How close is Iran to democracy


Bahman Nirumand

To person

Dr. Bahman Nirumand, born in Tehran in 1936, studied in Germany in the 1950s. After completing his doctorate, he returned to Iran, where he came into conflict with the Shah's regime. In 1965 he had to flee to Germany. His book "Persia - Model of a Developing Country or the Dictatorship of the Free World", published in 1967, had a major influence on the German student movement. In the late 1970s, Nirumand returned to Tehran and participated in the democratic opposition to the Shah. But three and a half years later he had to leave the country again, this time he was threatened by the revolutionary guards Ayatollah Khomeini. The author and publicist lives in Berlin. His latest book is: "The Unexplained World War. Actors and Interests in the Near and Middle East", published in 2007 by Booklett.

In Iran, the censorship authority watches over every film, book, painting and even the Internet. Journalists, bloggers and artists nevertheless create their own spaces and fight for more freedom. The Iranian publicist Bahman Nirumand describes the development of civil society in Iran and its actors.

As early as the end of the 19th century, calls for freedom and democracy could be heard on the streets of Iran. They got louder and louder and finally culminated in the Constitutional Revolution in 1906, which forced the absolute ruler to bow to the will of the people and allow a freely elected parliament. This event, which heralded the beginning of the modernization of Iran, was the prelude to an agonizing, but also occasionally exhilarating process that continues to this day.

But it wasn't just dictatorships that repeatedly set back the process. Reza Khan, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, came to power in 1925 with the help of Great Britain and it was the USA who paved the way for a new dictatorship by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in ​​1953 with a coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh.

But Reza Shah and his son Mohammed Reza, like the Islamists, could not succeed in completely eliminating the people's desire for democracy. Even Ayatollah Khomeini, who had come to power as the undisputed leader of the revolution and at least in the first few years knew the vast majority of the people behind him, felt compelled to make concessions to Iranian civil society: he reluctantly accepted "Islamic" as well as the designation "republic" for its newly established state order and thus accepted an absolute contradiction: An Islamic state is a state of God that is governed by the will of God, a republic is subject to the will of the people. The same contradiction appears in the constitution of the Islamic Republic. While parliament and the president are elected by the people, there are also far more powerful bodies, such as those of the revolutionary leader or the Council of Guardians.

The dualism of the Islamic Republic

Iranian civil society started precisely with this contradiction. Especially after the end of the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran and shortly after the death of Khomeini, we are experiencing a revival of civil society. It is thanks to her that, despite the monopoly of power and the establishment of a tyranny, the Islamists have not succeeded in enforcing their ideas and establishing a state of God even after 30 years. On the contrary, year after year the government is forced to make new concessions to civil society. If all the candidates in the election campaign for the parliamentary elections in June are not getting tired of professing their values ​​in civil society, then this is an indication of the existence of a strong civil society.

The fact that women and young people are at the forefront of this civil society is due to the fact that precisely these two social groups were targeted by the new Islamist rulers from the start. Islamic morality and a male-dominated view of the law should be imposed on women, and the youth should be brought up to be devout believers and self-sacrificing partisans.

When Ayatollah Khomeini cautiously said, a few weeks after he came to power, that he would like women to cover their hair, thousands of women, including men, took to the streets to protest. In the years that followed, it was about much more than resistance to Islamic dress codes. It was about equality in all areas, in inheritance law, custody, divorce law, labor law and the like. The struggle that women have waged for these rights over the past few decades has turned them into self-confident individuals. Of course, they are still a long way from achieving their goals, but they have now conquered many areas, including the universities, where they currently provide 60 percent of the students.

In numerous non-governmental organizations, women activists, most of whom come from the Islamic camp, try to educate women about their rights. There are dozens of women's magazines and internet newspapers that also serve as discussion forums. A signature campaign for equality, initiated jointly by many women's organizations, has been running nationwide for two years. Although there are repeated arrests and long prison sentences, and even participation in the campaign has recently become a criminal offense, the women continue their activities.

The youth look for their own way

But the Islamists failed not only with their women’s policy, but also with their attempt to make younger generations stable pillars of their God’s state. Today, the vast majority of young people have turned their backs on the Islamists and are looking for their own way. This does not mean that the majority of the young people are politically engaged and active against the ruling regime. What makes them far more dangerous for the regime are their outlook on life, their ideals and needs, which deeply contradict those of those in power. Today's young people in Iran want nothing other than their peers all over the world: They want to be free, have fun in life, have a career in their profession. It is precisely for this reason that, alongside women, they constitute the greatest social and political problem that the Islamist rulers are becoming increasingly hopeless to solve.

The Islamic Republic does not tolerate any political organization outside the Islamic camp. This has led the opponents of the regime to take their struggle to other levels, above all on the level of culture. Writers, artists, filmmakers, directors, actors and musicians try to reach the public despite rigorous censorship and increasing repression. Their works spread invisibly and unnoticed by censors like a host of viruses and decompose the substance of the God-state. It is no coincidence that the Ministry of Islamic Guidance in the Islamic Republic is responsible for cultural affairs. The censorship authority is also located here. She is aware of what a novel, a film, a theatrical performance, a single poem, even inventive jokes, can do.

The thousands upon thousands of non-governmental organizations also form an important pillar of civil society. Whether in the field of environment and health, upbringing and education, they are present in society everywhere. Apparently they have nothing to do with politics and often work closely with the authorities. But they are building the foundations of civil society. Their number increased rapidly during the reign of Mohammed Khatami. They were pushed back under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The internet defies censorship

Journalists, who basically replace missing political parties, have taken on the role of direct political debate. One is often amazed at the knowledgeable and ingenious analyzes that appear in the newspapers, but also that there are a number of journalists who, despite repression and the risk of losing their material existence, have the courage to pursue the machinations of Debunk governance. The regime reacts with bans, arrests and heavy penalties. In recent years, well over a hundred newspapers and magazines have been banned and as many journalists have been sentenced to prison. Many journalists are forced to self-censure. But many others are not intimidated. Forbidden newspapers often appear under new names. It's an eternal game of cat and mouse.

To the chagrin of the censors, however, since the advent of the Internet, controlling journalistic and cultural activities has become much more difficult. Persian is now one of the most frequently used languages ​​on the Internet worldwide. In the capital Tehran alone there are more than 4,000 internet cafes and almost ten million people in the country who are online for several hours a day. All attempts by the censorship authority to bring communication on the Internet under control have so far failed. The attempt to filter Internet pages from the USA with the help of the most modern devices failed because terms entered as obscene, morally reprehensible or politically forbidden led to the blocking of medical, sociological and other scientific texts. What was even worse was that texts by Islamists, who are now avid Internet users, also fell victim to the filtering. Because the opponents of the regime used the same terms that the Islamists used against the USA or Israel.

The reform movement also grips the religious

Iranian civil society has not only become widespread in the past few decades, it has also achieved a new quality. While in the past it was essentially about demands for more freedom, self-determination, democracy and modernization, the shaking up by the revolution and the eight years' war led to a critical examination of the past, of one's own culture, tradition, but also of religion. Especially after the end of the devastating war and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, many asked themselves: Is this what we wanted to achieve with the uprising against the Shah's dictatorship? What are the causes of the failure of the revolution? Does this have anything to do with our culture, with our beliefs?

From this dispute a reform movement arose, not only outside, but also within the Islamic camp. The very fact that Iran had transformed from a more or less secular monarchy to an Islamic state of God led to the question of the extent to which Islam, or rather the dominant view of Islam, can be reconciled with the values ​​and goals aimed at by the revolution, and what would have to happen in order to bring Islam into harmony with the requirements of a modern society?

Answering these questions, involving both intellectuals and clergy, has produced considerable insights and knowledge. Today, Iran is way ahead of other Islamic countries in this area.

If you take a closer look at Iran, you notice a diverse, lively society, struggling with countless contradictions, the result of the clash is between tradition and modernity, between a power that is violently turning back the wheel of history or at least stopping it would like and a people, the overwhelming majority of which strives for renewal, emancipation and equality.