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A New Islamic Revolution?

June 15, 2009 |
If the Islamic Republic falls, Iran might have the opportunity to build a real Islamic democracy.
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The great strength of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been its ability to mask its fundamentally authoritarian character with the trappings of democratic elections. To be sure, the only candidates who are allowed to run for office are those who accept the basic--and very narrow--contours of Iran's constitutional order. Those who believe that the state treasury shouldn't be used as a piggy bank for elite military officers and their mistresses and cronies, for example, are ineligible for office, which is convenient.

But even so, Iran's elections have traditionally been a good way to let off steam, and also a good way to distract attention from Iran's so-called deep state. With a reformist at the helm like Khatami or a clown like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the real powers-that-be can do their dastardly deeds undisturbed. Now, however, Iran's real rulers have signed their death warrant.

The sham re-election of Ahmadinejad is very dark news indeed, particularly for the Iranians who face violent reprisals for defending their rights under their country's Islamic constitution. But by badly undermining the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, this tragic event might lead to the unraveling of one of the world's most dangerous regimes. And if the Islamic Republic falls, Iran might have the opportunity to build a real Islamic democracy.

Last year, Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School with a longstanding interest in religion and public life, published a provocative book called The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. Rather than condemn contemporary Islamist political movements outright, Feldman placed them in a broader historical context.

In the late 1970s, members of the Muslim intelligentsia, particularly in Iran and among Iranian émigrés, were seized with nostalgia for the classical Islamic state. And it is easy to see why. For all their flaws, the Islamic regimes that were later swept away by secular nationalism were law-based regimes. The clerical establishment that defined and interpreted the law served as a check on the political leadership. Though these states were hardly liberal democracies, they did represent pluralism of a kind. They could not, however, keep up with the modern states of the West, which boasted administrative efficiency that mightily increased their military and economic power.

Though reformers tried to revitalize the Islamic state by selectively borrowing Western innovations, they wound up undermining its pluralism without making it any stronger. Humiliated by the memory of military defeat, the majority-Muslim states that emerged in the post-colonial era rejected the traditional model. But rather than embrace liberal democracy, the rulers of these countries tended to emphasize the preservation of internal order over the civil and political freedoms that would build legitimacy. This is still true across most of the region, where hereditary autocrats crush dissent with no regard for any legal restraint.

Iran's Islamic Republic was supposed to work differently. The Iran of the 1970s struck many as a cardinal example of authoritarianism run amok. Though parts of the country were modernizing rapidly, the Shah presided over a sharp increase in inequality and, in the view of his staunchest critics, he ruled as an absolute monarch through his brutal secret police. When the Shah was overthrown, his successors rallied around the ideal of a just and equitable Islamic regime, in which raw political power would be tempered by divine law. Shi'a scholars would be given final authority on all key decisions, thus guaranteeing, in theory, that greed would never again corrupt the workings of government.

This ideal has proved very attractive, not least among the Sunnis who constitute the vast majority of the world's Muslims. A number of majority-Muslim states, including the struggling new democracies of Afghanistan and Iraq, have embraced aspects of traditional shari'a law. In the authoritarian states of the Muslim Middle East, the vision of Islamic democracy has inspired powerful opposition movements. In Turkey, the AK Party has crafted a decidedly imperfect but promising Muslim version of European Christian Democracy, in which Islamic ideals are pursued through democratic means.

For some time now, however, it has been clear that Iran's constitutional order is broken. Revolutionary Iran is less a beacon of hope to Muslims around the world than an exporter of terrorist violence. Its military adventurism, economic failures and enduring inequality all stem from the consolidation of power in the hands of interlocking clerical and military elites. Rather than restore the checks and balances of a traditional Islamic regime, the Islamic Republic has become far more dangerous and authoritarian than the regime it replaced.

Amusingly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the darling of Iran's military elite, has raised the specter of corruption against his political rivals. And yet it is his political allies, particularly those in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who have proved most canny and ambitious in their efforts to loot the state.

As Feldman convincingly explains, appeals to the ideal of an Islamic state are fundamentally appeals to the rule of law. Given that the Islamic Republic has taken such a lawless turn, one gets the sense that Iran is ripe for another Islamic revolution.

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