s pre-election speeches he announced that if he could manage to attract at least 15 percent of voters alienated from the political process he would consider this his greatest victory. I think he managed to pull in 30 percent, and that is why he was victorious. Today one can say with certainty that there is a very significant source of power lying outside the traditional networks of political mobilization. This is the political force that must be mobilized. The democratic Islamists have to be aware of the real danger that this force could be mobilized by other, unsavory, political currents if they continue to focus on the factional rivalry with their conservative opponents within the regime.

So far we have only witnessed competition between the religious forces tempted by democracy, as opposed to those against democracy. Nevertheless, this competition can have a third dimension, that of the secular forces. I think the emergence of one or several non-religious forces can help clarify the polity tremendously. One of the reasons for the worrisome lack of transparency and predictability in our polity is precisely this absence of secular forces. However, the cost of political activity for the secular forces is high, and as the history of the past 20 years has shown, they are vulnerable. The Islamist democrats can reduce the cost of the secular forces’ political presence.

Do you think the political and legal structure of the Islamic Republic provides enough space for this kind of political maneuvering? One has to adhere to Islam and to velayat-e faqih explicitly as a precondition to entering the political sphere. Doesn’t this undermine an increasing transparency of public life?

The worst scenario is to “pretend,” since you will only lose the trust of those you want to influence and mobilize. Our experience shows that the less we pretend and the more explicit we are, the better we can get established and open a dialogue with others. The Islamic Republic’s current constitution has the flexibility to allow this political approach. I want to go even further and say that the constitution demarcates the difference between popular and democratic forces against their opponents among the existing political forces, whether inside or outside the country.

Today’s political reality is such that those who want to change the existing constitution have elected to do so through force and violence; they have little concern for the democratic participation of the populace in political life. Of course, once the polity becomes open and transparent and people feel free to express themselves, then the constitution will no longer be “holy.” At that point a political force can argue that there are deficiencies in the constitution and mobilize for its modification — together with other democratic and popular forces — against those who want to retain it just to eliminate popular participation from the polity. Currently, the political task of all democratic forces is to bring about this transparency so that we can see how society is shaping itself politically.

How to cite this article:

Kaveh Ehsani "“The Temptation of Democracy”," Middle East Report 212 (Fall 1999).
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