Supremacist mindset means democracy cannot be established in Iran
From time to time over the years, the debate on Iran has involved whether there is a possibility of changing the current theocracy in the country to a secular or democratic state. This debate is now happening more regularly amid increasing speculation about the fate of the regime, given the severe internal and external challenges and pressures it faces. Whilst the idea of a secular democratic government has its supporters, some have reservations on its suitability, as well as its probability.
To answer this question from an objective viewpoint, we need to trace Iran’s historical experience when it comes to implementing democracy or secularism, particularly the reasons behind the failure to do so, and the factors that could render it successful in the future.
Iran’s familiarity with European civilization and its principles and values dates back to the 19th century. In the last quarter of this century, there emerged enlightened Iranian thinkers such as Mirza Fath-Ali Akhundzade, Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, Mirza Malkam Khan, who were inspired by the Enlightenment period that followed the French Revolution.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were several voices inside Iran that called for purging the country of what they asserted was Western hegemony over its economic resources, as well as efforts to establish a democratic regime to replace the despotic Qajar dynasty. Among the best-known of these efforts was the Constitutional Revolution, which lasted from 1905 to 1911. It involved electing a parliament and installing a constitutional regime similar to the West — an effort aided by colonial powers such as Britain. This revolution, known for its national and democratic affiliations, managed to overcome a period of bloody coup plots and civil war, initiating a brief era of political and press freedoms.
Unfortunately, this chapter in Iran’s history did not last long. Those who had sought freedom paid a heavy price, with many of the revolutionaries being butchered and others fleeing the country. This phase was followed by another, but somewhat different, attempt to overturn the old order. In this period, the pen was the primary weapon deployed rather than the gun, especially during the time of the First World War, the Second World War and the coup d’etat staged by Reza Khan, subsequently known as Shah Reza Pahlavi.
By reading newspapers and magazines from the period, we can see how the secular ideology of the state was shaped. It involved calling for the creation of a republican system wholly inspired by the Western political model, separating religion from the state and replacing the monarchy. A number of prominent Iranian thinkers of the time, like Hassan Taghizadeh, Hussein Kazemzadeh, Ibrahim Purdavu, Mahmoud Afshar and the cleric Mohammed Qazvini, laid the foundations for separating religion from the state through their writings.
From my viewpoint, that brief period is arguably the most complicated in Iran’s modern history. During this period, the seeds of Iranian-Persian nationalism were sown, with these ideas strongly suggestive of imperialist supremacism. This period also witnessed the establishment of a number of civil society organizations with a wide range of political and social affiliations.
It is clear that this period witnessed a strong tendency toward glorifying and romanticizing Iran’s imperial history and Sassanid-era culture, along with that of preceding Iranian empires. But what happened afterward? Although the Pahlavi regime ascended to power in 1925 and attracted those writers and thinkers, it failed to implement a secularist political system despite the many attempts and the restrictions placed on religious sciences and seminaries.
This experience lasted only a quarter of a century. With regard to the attempts to turn Iran into a functioning and genuinely democratic state, there is barely anything that I can mention except for the effort by Mohammed Mosaddegh in the middle of the 20th century. When he was elected as prime minister, he ordered the Tehran police commander not to harm any journalist for criticizing the state. Dr. Masoud Kazemzadeh, professor of political science at Sam Houston State University in the US, was truthful when he wrote a series of columns titled “The day when democracy died in Iran.” As the title suggests, Kazemzadeh correctly believes there has been no real attempt to implement democracy in Iran since that period 65 years ago.
This divisive worldview, promoted through narrow ideologies, is a hindrance to implementing a comprehensive democratic system
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Pahlavi’s Iran did not see any democratic opening as, like its predecessors, it continued to deny minorities the right to learn their mother tongue and be connected with their own heritage. The regime that deposed the Pahlavi monarchy has also displayed sectarianism and bigotry toward ethnic minorities; in fact, the situation has grown far worse.
Despite embracing a different ideology from the Pahlavi regime, the theocratic “Islamic Republic” ultimately pursued the same policies — marginalizing religious minorities and continuing to espouse a deeply racist, supremacist attitude toward non-Persian ethnic groups.
So long as this supremacist worldview remains dominant, it is impossible for a truly democratic or secular system to be established in Iran. This is not because Iranian society is loyal to the hardline Wilayat-e Faqih ideology and to Iran’s clerical religious establishment, but because of the selectiveness amongst many in addressing modern thought. This deep-rooted supremacism is a significant barrier in any attempt to move toward democracy, particularly the racist attitudes that are prevalent across Iranian society.
In the media, Azeris are commonly dehumanized and insulted. During the 2009 presidential elections, supporters of the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad launched such insults against Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Similar slurs are used for all the other minority groups. Given the popularity of racist jokes, one is cognizant of the fact that the dream of establishing a democracy in Iran is impossible so long as this mindset — promoted by the regime — remains prevalent.
What does all this mean? It means that this supremacist and ultranationalist mindset prevails over any sense of belonging to the greater Iranian homeland. This divisive worldview, promoted through narrow ideologies, is a hindrance to implementing a comprehensive democratic system in the country.
Genuine democracy, whose first priority is freedom, means that minority groups should have the right to establish their own schools, where they can learn their mother tongue along with others, rather than being forced to learn and speak only the tongue of the dominant group, which is imposed on the rest of the population.
In Iran, there are strong suspicions among the regime’s leadership that the Ahwazi Arabs seek autonomy from the country and the Turks seek to join the Turkish Republic, while the Balochis, Kurds and Turkish Azeris dream of establishing their own states; although it should be taken into account that not all of these minorities would opt for secession if they enjoyed their full rights. This paranoia among the leadership, in coordination with the aforementioned racist, supremacist mindset, which the regime actively, if unofficially, promotes, makes it even more difficult for Iran’s ethnically Persian population to unite with the members of the country’s non-Persian ethnic minorities to build a progressive, democratic country that Iran must be in order to thrive.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami