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Iran and Islamic Republic!

06 September, 2005

By Yasser Latif Hamdani


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Professor Niall Ferguson has impressive credentials.  He is a Harvard University professor of History, a fellow at the prestigious Hoover Institution of the Stanford University as well a fellow at Jesus College of Oxford University. This is precisely why I found his recent article (Iran's revolution isn't going away) in Los Angeles Times a disappointment to say the least. The underlying theme seemed to be: Iran has a revolutionary ideological regime in place, which is a threat to the world.  Needless to say the comparison of the new Iranian president with Napoleon Bonaparte, Mao or Stalin was a stretch, but the intent was malicious. 

Let me put a disclaimer here:  I am no fan of the Mullahcracy that rules the Islamic Republic and am definitely not an apologist for the Ayatollahs and their zeal in imposing a theocracy on a country like Iran.  However I do consider the coming of the republic, Islamic as it maybe, in Iran in 1979 a step forward and not backwards. Since the 15th century the Islamic World has seen a rivalry between the predominantly Sunni Turks and Shiite Iranians in form of the Ottomans and the Safavids.  It is therefore interesting to note that both nations/countries have followed a very similar route to republicanism, albeit on the face of it with diametrically opposite ideologies.

 In fact the source of both the Turkish revolution, which ultimately did away with monarchy in Turkey, and the Iranian revolution of 1979 might have been the same.  Ziya Gokalp, the philosopher behind the Turkish revolution, was a Muslim modernist, a staunch believer in democracy and the republic and ironically enough a Pan-Islamist.  Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Modern Turkey, emphasized modernity and republicanism from Gokalp's message but rejected Pan-Islamism.  Ziya Gokalp inspired Iqbal who became the poet philosopher credited for the idea of the Pakistani republic. Iqbal became an inspiration for Dr Ali Shariati, who was an Islamic modernist in the true sense of the word.  Ali Shariati's ideological planks were modernity, republicanism and red revolutionary shiism (also known as Islamic Marxism). Khomeni, the revolutionary leader of Iran, took republicanism and shiism but rejected modernity and Marxism from Ali Shariati's message.

The result was that in 1924 and in 1979 respectively, both Turkey and Iran shed the monarchies and moved to a republican form of government, except Turkey emphasized modernity and secularism while Iran's leadership laid emphasis on Shiite Islam. After this the ruling elites in both countries i.e. the secular military in Turkey and Shiite mullahs in Iran, tried controlling democracy to safeguard the official ideology but even with the controlled democracy, a vibrant opposition emerged in both states.  In Turkey there is a vibrant pro-Islam section of the society, whereas in Iran there is a vibrant secular section that helps balance out the societies in both states.

So where does the recent election which brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the "hardliner", to power?  Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really going to be the Bonaparte or Stalin of the Iranian revolution as Professor Ferguson would have us believe? Hardly.  In fact hardliner or not, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory is also a step forward for the republic in Iran.  In the larger scheme of things a non-reformist non-cleric is a much better alternative to having a reformist cleric in charge.  The precedent has now been set.
Whatever Ahmadinejad's personal views on Islam, his victory is the victory of the growing technocrat middleclass over the clerical class.  The technocrat middleclass can be conservative but at the end of the day it will have more pragmatic concerns than extending Islamic revolution to the entire world.   The problem with think tanks in the west is their tunnel vision and inability to look beyond the short term. The entire Islamic world is going through a slow and painful process of indigenous democratization and the best thing the rest of the world can do is to stop supporting undemocratic and unrepresentative regimes for their own gains and economic interests.
 
Professor Ferguson is right when he says that the revolution in Iran is here to stay. There can be no return to monarchy for that country and only democracy can determine its future.  It would thus help his cause and mine to hail Ahmadinejad's triumph as a victory for democracy instead of imagining him to be a new Bonaparte to raise a new Wellington.  Those fantasies might work well in strategy games but not in real life.


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