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Iran's other voices

The threats of sanctions against the dictatorship in Iran due to nuclear recovery make it necessary to recall another side of the country: the widespread desire for democracy by the Iranian people.


By Cecillie Holtan, religious historian,

[democracy] The Islamic Republic of Iran is regarded as one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world. President George W. Bush has accused Iran of being part of an "axis of evil". Although the religious conservatives hold the top positions in the regime, another dimension exists in Iranian society: There is a strong reform debate in Iran.

And one of the most important voices belongs to Abdolkarim Soroush. He is controversial within the Iranian regime and is seen as dangerous by the religious leaders because he is influential and has many followers. Soroush can no longer stay in his home country because of the danger of his life. He argues for human rights, justice and freedom.

The hidden imam. The background to today's religious rule in Iran stems from a myth dating back to around 900. For Shi'a Muslims, "imam" means one of the descendants of the Prophet's family who is to govern the community politically and religiously. According to Tolver Shia Islam (the name refers to a number of twelve imams), the myth says that the 12th imam disappeared and is in hiding from the people. The 12th Imam (called Mahdi) will come again just before the day of judgment and create justice.

No one else has the right to lead society while he is away. Ayatollah Khomeini developed the theory of the "government of the jurist" (velayat-e faqih) on this basis. The theory is that those who know the religious law (shari'a) are the ones who will rule society while the imam is in hiding. Therefore, the regime in Iran has a supreme religious leader, a guardian council to ensure that the law in the country complies with the sharia, and an expert council that appoints the religious leader, as institutions over the usual division of power in a republic. This gives the regime both an ambiguous relationship between an Islamic legalist dimension and a democratic dimension, which is reflected in the 1979 constitution, and is reflected in the relationship between state institutions. The democratic dimension has nevertheless been suppressed, as the real power lies with the supreme religious leader and his conservative supporters.

Reform. The reform movement in Iran works for human rights and Islamic democracy. Soroush is a leading figure, and several religious scholars and former President Khatami are members. Soroush distinguishes religion from knowledge of religion; this must be subject to analysis and criticism like any other discipline. He criticizes religious scholars for keeping ancient texts and attitudes sacred. And he criticizes them for using religion as an ideology that is not allowed to be questioned, helping to stagnate the role of religion in the modern world.

Religion must be separated from the state, and a personally chosen religion means greater importance in each individual's private life, according to Soroush. This is how religion becomes relevant in the modern world. Religion can have an impact on politics, but only as a value base and not through institutionalization. Soroush argues for dynamic fiqh (jurisprudence) – Islamic law must be developed to adapt to a modern society. That shari'a is not sufficient as a legislative system in a modern society can be proved by looking at the number of secular laws that have been included in the Iranian constitution out of sheer necessity. Soroush believes that a democracy will give the people the opportunity to express their opinions – and if these people are religious, it will be a religious democracy. In the case of Iran, an "Islamic democracy". The theory behind such a democracy can be discussed, and can not be proven until a possible democracy is established in Iran. But the important thing about Soroush's arguments is that they conceptualize and inspire the work for human rights and democracy in Iranian society, and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Politically conscious society. In recent years, several researchers have pointed out that there is a growing politically conscious civil society in Iran, which forms the basis for a democratization process from below. The Iranian researcher Ali M. Ansari's theory, "the myth of political emancipation", says that the Iranian people are fighting a historic battle for political liberation. The revolution of 1979 did not turn out as the majority had hoped; namely, final political liberation. Ansari argues that a social revolution is underway in Iran:

"The central thesis in the report Iran, Islam, and Democracy: The Politics of Managing Change (Royal Institute of International Affairs) argues that a social revolution is taking place. This will lead to a democratic Islamic institution in Iran, where the government will function in a legal / rational way, as in Western democracies, but with an 'Eastern' taste. "

Soroush's arguments go a long way in expressing the Iranian people's desire for reform. There are major violations of fundamental human rights in Iranian society. But it is important to see the struggle for freedom going on, and not to destroy it by forcing a "Western value system" on Iranian society through military intervention. It would be catastrophic for Iran's development and not least for the West's relations with the Muslim world. The United States destroyed much of its relationship with Iran when, through the CIA coup in 1953, it deposed Prime Minister Mohammad Mossaddeh, who nationalized Iran's oil wealth after British domination, and reinstated the Shah. This is strongly remembered by the Iranians. This is how Iran's attempts to achieve democracy were stifled.

It is by no means a straightforward reform development in Iran, but it is a process that cannot be stopped. Poverty and unemployment make many people think of economics as freedom. That is probably why the Conservative candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, won last year's presidential election. The question, however, is how long the majority of the people who want freedom can be kept oppressed.

According to Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, the Norwegian government's goal is to contribute to influencing politics and development in Iran through critical dialogue and engagement. It is important that the government is active in highlighting this, and continues to support the presence of Norwegian companies in Iran. Dialogue and presence are the only opportunities for influence and to promote democracy – an isolated and closed society can be dangerous. The reform movement has suffered a temporary setback, but it has created a change of attitude in Iranian society that will yield results. n

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