No Cover Image

Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change

Ali Mirsepassi
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 234
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Democracy in Modern Iran
    Book Description:

    Can Islamic societies embrace democracy? In Democracy in Modern Iran, Ali Mirsepassi maintains that it is possible, demonstrating that Islam is not inherently hostile to the idea of democracy. Rather, he provides new perspective on how such a political and social transformation could take place, arguing that the key to understanding the integration of Islam and democracy lies in concrete social institutions rather than pre-conceived ideas, the every day experiences rather than abstract theories. Mirsepassi, an Iranian native, provides a rare inside look into the country, offering a deep understanding of how Islamic countries like Iran and Iraq can and will embrace democracy.Democracy in Modern Iran challenges readers to think about Islam and democracy critically and in a far more nuanced way than is done in black-and-white dichotomies of Islam vs. Democracy, or Iran vs. the West. This essential volume contributes important insights to current discussions, creating a more complex conception of modernity in the Eastern world and, with it, Mirsepassi offers to a broad Western audience a more accurate, less cliched vision of Iran's political reality.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6439-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface: “Where Is My Vote?”
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Democracy and Culture
    (pp. 1-24)

    This book offers a sociological perspective on the history of the struggle to achieve modernity and democracy in contemporary Iran. It argues that Islam, as a religion and cultural practice, and democracy, as a nonviolent way to organize political order, are both socially rooted and can be best understood and reconciled within a sociological and institutionally grounded perspective. This contrasts with the dominant current of thought among many prominent Iranian intellectuals, a discourse which argues that “Islamic culture” rests on an archaic set of fixed ideas and beliefs inherently hostile to democratization in Iran. The thinkers of this school argue...

  6. 1 The Origins of Secularism in Europe
    (pp. 25-48)

    The impact of the late-twentieth-century rise of political Islam on theories of secularism and religion has been considerable. Reactions have taken shape around two broad responses. The first argues that developing Islamic societies have failed in their efforts to create a viable form of modern secularism, and Islamist movements represent surviving premodern traditions and religious impulses which surface in dangerous reaction to this political failure. The secularization process, this view argues, has been historically weak and inadequate in spite of whatever limited achievements it has made. This might be called the thesis of the “incomplete Enlightenment,” which proposes that only...

  7. 2 Modern Visions of Secularism
    (pp. 49-64)

    The problems discussed in the previous chapter have never really been settled. If to well-stabilized Western democracies in the late twentieth century these issues have seemed sometimes passé or of chiefly academic interest, in the sense that post-modern critiques of democracy can scarcely threaten to dismantle the prevailing political order, the same was far from the case for the developing societies of the “Third World.” This was as true for the societies of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union as for societies like Iran and Afghanistan. Nor has Indian democracy been helped by the tacit intellectual alliance...

  8. 3 A Critical Understanding of Modernity
    (pp. 65-80)

    When in 1721 the French Enlightenment thinker Baron de Montesquieu published hisPersian Letters, under a pseudonym to escape Church persecution, he probably never imagined that two centuries later his book would still have the power to stir controversy.¹ The book was meant, he claimed, to be neither an empirical study nor a historical exegesis but only a “novel” inspired by what was known at the time about the Orient and the world of Islam, specifically the Ottoman caliphate. Yet in spite of its author’s modest expectations, the book turned out to be a bestseller. What excited French readers the...

  9. 4 Intellectuals and Democracy
    (pp. 81-102)

    The dominant thinking about democracy in Iran has based itself on a problematic assumption. A large number of Iranian intellectuals have reached a tacit consensus that establishing a democratic society necessarily requires newly defined concepts of rationality and truth.¹ As a result, over roughly the past one hundred and fifty years, Iranian intellectuals have looked at the goal of constructing democracy as if it were entirely dependent upon the foundational concepts of progress, modern rationality, and scientific knowledge. They have followed the eighteenth-century European rationalists in this regard and dealt with democracy as a secondary task which can only be...

  10. 5 Religious Intellectuals
    (pp. 103-124)

    We must look at the 1979 Iranian Revolution within the broader context of twentieth-century world revolutions. A shared set of objective problematics comes to mind: extreme discontent (relative deprivation, frustrated economic expectations, moral unacceptability of social conditions for a large proportion of the society, and lack of political inclusion) leading to mass protests and rebellions against state authority; dissident movements among the elite (representing an ideology) who have access to wealth and power; strong populist motivation (nationalism, anticolonialism) cutting across major classes that mobilize the population temporarily behind the goal of revolution; a political crisis paralyzing the administrative capabilities of...

  11. 6 Alireza Alavi-Tabar and Political Change
    (pp. 125-148)

    Alireza Alavi-Tabar was born in Shiraz in 1960. He has a Ph.D. in political science and is currently on the faculty of the Institute for Planning and Development. He became a prominent figure in the 1990s for his journalistic writings and his essays on the politics of the Second Khordad reform movement. He was also the editor of the now closed Sobh-e-Emrooz newspaper. Alavi-Tabar is a leading member of the Islamic Iran Participation Party. The following interview was conducted in the summer of 2008 for this book.

    What were the primary ideas behind the reformist movement—known as the June...

  12. 7 The Predicaments of Iranian Public Intellectuals
    (pp. 149-168)

    Within the context of contemporary Iranian and Middle Eastern politics, where a striking variety of ideological discourses have competed with one another and held sway over several decades—among them nativist, nationalist, and Islamist ones, just to name a few—intellectuals have likewise tended to define their roles within the limited discursive boundaries of religion, secularism, or other “local” ideological parameters. Against this politically charged background, Iranian intellectuals currently face fundamental challenges. These challenges require renewed communicative tools and an imaginative vocabulary so that they can overcome the limitations of the existing intellectual traditions and raise the questions necessary to...

  13. 8 An Intellectual Crisis in Iran
    (pp. 169-184)

    One of the important consequences of the Iranian encounter with modernity and its efforts to Westernize has been the founding of new educational institutions.¹ Among these are the Darul-Fanoon school founded in 1851 by Amir Kabir, a reformist politician, as well as the many new schools, including the University of Tehran (founded in 1928), which were essential to Reza Shah’s plan to modernize and industrialize Iran. Shortly after the Islamic Revolution, the struggle for control over the university became one of the most important factors in the Islamic Republic’s assertion of political power and attainment of cultural hegemony. However, a...

  14. Conclusion: Modernity and Its Traditions
    (pp. 185-192)

    Iranians are experiencing their own modernity at a time when the very paradigm of modernity is being radically questioned in the West, its place of origin. The modern history of Iran reveals a fascinating diversity of narratives that reckon with the nation’s particular and often troubled experience of transition to a modern nation-state in the context of globalization, a nation-state often fraught with the perils and seductions of modernity as an absolute epistemological category, and a nation-state being reclaimed by nativist forces and ideologies, going through dictatorship and violent revolution in a national quest to give shape to democratic modernity...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 193-204)
  16. Index
    (pp. 205-218)
  17. About the Author
    (pp. 219-219)