Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Michael Bonner: Only Iranians can reform Iran

Commentary

The first anniversary of the murder of Mahsa Amini is here. A year ago on September 15, Mahsa was arrested by the morality police for wearing her hijab improperly, and then savagely beaten. She died in hospital shortly thereafter, and the Iranian public reacted furiously. Some observers claimed to foresee the imminent end of the Islamic Republic and have been speaking of a second Iranian revolution ever since. Others were and remain more circumspect, noting that the regime has faced down protests and revolts before and may do so again. A year later, the Islamic Republic still stands and is showing no signs of collapsing.

The Islamic Republic’s refusal to collapse seems to vitiate the late 20th-century “End of History” expectation that all countries would soon adopt a politics of personal freedom and secularism. In the heady days of the 1990s, amidst the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Eastern Europe, it was easy to believe that the development of liberal democracy was inevitable everywhere. This belief is asserted somewhat less now in the aftermath of the War on Terror and the failure of regime change to usher in liberal democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, the liberal-minded Arab Spring movements of the 2010s fizzled out, to the benefit of Islamists and strongmen.

And yet, the theory of inevitable liberal democracy still has considerable inertia to it. It resurfaces with every new wave of mass protest within Iran. There is good reason for this. The rule of clerics is extremely unpopular—more so than ever before after the murder of Mahsa Amini and the ensuing protests in late 2022. A recent survey conducted by The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN) posed the simple question “Islamic Republic: yes or no?”, and the result was that 81 percent responded “no”, a mere 15 percent said “yes”, and only 4 percent were unsure.

Overwhelming dissatisfaction with the Islamic Republic suggests that the regime should not be long for this world. The problem is that there is no consensus as to what should replace the rule of clerics. The recent GAMAAN survey reflects this lack of internal consensus, revealing a significant difference between Iranians in the homeland and those abroad. According to GAMAAN, 28 percent of the population within Iran and 32 percent outside Iran would prefer a presidential republic, 12 percent inside Iran and 29 percent outside Iran would prefer a parliamentary republic regime type, and 22 percent inside Iran and 25 percent outside Iran would prefer a constitutional monarchy. An overwhelming 85 percent of respondents supported the idea of an interim “solidarity council”—a coalition of all parties and factions opposed to the Islamic Republic. This body would be expected to run a provisional government while a new constitution was voted on and implemented. But there is no agreement as to who should participate in the solidarity council, nor whether it should consist of homeland Iranians alone or also include those abroad.

And so dissidents still have a significant amount of work to do when it comes to offering a single, viable alternative to the Islamic Republic. But to judge by Iranian attitudes abroad, it makes sense to infer that a sizeable portion of that 81 percent would favour some form of liberalism. Moreover, liberalism would be the most obvious method of bringing together seemingly antithetical factions or political movements within a common project of replacing the Islamic Republic.

So it is worth asking why liberal democracy has not yet taken hold within Iran. The answer, as with so many other elements of Iranian politics, is both disappointing and paradoxical.

The first problem is that the Western theory of a secular, liberal Iran arising from the ashes of the Islamic Republic is framed incorrectly. The theory goes like this: a large cohort of young, Western-friendly Iranians will come to reject political Shiism, will demand regime change, and liberal democracy will be the result. The theory resurfaces with every new wave of protest within Iran.

Take the Green Movement of 2009, for instance. This movement was fairly portrayed in the West as objecting to human rights abuses on liberal democratic grounds and aiming at the removal of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after a fraudulent election. Some observers also suggested that these protests were the largest seen in Iran since the Revolution of 1979, or at least since the student demonstrations of 1999. But the Green Movement failed: it began peacefully, grew increasingly violent, and then petered out by 2011. Though the Green Movement was indeed large and popular, counter-protesters favouring Ahmadinejad and the status quo were unfortunately more numerous.

What would have happened if the Green Movement had succeeded? Here Western observers would have been disappointed since the liberal expectation would not have come to pass. The leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Moussavi, Mehdi Karoubi, and Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, were reformers rather than revolutionaries. In fact, two of them were clerics in the mould of the reform-minded but ultimately unsuccessful president Mohammad Khatami (in office 1997–2005). A victorious Green movement might have achieved some constitutional tinkering, as was attempted by Khatami, but there would have been no radical shift towards Western-style liberalism, nor a repudiation of political Shiism.

But, at a deeper level, the theory of an inevitable youth-led uprising against the Islamic Republic is untenable. In 2009, the idea may have seemed plausible, since the cohort of 20- to 25-year-olds was the largest generation at that time. It is wrong to imply that everyone in a given generation must hold the same political opinions; but even if they did, the generation of the Green Movement has now aged out of revolutionary fervour, just as American Baby Boomers did in the late 1970s and early 80s. The present cohort of 15- to 30-year-old Iranians is now the smallest portion of Iranian society. And so, any liberal consensus among them, if it exists, will count for very little. So if Iranian youth were destined to bring about a liberal Iran, the moment for it would seem to have passed.

It is long gone in another sense, too. In the late 18th century, Iranian elites of all sorts, even the Shia clergy, had come to view the unconstrained power of the Qajar monarchy with suspicion. Such was the context in which political liberalism began to be imported into Iran. Its main exponents were Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzade (1812–1878), Mirza Malkum Khan (1833–1908), and Mirza Abdul-Rahim Talibov (1834–1911) who all saw liberalism as a useful tool in reigning in despotism.

Iranian liberalism reached maturity within the work of Mirza Mohammad Hussein Naini (1860–1936), a Shiite cleric who proposed a synthesis of Islam and liberalism. Until the final Shiite Imam should return to rule the world, Naini argued, human government must necessarily be imperfect. The choice of regime therefore was one between the bad and the worse. The worst possible outcome was despotism aided by clerics since a tyrannical clergy would be the ruin of both popular sovereignty and Islam itself. In Naini’s view, a parliament would have the legitimacy that the Qajar despotism lacked, and he argued in favour of liberty of expression as a God-given defence against tyranny. He also embraced equality of all persons regardless of religion, the separation of powers, and the accountability of the monarch.

Naini’s arguments led to broad popular support for a constitutional government which nobles, moderates, liberals, and the king all endorsed in 1906. There was some further tinkering in 1907 also. The new constitution bore the stamp of liberalism, establishing a bicameral government with a responsible cabinet. The lower house was to be elected by broad, but not universal, male suffrage, and the upper chamber was partly elected by popular suffrage and partly appointed by the monarch. The lower house had veto power over new laws and budgets. New laws could be rejected by a religious council, but the laws themselves did not need to conform with the Quran. Despite imperfect implementation, this constitution held good right up to 1979, and the constitution of the Islamic Republic also adopted the basic shape of this synthesis of liberalism and Islam. The Ayatollah Khomeini built upon Naini’s foundation. And the same liberal discourse against tyranny that had been aimed at the Qajar monarchy was directed against the Pahlavi dynasty.

The present Iranian constitution maintains its liberal stamp. Its most obviously liberal feature is that it places the Islamic Republic of Iran above the Shariah, the traditional Islamic law. In other words, the constitution is the foundation of the Iranian state, not Islam. This arrangement survived constitutional tinkering in 1989 when the late Ayatollah Khomeini publicly reproved future supreme leader Ali Khamenei for suggesting that the Shariah should rather be the basis of the Iranian state. Accordingly, to this day, Iranian citizenship is not derived from Islam, and a Muslim foreigner has the same legal status as a foreigner belonging to any other religion.

A woman on the tribune shows a soccer shirt in memory of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died while in police custody in Iran at the age of 22, at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan , Qatar, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. Frank Augstein/AP Photo.

Khomeini’s constitution furthermore proclaims the very un-Islamic notion of the full equality between men and women. Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are recognised as religious minorities and the constitution requires the Muslim majority to respect them. It asserts the “exalted dignity and value” of all people, as well as their “freedom coupled with responsibility before God.” It announces the “end to all forms of undesirable discrimination” and the elimination of imperialism, despotism, and autocracy. It guarantees individual rights, such as those to dignity, life, and property. Finally, the constitution assures both freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, protecting individuals from molestation simply for holding a belief.

None of those liberties is absolute. Each is limited by “the fundamental principles of Islam,” and in many cases also by the “rights of the public.” In other words, the constitution is largely circumscribed by Iranian culture and religion, and here we find the principal distinction between the liberal-Islamic synthesis and its Western counterparts. Even the supposedly absolute rights of the American constitution are in practice circumscribed by cultural norms, as are the liberal constitutions of Europe and the realms of the British Commonwealth. But cultural norms tend not to be enshrined in constitutions, nor is a vestigial Christianity normally invoked as the origin of liberal morality, even though that is indeed its source. There is a paradox here. When a constitution specifically invokes culture and religion, it is not considered to be liberal, an instructive example being the Hungarian constitution which, though guaranteeing liberal freedoms, including that of liberty of expression, nevertheless requires “every organ of the state” to protect the “Christian culture” of Hungary. This constitution is reflexively called “illiberal” by its critics and “post-liberal” by its supporters.

However European illiberalism or post-liberalism may be analysed, the Iranian constitution presents a far more complex problem. A defender of the Hungarian constitution would say that the protection of “Christian culture” simply redirects contemporary liberalism back to its Christian origins. But no parallel argument would work for Iran. The Islamic nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been shaped by liberalism; yet the liberal influence upon the constitution is held to be circumscribed by Islam. This paradox could be written off as yet another of the many internal contradictions and tensions within the Islamic Republic that make it so unstable and so difficult for outsiders to understand. But it is also proof that liberalism has already influenced Iranian political Islam and that that influence has been profound.

So perhaps the right questions to ask are why the liberal-Islamic synthesis turned out in practice to be more Islamic than liberal, and why did the liberal influence of Naini fail to guard against tyranny?

There answer to those questions is that the amalgam of liberalism and Islam creates ambiguity within Iran’s political structure, and favours institutions which act outside that structure and the constitution. Clerical courts, Islamic foundations, and the higher clergy all exert enormous external influence upon a political system that is unable to constrain their power. And this problem is at its worst in the case of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), a paramilitary group with a mission to safeguard the revolution. Until the IRGC is no more, or joins forces with the opposition, the Islamic Republic of Iran will neither evolve nor collapse. And there is a real danger that the IRGC could lead Iran down the road of military despotism as the Islamic Republic loses public support.

What does all this mean for the possibility of a liberal Iran in the future? It means that any further external calls for regime change or importing liberalism are bound to fail. Iran already has its own liberal tradition and its own successful example of constraining despotism. And so, it may be more useful to speak of expanding the liberal-Islamic synthesis, so as to include more of Iran’s institutions within it, rather than abolishing it and starting over. But, however this may be, the future of Iran after the Islamic Republic must be shaped by Iranians themselves within their own tradition of culture and civilisation. On the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s murder, let us hope and pray that they soon succeed.

Brian Dijkema: Who left the barbarians in charge of our books?

Commentary

Today, the CBC broke a story that showed how the Peel District School Board is culling books that fail to meet “equity-based” criteria for books in school libraries. Among the books that are thrown away, according to reporter Natasha Fatah, is Anne Frank’s diary. While they are not quite going so far as to host a bonfire to burn the books in school parking lots, the end result is pretty much the same. The board is not giving the books away, they are literally throwing them into the landfill to moulder. What an absolute abomination.

This practice is not just some random “woke” librarian on a rampage either. It is being done in response to a directive from the Ministry of Education, whose current minister is Stephen Lecce, a conservative. It comes from straight from the top.

The policy is the mirror image of the “anti-woke” book policy of the conservative governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. A list of books removed from Florida public school libraries shows plenty of books that are terrible and that really shouldn’t be on the shelves, but also plenty that are not just okay, but genuinely endearing and in line with the tradition of living books. Why should a sweet, rhythmic, story about a Thai mom trying to quiet the animals so her baby can sleep be put out of a school library? I can’t tell you. Arguably, the Peel Board’s practice is even worse, as it simply removed any book published before 2008.

While the policy has since been countermanded by Lecce’s office, these types of policies—one aimed at removing “woke” books and another one aimed at “non-inclusive” books are, sadly, a metaphor for the state of public education these days. The words that best describe this policy are brutal and barbaric.

By this I don’t mean that school administrators are clothed in fur and looking for blood (though, judging from other goings-on in the Peel board, you can be forgiven for this assumption). They are a clear attempt to cut off students from a living tradition of reflection on the beauty and complications of human life, in favour of a simplistic, ideological vision. The dearly departed Australian poet Les Murray describes the situation better in three lines than I could in three pages:

Politics and Art

Brutal policy,
like inferior art, knows
whose fault it all is.

This is the mentality shaping both the Left’s and the Right’s vision for educating our kids. Is this what you want for your kids? It’s not what I want for mine.

This is not to say that libraries shouldn’t make choices about what to put on their shelves. Those choices are both a practical and pedagogical reality and will depend in part on the type of person you are trying to form. Perhaps it’s time to give up the pretense that forming our kids is something a system that self-articulately takes a pass on deeper questions of meaning and formation can do. Given the fact that two ostensibly “conservative” premiers have given North America two perfectly opposite, but equally brutal, policies on the literature that will shape our children’s imaginations, perhaps it’s time to find a new lens for evaluating education. 

And that lens, I should add, cannot simply be the technocratic one that our governments prefer. The culling of books based on ideological differences on sex or race or what have you is nothing compared to the culling of real, living, books that have been taking place in our libraries for years in the name of value-free technological “progress.” In many libraries—both public and school—books that would have once sparked flames of imagination in life in young children have been replaced by Chromebooks and electronic learning games or other bits of metal and silicon that are, literally, planned for obsolescence rather than for posterity. The beautiful, “eye on the object” look of children reading has been replaced by catatonic faces more often found in front of slot machines in a casino. 

The fact that the minister’s office issued a directive without offering clear criteria by which a book would be deemed to be “inclusive, culturally responsive, relevant, and reflective of students” (or even a definition of what it means by these extremely vague terms) is an abrogation of duty. A read of the audit reports produced by Peel indicates that this technocratic mindset is the greater concern for those of us concerned with education as something intended to shape humans, rather than technically proficient machines. It cloaks terms and actions that have significant import for the formation of children in administrative bureaucratese and is executed almost entirely by staff who are accountable to no one in particular, and certainly not Ontarian parents. 

Whether it’s ridding shelves of books like the Diary of Anne Frank in Ontario under Lecce, or Brother Eagle, Sister Sky under DeSantis, policies like this are another step in the alienation of children from the complexities of history and humanity. Even if this all is, as my friend Michael Demoor suggests, simply a case of bureaucratic stupidity brought on by the hugeness of the school boards (a view that is plausible, but which doesn’t deal with the very real and clearly articulated ideological nature of Ontario’s common school system, nor its increased centralization over the last few decades), it’s a stretch to say that this is a healthy way the system should be working. Overreach and bluntness of this sort are, as they say, a feature, not a bug, of systems where education is controlled by a bureaucratic state and massive, largely unaccountable, school boards.    

Perhaps this might give all of us—regardless of which colour you vote for in a given election—some pause, and a desire for something better.    

A month or so ago I was corresponding with the ever-so-gifted Mary Harrington about her recent book (reviewed here in The Hub) and mentioned that I appreciated how many of the concerns she raised in the book fit into an old-school “left-wing” model of politics. Her reply was enlightening. She said, “I don’t have a problem with being recognised as a leftist in some respects; it’s true, and besides I’m not sure the terms really apply anymore, as the split these days is more human vs posthuman.”

This, I think, is precisely where we need to be on education. Another word for brutal is inhumane. Both the Left and the Right are acting like barbarians and pushing a vision of education that is destroying our shared past and the reflections of human beings trying to make sense of the world. It has to stop. It’s time for a more humane, human-scale, vision of education. But to achieve that, humanists—of all political persuasions—will need to unite.