June 10, 2005


Mohsen Sazegara is one of Iran's most prominent dissidents. A former regime loyalist (he was deputy minister of heavy industry) turned vocal critic, Sazegara campaigned for the Iranian presidency in the last election, though he was prevented from being a registered candidate by the Council of Guardians, the ruling ayatollahs. This article is part of an ongoing debate on Iranian democracy sponsored by openDemocracy[www.openDemocracy.net].

TEHRAN — The promise of democracy in Iran today is being led by what I call the "reformation movement," based on a fourfold set of principles: democracy, human rights, civil society and involvement in the international community. This is something much wider and deeper than the "reform process" of President Mohammad Khatami, which is now dead.

It is vital to grasp that the reformation movement precedes Khatami's election in 1997 and will outlast him. His reform process was not, as many now claim, a conspiracy to give the regime a new face and thereby make it last longer. It was not wrong that people's demands for change, modernity and freedom led them to vote for Khatami.

The impossibility of reform became apparent only two years after his election. The problem is that the underlying framework of the existing constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is structurally incompatible with achieving the goals the reformers have set — democracy, human rights and secular pluralism. In this constitution, the leader is all-powerful. He can ratify everything and can veto anything — and the people are at his mercy.

Article 4 of the constitution says that no law, statute or order in the country can be against Islam. The six clerics who are the main part of the Council of Guardians granted themselves the authority to interpret what is and is not against Islam.The leader ratifies them.

No democracy can be made out of Iran's constitutional law. Iran's problems are essential to the nature of the regime. And so it must be changed. This is the lesson of "reform."

So what is to be done? How can the "reformation movement" succeed where the "reform process" failed? The answer is to mobilize civil society behind a referendum campaign to create a new constitution. This is the key: If you change the constitution, everything will change.

To this end, several colleagues and I have begun a campaign for a referendum on the constitution. This started with eight original signatories — including a student movement leader, a dissident who spent over six years in prison, a lawyer who is in jail now, a human rights activist whose husband is now in jail, and me. We put it on the Internet and invited all Iranians to sign it.

More than 35,000 people have done so — including 300 prominent writers, scientists and intellectuals. The regime has censored the site and blocked access to it, but we have invited people to add their names by e-mail.

The regime will almost certainly try to block the referendum before it can be put to a ballot. The way to defeat this is to apply pressure, pressure that will come from the people. There's no other way. So we are mobilizing people around the referendum now, as well as seeking support from the international community.

The referendum movement for freedom and democracy in Iran needs international support — moral, intellectual and organizational. We do not need financial support. We would never compromise ourselves by accepting money from a foreign government; if you do that, you are doing their work rather than yours.

Another source of foreign support might be from intellectuals, writers, artists, poets, playwrights, singers, novelists and philosophers. If they backed the referendum movement, it would help Iranian people gain the self-confidence they need.

This psychological dimension is crucial. Iranians believe that for any movement to be successful it must have the support of the international community. This is the first time in our recent history that Iranians have thought this way. The reason is that the regime is autocratic: It concentrates all power in its hands. It can harass everybody, close down shops, shut newspapers, block Web sites. Many Iranians feel opposition is useless in the face of this. So they want international help.

But this help should not be military. Some Iranians call American forces the "soldiers of democracy." It is widely believed in Iran that Britain supports the mullahs and the United States wants Iran free. I tell students in many universities that I don't agree. We need democracy, but not by means of an invasion. We must grow it ourselves, through civil society and participation in social and political affairs — not through military force.

The main focus of discussions about Iran, its future and its relations with the west is the nuclear question. I think that this is a diversion. What matters is the nature of the country's government. Whether or not there is a nuclear program and what danger it poses are altered by the stability and character of the governing circles. If Iran becomes a society with a democratic government operating within a constitutional settlement that is based on human rights principles, then this changes the relevance of any nuclear capabilities it may have or develop.

The demand for Iran's government to be open and transparent about its weapons program is much less important than whether Iran can have an open and transparent political and constitutional system that the Iranian people themselves can trust. This is where trust starts;it can't be imposed from outside. Indeed, the danger of this diversion is that it will harden the regime and even strengthen support for it, the very opposite of what should be happening.

The support of western intellectuals would be especially important to our young generation. So far, leftist thinkers and writers have paid little attention to Iran. In any case, anti-Americanism, anti-westernism and anti-imperialism don't speak to our struggle. Young Iranians are reading the work of Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt. These thinkers are all available in Persian.

My generation thought about revolution and nothing more. But now Iranians are thinking about liberalism. A new generation of Iranian scholars has studied the philosophy of science and religion. As a result, new ideas are emerging about a theme that figures centrally in Iran's national conversation: the conflict between tradition (not just our religion, Islam, but our poetry and literature, our rituals and culture) and modernity.

The place of Islam itself in our public life is central to the task of bridging this conflict. The strongest motivation for me is Islam itself. But precisely because I am a deeply religious person, I am also a secularist who believes in the separation of state and mosque.

In Iran we need a minimal theory of religion, not the maximum theory the Islamic Republic employs. A minimal theory of Islam or religion is the opposite of Islamism. When President Khatami started to argue for a religious democracy, he showed that he understands neither civil society nor democracy. Democracy is democracy.

This regime has done so many bad things to our country in the name of religion. As a result, young people in Iran are turning away from religion. If that's Islam, they say, we don't want it. So the divorce between Islam and the state is not only for the sake of human rights and democracy, but for Islam itself. We want to restore religion to its essence — our belief in God, something beautiful in our heart — but not in the state or the law.

The result would be that religion is returned to people. Each person can have his or her own religion, and respect the rights of others to have theirs. The minimal theory of Islam says that Islam should be about living one's life, not running society or ruling the state. That is not the task of Islam. The main task of Islam is to invite people into God and into his light. This does not require a politics of Islam, an economics of Islam, a social affairs of Islam — the maximum theory of Islam, or Islamism. You don't need the state to impose religion.

The new paradigm that revolves around liberalism, democracy, pluralism and human rights is completed by secularism. Its embodiment in a new constitution will be the work of Iranians ourselves. But to ease its birth, we want and need the support of international civil society. We are in a global era where borders are being transcended. We need global support.

(c) 2005, openDemocracy/Global Viewpoint
Distributed by Tribune Media ServiceS, INC. (Distributed 4/13/05)



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