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asian affairs What is Modernity anyway

asian affairs


Editorials and commentaries since 1997

What is Modernity anyway


Iran is a peculiar place. Not at all what we think it is from the outside. One fact however is true. People in Iran are nice and can't say no. They say yes. Everyone is keen to help, to listen and to exchange ideas. Meanwhile, time is passing and at the end of the day, little is achieved, much less sorted out. This way of life may explain why Iran, so old as a country, remains a pre-modern state (see on that characteristic the article of Reza Ghorashi in this issue of Asian Affairs).

It does not mean Iran is backwards. Iranian cities are full of cars, traffic jams, flyovers, mobile phones, shopping malls, not to mention ageless bazaars, and, sure sign of modernity, pollution. In short, it is a country with most if not all the trappings of a modern economy.

Yet, contrary to the prevalent consumerism that ravages the West, the Iranians have kept their spiritual life alive. Anyone, including the taxi driver, will discuss at the ready spiritual issues that no one bothers to consider in the West as fundamental to his or her well-being. Maybe, that is why Bush considers the place evil. Spiritual and intellectual issues are not exactly his strength.

We all know that since 1979, religious considerations have permeated the Iranian political system. Is the proclivity of the Iranians for spiritual issues responsible for a political system unique in the world? It is hard to say. This is a civilization where the most respected figures are not the ayatollahs, but legendary poets such as Hafez, Omar Kayyam, Baba Tahir Oryan or Ferdowsi. No wonder, Iran is hard to decipher.

This focus is full of surprises. Many readers, unless familiar with Iran, are probably going to be astonished to discover the modernity of its social fabric as it is described by Amandine Lebugle-Mojdehi.

In the West, we tend to associate Islamic religious leaders, ayatollahs or mullahs, or whatever they call them, with backwardness. This focus teaches us a lesson. Iranian ayatollahs haveIbuilt more schools and more clinics than the "democratic" governments of South America in the past 50 years. Today, the country enjoys a level of literacy on par with the Western developed country while the fertility rate has dropped so low that the government is now facing an ageing population!

Now, that led me to wonder what would happen if a Pope was able to control a nation. What would be the outcome? The Philippines? After all, it is a place where the bishops are still King (and Queen) makers, contraception opposed and abortion taboo.

Unlike the many corrupted and catholic governments of the Philippines, the successive governments of Iran under the guidance of their ayatollahs have modernized the society beyond recognition. Women in this Islamic country have access to contraception and abortion as well as schooling and universities.

This is very confusing. Modernity is not what we associate generally with Islam (or Shi'ism because Iran is a Shiite country) but as regards its moral input into the political system, clearly it had delivered more to its people than the Catholic faith in the Philippines (or the Fundamentalists in Texas and Florida).

Therefore, it is hard to conclude that Iran is evil.

Yet, Iran is no paradise and the economy is probably going the wrong way. The first one to tell you that the system is in trouble is the spokesman of the outgoing government, Abdollah Ramezanadeh. Normally, spokesmen and chiefs of the Cabinet have the responsibility to gloze over the achievements of the government they represent. However, when I met Abdollah Ramezanadeh, he was so angry that I had to ask him twice whether I could publish what he was telling me so bluntly. He thought for a minute, then said: 'I will assume it". Maybe knowing he was on his way out, as is the team of President Khatami whose second term ends in June 2005, he had nothing to risk and wanted to open his heart. He stressed repeatedly that the system did not allow a government to work. The power was elsewhere. "We won the Presidential election by a wide margin, yet we could not govern", he said.

"Are you going to win the next one?" I asked.

"It is difficult to predict but people are unhappy with us. They believed we could rein in the Parliament. This parliament (the seventh Majlis elected in 2004) does not represent anyone. Some mullahs have been elected by their families and friends, with few votes. When the reformists were barred from being elected, we called for a boycott. It worked. In Tehran, we estimate that 5% of the voters went to vote although the official numbers are different. Nevertheless, it does not prevent the deputies to consider they have legitimacy. The President was elected by 70% of the population. They were elected by nobody. This is ridiculous".

So this country has many layers of power. It has a Supreme leader, who was elected for life in 1989. He was chosen by the members of the "Expediency Discernment Council of the System" (the Assembly of Experts), a mixed group of 34 members. However, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei had also been the President of the country between 1981 and 1989. Then, you have the members of the "Guardians Council". It is a restricted group of religious leaders. Although they are part of the Assembly of Experts, in the Assembly they have to share their authority with other members. The Guardians Council is an elected body that every three years replaces a third of its members. The Guardians Council is a religious body, while the Assembly is not. However, the Assembly of Experts is not an elected body. Then comes the Presidency, which is the Executive and the Majlis, which is the Legislative body. Both are elected.

In a way, from those intricate layers of power, elected and non-elected must emerge views that are acceptable to a majority of the population. "Acceptable to the military, you should say", commented Abdollah Ramezanadeh. "The Supreme leader and the Guardians Council don't get along. To assert his political power over them, he made a deal with the military to get their support. In addition, the military establishment is not controlled by the Executive. That is why we could say that we have turned this country into a military dictatorship in disguise".

That is when I asked him if what he was saying could be published.

"What is happening, he said, is the result of the war with Iraq. This war was forced upon our country by the Americans who pushed Saddam Hussein to attack us, with the hope that the country would crumble. The war reinforced the role of the Revolutionary Guards over the civil society. It happened not because our leaders had decided to go that way, but because we had to fight an enemy forced upon us. And today we seem unable to rebalance the system".

Abdollah Ramezanadeh would not say more about the structure of the government, except that the Army has its own budget outside the control of the Executive. I was starting to understand a little better the political structure of the country. While the Guardians Council has a blanket veto on the political actors, being able to rule out who can be a candidate for elections and who cannot (that is how it railroaded the election of the 7th Majlis), it does not control the Supreme leader neither the Assembly of Experts. Hence, the cacophony we hear from time to time at the top. Nevertheless, according to Abdollah Ramezanadeh, the arbiter between all the factions is the military establishment.

Subsequent events during the Presidential election have shown that he was probably right. At the time of publication, the outcome is not known, but the fact that Rafsanjani, 70, is neck to neck with the Tehran mayor Mahmood Ahmadinejad, 49, into Iran's first-ever presidential election run-off after voters, not only left the reform movement in tatters but seems to confirm what Abdollah Ramezanadeh outlined. Only few weeks before the first round, many established hard-liners were asking the Mayor of Tehran to withdraw from the race. They were hard-liners opposed to the Supreme Leader, and Mahmood Ahmadinejad, a former Revolutionary Guard, is known as a devotee of the Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - that was the major shock of the election.

"In our democratic system, liberty is already beyond what could be imagined", he told a victorious post-election news conference.

While the run-off between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani is said to present Iran with a stark choice between a conservative and a pragmatist, I am not so sure. Of course, the Western media is making the point that Ahmadinejad has banned companies from using Western sports stars such as David Beckham in their advertising, but why not?

Nevertheless, his unexpected success had an interesting consequence. Another candidate, Karoubi who came in third, has officially raised the issue of "bizarre interference". He has appealed to Khamenei to "appoint an honest and trusted committee" to probe the activities of the Guardians Council - an unelected political watchdog - the Interior Ministry, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia.

"We could have resigned when our supporters were barred from contesting the elections to the Majlis, said Adbollah Ramezanadeh, but we did not because we would have created the conditions for an explosion. We have been through the 1979 revolution. We did not want another one. Although there was a price to pay, something more important could be achieved. By staying on, and by criticizing the situation, we opened up the political space. Things that were once taboo to discuss were no longer taboo. People were free to criticize us, but by doing so, they were passing a judgment on the system. That is a big achievement. We have recreated a political life within the structure and it is a fundamental change".

Indeed the Presidential campaign was marked by an unprecedented use of Westernized promotion methods and airing of once taboo political issues. With the opening up of the political debate, Iran is moving a step forward. It remains to be seen whether the debate will spill over on the economic front, where badly needed reforms have been constantly hampered by the many layers of power we have described.

Serge Berthier