Saturday, June 20, 2009

Democracy in Iran

I keep reading articles suggesting that President Obama isn't being forceful enough about Iran's election mess. Frankly, I think he's doing about as much as is reasonable. When it comes right down to it:
  • It's not our election. It's all Iranian, all the time.
  • We don't have any skin in the game. We don't even have formal diplomatic relations with Iran.
  • If he did want to act, what could he do? We can't send in the Marines - they're busy in Afghanistan.
The situation there is volatile enough without giving the theocrats any excuse to accuse Mir Hossein Mousavi of being backed by the CIA. There's plenty of history of CIA skullduggery in Iran - ask anybody in Teheran about Mohammed Mossadegh, who really was overthrown in a CIA coup in the early 1950s (after trying to nationalize the oil industry; some things never change).

We've all suffered in the last few years from the Bush administration's insistence on "exporting democracy." Democracy isn't something you can "export," like a crate of ball bearings. It's a delicately balanced series of agreements among the citizens of a country, and the version that exists in the U.S. and Britain now took centuries to develop. But while the English were fighting the Civil War, in the 17th century, asserting the right of the people over the monarchy, the Persians were ruled by the Safavid dynasty of Shiite shahs (some things really never change - details of Persian history taken from the timeline at From Ancient Persia to Contemporary Iran).

If democracy isn't exportable, though, it seems to be contagious; and I think the Iranians may have caught it. Not only have they just had an election, they're now furious because the election was obviously rigged. And that anger really is a democratic urge.

I wonder if the people in charge of those election results really thought anyone would accept them, when they're statistically so extremely unlikely. And I really wonder what the results of a fair count would have been. You never know - Ahmedinajad might have won. He might even have won by a wide margin. But we'll never know, because they decided to fake a result.

I wish the Iranians all the best; my heart aches for them, because the democracy in Iran right now is a paper label over a theocratic tyranny, and if they really want a democracy, they'll have to fight for it. But if they're willing to fight, they may just end up with a truly democratic Iran. Reuel Marc Gerecht, in a N.Y. Times op-ed piece (The Koran and the Ballot Box), thinks we may be seeing the start of "the final countdown on the Islamic Republic." I hope he's right.


  1. Islam isn't going away soon.

    In fact, Islam, as a worldwide phenomenon, is the fastest growing religious institution in the world.

    There are real concerns about the short- and long-term effects this may have on parliamentary democracies. Islam has a theocratic bent: It is based on a complete co-option of believers' lives. For Muslims, there can be no true distinction between politics and religion, state and church.

    On the contrary, the growing militancy of Islam across the world, suggests that, rather than shrinking in significance and influence, Islam's power and reach are increasing.

  2. Of course Islam isn't going away, any more than Christianity is. The issue in Iran is a really quite pure debate over the separation of church and state. In Iran's current arrangement, the church rules the state; the people of Iran appear to be engaged in an (unfortunately violent) debate over whether that should continue.

    Sure Islam has a theocratic bent. So does the Catholic Church, and until the Reformation, the Catholic Church was quite as much in charge in western Europe as the ayatollahs are in Iran. (Remember Henri IV's remark that "Paris vaut bien une messe"?) Does the Catholic Church rule over the secular government anywhere now?

    I believe Iran is in the early stages of an Islamic variant of the Reformation. I was wondering when some part of Islam would start to emerge from the Middle Ages. The Reformation in western Europe took most of two centuries and spilled a lot of blood; and there wasn't even the example of a United States of America where church and state are separated; that came later.

    It's too much to expect the Islamic Reformation to be any less messy than the Christian edition...

  3. My suspicion is that Americans are becoming more "religious" in their thinking. It isn't at all inconceivable that Islam--in the increasingly dumbed-down state of American life--could sweep across the Western democracies, undermining the roots of our "enlightened" institutions. This is certainly what radical Islamists believe, and hope for. It's insidious.

    I'm not saying the sky is falling, but I'm less and less surprised by what happens these days.

  4. The developments of the last few days make an Islamic Reformation look less likely than it did. The Iranian government has no qualms about shooting people just because they're in the street, or locking up 70 people because they met to discuss whether to continue to challenge the election. If the Iranian people want real democracy, and it sounds as though they may, they're going to have to be willing to take heavy casualties. Their government is quite willing to kill to stay in power. Surprise.