) - Liberalism in Iran
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This article provides an overview of liberalism in Iran. It is limited to the Iranian liberal movement and liberal parties with substantial support, mainly proved by having had a representation in the majlis (Iranian Parliament).
Today, the main liberal parties in Iran are the National Front of Iran and the Constitutionalist Party of Iran.
The historical development of Iranian liberalism is a controversial subject, since several of the most fundamental liberal concepts stand in direct opposition with the ideological positions of the Islamic republic. Regarding this dichotomy, Ramin Jahanbegloo, a liberal philosopher and Iranian dissident who currently lives in exile, has commented that "freedom is possible even in a world of secret police and of the rule of autocrats. Freedom is a universal human possibility."
- 1 Liberalism: overview
- 2 Origins of Iranian Liberalism: 1900–79
- 3 Liberalism in the Islamic Republic: 1979–present
- 4 Political freedom and dissent
- 4.1 Relative openness
- 4.2 How "liberal" are the reformists?
- 5 Iranian Liberal Thought
- 6 International Intervention
- 6.1 Western Governments
- 6.2 Non-governmental organizations and academia
- 7 Liberal leaders and organizations
- 7.1 Main parties tolerated inside Iran
- 7.2 Main parties banned in Iran (operating in exile among iranian diaspora)
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
Liberalism is a broad class of political philosophies that considers individual liberty and equality to be the most important political goals. Liberalism emphasizes individual rights and equality of opportunity. Within liberalism, there are various streams of thought which compete over the use of the term "liberal" and may propose very different policies, but they are generally united by their support for political liberalism, which encompasses: freedom of thought and speech, limitations on the power of governments, the rule of law, an individual''s right to private property, and a transparent system of government. All liberals support some variant of the form of government known as liberal democracy, with open and fair elections, where all citizens have equal rights by law.
Liberalism is rooted in the Age of Enlightenment and rejects many foundational assumptions that dominated most earlier theories of government, such as the Divine Right of Kings, hereditary status, established religion, and economic protectionism. Instead, it founds itself on the assumption of the equal dignity and worth of individuals. Liberalism in its broadest sense is arguably the dominant ideology of the Western World, where mainstream political debate is held largely within the realm of accepted liberal principles such as government by consent, rationalism, freedom of speech etc., and these principles being accepted and prized by parties across the political spectrum.
Origins of Iranian Liberalism: 1900–79
The emergence of a Westernized liberal tradition in Iran is a relatively new phenomenon, formed against a backdrop of political transformation which included: the demise of the Qajar dynasty, the constitutional struggles of the 1920s, consolidation of the autocratic regime of Reza Shah, the postwar confrontation between Reza Shah’s son and the nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and the shah’s launching of the White Revolution in 1963. The distinct concepts and sensibilities constituting contemporary Iranian liberalism were largely formulated by intellectual-activists like Hasan Taqizadeh, Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh and Mohammad-Ali Foroughi a century ago. A politician and former Iranian Prime Minister, Foroughi''s writings and translations during that period were mainly discussions of the basic norms of constitutionality and pillars of modern thought. In his book Huquq-e Asasi Ya''ni Adab-e Mashrutiyat, published in Tehran in 1907, he articulated, in an Iranian context, the liberal concept of separation of powers between the executive and judiciary, which remains a key concepts of Iranian liberalism.
During a political career that lasted over seventy years, the political views of Hasan Taqizadeh are not characterized by an ideological continuity, but by many breaks throughout his life. Most remember him as a secular “enlightened” politician, who advocated separation of state and religion and believed that, "outwardly and inwardly, in body and in spirit, Iran must become wholly Europeanized in every way if it were to progress.". Taqizadeh was raised in Tabriz, the capital of Azarbaijan province, which was the gateway for modern ideas from Russia and especially Western Europe. This led to him showing an early interest in enlightenment ideas and constitutionalism.
Convinced of the destructive consequences of Qajari despotism and corruption for Iran’s political and socio-economic development, Taqizadeh participated in the Constitutional Revolution (Mashruteh Revolution), which resulted in establishing the Majles. Under Taqizadeh’s guidance the first modern political party, Ferqeh-ye Demokrat-e Iran (Democratic Party of Iran), was founded in Iran in 1909. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Taqizadeh allied with Germany against Russia and Britain. In Berlin he established the Komiteh-ye Iran (Committee of Iran), and with other prominent Iranian intellectuals, published the influential periodical Kaveh (1916–1922), which was distributed in Europe and Iran. Kaveh was a political and literary journal which greatly contributed to creation of Iranian consciousness and national identity. This journal emphasized the need for national independence, and internal reforms, especially secular and educational ones.
For this pioneering generation of intellectuals, activists and politicians in the 1920s and 1930s, liberalism was understood as a technique of national progression, something to be activated as a universally executable program, irrespective of the local contours of Persian culture. They regarded liberalism as a system of protocols that, when enacted by policy-makers, ensured the creation of institutions that enshrined the rule of law, and generated a rationally organized and governed public life.
Liberalism in the Islamic Republic: 1979–presentMehdi Bazargan
The implementation of liberal values in Iran following the Islamic Revolution has been characterized by extreme shifts, both negative and positive. Establishment of the Islamic republic under the guidance of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 merits the term "revolution" because it effected the complete dismantling of the shah’s political regime, the re-making of Iran''s foreign policy and alignments, and a cultural transformation. In the months following the departure of the shah, various ethnic and linguistic groups forcefully put forward claims for greater recognition in the new polity than had ever been afforded them under the shah. As Ayatollah Khomeini and the clergy consolidated their grip on the new state, mainly through the elimination of leftists and liberal moderates such as Bani Sadr and the venerable Mehdi Bazargan, these claims were denied. Revolutionary Guards were dispatched to crush Kurdish, Turkomen and other groups agitating for a new place in the republic. When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in September 1980, this kind of sub-national agitation became at once blasphemy and high treason.
Although pluralism is officially condemned, the regime was also particularly characterized by a denial of the principal of popular sovereignty. Sovereignty is God’s alone, and although in the Islamic republic the people elect their political representatives, those who rule are ultimately responsible to Allah rather than to the people. Rulership cannot be inherited: rather, it is the duty of the council of the foremost clerics to judge and select the best-qualified leaders to the ends of protecting the believers, applying God''s law (sharia), and preserving the republic. Moreover, a Constitutional Council reviews all parliamentary legislation to ensure that it conforms to the shari’a and the Iranian constitution. The principal concepts in operation here are majra’-i-taqlid (locus of mass following) and the "trusteeship of the jurisprudents" (vilayet al-faqih), whereby elite members of the clergy, based on the strength of their learning, ensure that the people, in practicing Islamic democracy, do not stray from the straight path. The theory of vilayet-e faqih, in some respects, represents the continuation of the imamate doctrine in Shiite Islam, for it performs the main functions of the imam’s governance. It features the element of rational deputyship according to the people''s choice, which differs from the Shia Imam who is divinely appointed by Allah. However, the main factor – the individual rule of a charismatic leader – remains unchanged.
Iran has regular presidential and parliamentary elections. Only those candidates and parties that are approved by the clerical Guardian Council can be elected. The system as a whole is presented as a "republic" based on Islamist ideology. Currently, there are 223 registered political parties, associations and organizations that have been given legitimacy to operate, but not as an opposition to the religious system of the governance. They usually operate in loose alignments within two main coalitions, the conservative and the reformist.
The Islamic Republic Party was Iran''s ruling political party and for some years its only political party until its dissolution in 1987. Iran had no functioning political parties until the Executives of Construction Party formed in 1994 to run for the fifth parliamentary elections, mainly out of executive body of the government close to the then-president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. After the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, more parties started to work, mostly of the reformist movement and opposed by hard-liners. This led to incorporation and official activity of many other groups, including hard-liners. The Iranian Government is opposed by a few armed political groups, including the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, the People''s Fedayeen, and the Kurdish Democratic Party.
Political freedom and dissent
In a 2008 report, the organization Human Rights Watch complained that "broadly worded ''security laws''" in Iran are used to "to arbitrarily suppress and punish individuals for peaceful political expression, association, and assembly, in breach of international human rights treaties to which Iran is party." For example, "connections to foreign institutions, persons, or sources of funding" are enough to bring criminal charges such as "undermining national security" against individuals.
Since the mid-1990s, with the empowerment of Iranian civil society and the growth of a new generation of post-revolutionary intellectuals, liberal ideas have found a new vibrant life among many academics and students. In light of these events, some observers began predicting a Velvet Revolution in Iran, led by the youth and inspired by the Western liberal values of democracy, freedom of speech and assembly, women''s rights, and the right to peaceful dissent. With the rising expectations of the Iranian reform movement and election of moderate Iranian president Mohammad Khatami in 1997 numerous moves were made to modify the Iranian civil and penal codes in order to improve political freedoms. The predominantly reformist parliament drafted several bills allowing increased freedom of speech, gender equality, and the banning of torture. Despite the initial optimism, these bills were all dismissed or significantly watered down by the Guardian Council and leading conservative figures in the Iranian government at the time.
Regarding the gradual unraveling of the reformist movement, an article from The Economist magazine said,
The Tehran spring of ten years ago has now given way to a bleak political winter. The new government continues to close down newspapers, silence dissenting voices and ban or censor books and websites. The peaceful demonstrations and protests of the Khatami era are no longer tolerated: in January 2007 security forces attacked striking bus drivers in Tehran and arrested hundreds of them. In March, police beat hundreds of men and women who had assembled to commemorate International Women''s Day.
Although relatively peaceful when compared to the state-sponsored assassinations that occurred in the first decade of the Islamic republic, throughout the 1990s the theocratic regime rarely hesitated to apply violent tactics to crush its political adversaries, with demonstrators and dissidents commonly being imprisoned, beaten, tortured or murdered ("disappeared").
The Iran student riots, July 1999 were sparked following an attack by an estimated 400 paramilitary Hezbollah vigilantes on a student dormitory in retaliation for a small, peaceful student demonstration against the closure of the reformist newspaper, Salam earlier that day." At least twenty people were hospitalized and hundreds were arrested," in the attack. Ahmad Batebi, a demonstrator in the July 1999 Iranian student riots, received a death sentence for "propaganda against the Islamic Republic System." (His sentence was later reduced to 15, and then ten years imprisonment.)
One observation made by non-governmental sources of the state of human rights in the Islamic Republic is that it is not so severe that the Iranian public is afraid to criticize its government publicly to strangers. In Syria "taxi driver rarely talk politics; the Iranian will talk of nothing else." A theory of why human rights abuse in the Islamic Republic is not as bad as some other countries comes from American journalist Elaine Sciolino who speculated that
Shiite Islam thrives on debate and discussion ... So freedom of thought and expression is essential to the system, at least within the top circles of religious leadership. And if the mullahs can behave that way among themselves in places like the holy city of Qom, how can the rest of a modern-day society be told it cannot think and explore the world of experience for itself?
How "liberal" are the reformists?
Determining the degree which this expression of popular opposition truly represents a "liberal movement" in the classical sense of the term is not without complications. Undoubtedly, Iranian reformists are calling for the implementation of a wide range of liberal values – but many are doing so in a uniquely Islamic and Iranian context that may appear odd or incompatible to liberals living in Europe or the United States. For example, some scholars have pointed out that for any individual who is a devout Muslim (particularly male), loyal to the notion of an Islamic polity and reveres the memory of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran is a vibrant, contentious and – surprisingly – democratic place.
Iranian Liberal Thought
According to Ramin Jahanbegloo, the unique form of liberalism that has taken hold in the Islamic republic, though complementary with traditional Iranian liberalism, is decidedly original and perceived by its supporters as a more critical project than it was during Foroughi''s time. Thanks to the recent discovery and translations of the dominant schools of liberal thought in the Anglo-American world, as found in the works of Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls and Karl Popper, and an appreciation of older liberal traditions (Kantian, Millian or Lockean), a new trend of liberalism has appeared among the younger generation of Iranian intellectuals.
While these contemporary Iranian liberals do not deny that the liberties appropriate to a liberal society can be derived from a theory or stated in a system of principles, but their view of a liberal society is related to a view of humanity and truth as inherently unfinished, incomplete, and self-transforming. He further argues that it is impossible for the fundamental principles of Iranian liberalism to be grounded in “religious truth”, because the very idea of free agency, as understood by Iranian liberals, is in opposition with any form of determinism (either religious or historical).
Jahanbegloo further contends that in a country like Iran, where the logic of the theological-political is still absolute and where there is a single master-value, the principal goal of the liberal movement is to campaign for a pluralism of ethical values and modes of being. This is to say, the chief task of Iranian liberalism is establishing a proper balance between critical rationality and political decency. The historical lack of liberalism, symbolized by the rise of radicalism in the Iranian revolution (both on the left and right), committed a huge injury to Iranians commonsense ways of political thought and political action, and led to deep confusion about questions of moral responsibility and collective human solidarity. As a means of comparison, the French existentialist philosopher and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre (d. 1980), is quoted as beginning his essay entitled The Republic of Silence in a provocative manner, by saying that, "We were never more free than under the German occupation." By this Sartre means that each gesture had the weight of a commitment during the Vichy period in France (July 1940 to August 1944). Jahanbegloo frequently repeated this phrase in relation to Iran. He further explains this comparison by contending that:
It sounds very paradoxical, but ... we have never been more free than under the Islamic Republic. By this I mean that the day Iran is democratic, Iranian intellectuals will put less effort into struggling for the idea of democracy and for liberal values. In Iran today, the rise of hedonist and consumerist individualism, spurred by the pace of urbanization and instrumental modernization after the 1979 Revolution, was not accompanied by a wave of liberal measures. In the early days of the revolution, liberals were attacked by Islamic as well as leftist groups as enemies and betrayers of the Revolution. The Iranian hostage crisis (1979–81) sounded the death knell for the project of liberalism in Iran. (Ramin Jahanbegloo)
International Intervention Western Governments
Regardless of how much Anglo-American governments may desire liberal reform in Iran, in truth, their unsavory history in the region seriously restricts the contributions they can make to bolster the reformist movement. This handicap for Western liberals is exacerbated further by questions regarding their true intentions. In 2006, reports surfaced that neoconservatives in Washington were urging President George W. Bush to drop diplomacy with Iran in favor of boosting internal dissent and opposition forces within the Islamic regime. In an open breach with White House policy, they argued that the multilateral diplomacy pursued by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was encouraging the Iranians to snub the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and develop a nuclear bomb under cover of a peaceful energy program.
Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said: "The United States doesn’t have a policy on Iran. We should be looking for a way to address the people of the country." Foreign policy hawks have long believed that America should be assisting democratic forces inside Iran, much as President Ronald Reagan did with the trade union organization Solidarity in Poland in the early 1980s. Robert Kagan, a leading neoconservative who helped to make the case for the Iraqi invasion, accused the Bush government of doing little "to exploit the evident weaknesses in the regime". Even though few foreign policy hawks believe the Iranian regime should be overthrown by force, many argue that it could collapse from within. The US state department spends roughly $4 million (£2.3m) a year on the promotion of democracy and women’s rights in Iran—too little to make a difference, according to critics. A campaign for human rights and democracy in Iran was launched in the US Congress on March 2, 2006.
Non-governmental organizations and academia
Ramin Jahanbegloo has pointed out that, while the Iranian intellectual community would readily welcome support from intellectuals and NGOs, they do not want any sort of interference from the US government – most importantly, military intervention. One practical example of the "preferred model" was articulated in 2004 by Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, who emphasized international activism by calling on "human rights defenders, university professors, international NGOs” to support the human rights struggle in Iran and “give aid to democratic institutions inside despotic countries." Echoing this view, Akbar Ganji has said: “We don’t want anything from governments. We are looking to the NGOs. And we want people to know what the Iranian reality is, for people to know what''s going on in Iran. The intellectuals, the media and NGOs in the world have to draw attention to the human rights abuses in Iran. We need moral support. I emphasize: we don’t want intervention, we only want the moral support of the global community for our fight”.
Liberal leaders and organizations
- Ramin Jahanbegloo – Iranian intellectual
- Mohammad-Ali Foroughi – Iranian politician and scholar of the first half of the 20th century
Main parties tolerated inside Iran
- Freedom Movement Party led by Ebrahim Yazdi. Reformist (extremist reformist according to the Islamic regime in Iran)
- National Front of Iran led by Adib Boroumand. Nationalist (mostly based outside Iran but the central body is in Tehran)
- Marze Por Gohar Party led by Roozbeh Farahanipour (mostly based inside Iran but the central body mostly based outside Iran)
Main parties banned in Iran (operating in exile among iranian diaspora)
- Constitutionalist Party of Iran (CPI) led by Darius Homayoun. Liberal Democrats (close to the Prince Reza Pahlavi)
- Liberal Democratic Party of Iran based in exile
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