Democracy is Impossible in an Islamic Society

By   |  November 28, 2009

Hanging of gay teens in Mashad, Iran, on July 19, 2005.

“An intelligent enemy will help you rise while an ignorant friend will knock you down.” Persian proverb

According to some academic sources, such as Professor Lina Kreidie from the University of California, Irvine, democracy may be a goal for certain Iranian citizens, government officials, and religious leaders in present-day Iran. Kreidie proposes, in a prompt for undergraduate research in regard to Iran, that: “In Iran, democracy may be a goal – the achievement of which may take time and suffer setbacks. The last 100 years of Iranian history are a testament to the latter… significant and irreversible progress towards that goal has been made.” (Lina Kreidie, UCI, 2007) In an effort to challenge this proposal, I will put forth in this paper the argument that the last 100 years or so of Iranian history are in fact proof of the exact opposite: that regardless of the democratic goals of various Iranian citizens, the most democratic periods in modern Iranian history have been those periods that are the least Islamic; furthermore, whenever Islam has risen to a strong public presence in Iran, the democratic potential of the nation has in fact suffered tremendously. Viewing Iran through this lens, I will argue that no significant progress towards democracy has been made in Iran, and in fact any progress that has been made is being reversed by the continuing Islamification of the country and its foreign relations. Firstly, we must look at the word “democracy.” The Random House Dictionary defines democracy as “a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges; political or social equality.” For the purpose of this paper, then, the idea of “democracy” will be considered the incessant pursuit of societal equality across the lines of gender, race, age, affiliation, and so on for the entire population of a nation’s citizens. Democracy is sometimes inaccurately defined as “government-by-popular-representatives.” For example, the American Heritage Dictionary defines “democracy” as “government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives” and also as “majority rule.” These definitions are, in fact, inconsistent; the idea of elected representatives is actually derived from the concept of a “republic” put forth by Plato that stresses a balanced, just, society of different parts that rely on each other for well-being. The word comes from Latin “republica” which means “thing of the people.” Random House defines “republic” as “a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.” Therefore, a “republic” does not necessarily make governing decisions based on “majority rule,” as we saw in the recent 2004 United States presidential election between candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore, in which Gore won the popular vote but ultimately lost the election by way of the Electoral College. That being established, we can make more sense of Iran’s official title: the Islamic Republic of Iran. The labeling of Iran as a “republic” in the years following the 1979 Islamic Revolution can be seen as valid since Iranian citizens do in fact elect representatives to govern the state. However, the idea of a “democratic” Iran or an “Islamic Democracy of Iran” is neither currently possible on an ideological level, nor functional on a rational level, as I will soon reveal. Michael Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from the New York Daily News, recently addressed the Bush Administration’s goal of spreading “democracy” to Islamic states in the Middle East:

“It’s a stirring and noble idea and logically, it makes sense: More freedom equals less terrorism. But the democracy antidote looks increasingly like bad medicine in the Mideast. Hamas won the last election among Palestinians, Hezbollah gained seats in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood would probably win in Egypt. They all operate on the theory of ‘one man, one vote, one time.’ After they get power, that’s the end of democracy.” (Michael Goodwin, Spokesman Review, 13 June 2007)

Indeed, the last few attempts of the United States to bring democratic elections to Islamic states have resulted in the election of undemocratic leaders. It’s not even so much that elected leaders “get power” and then do away with democracy, as Goodwin states – it’s more the fact that, when given the chance, Islamic constituencies themselves are electing leaders whose openly-stated goals are to perpetuate an Islamic society that is lacking in democratic fundamentals. For example, shortly before winning the January 2006 election in Palestine, Hamas Chairman Khaled Mashaal declared, in defense of the ongoing rebellion lead by Hamas, “Observe the popular mood among Palestinians. If people do not want resistance, there will be no resistance. The Intifadah does not start or end ‘at the click of a button.’” (Khaled Mashaal, April 2005) The United States government officially labels Hamas a “terrorist organization.” Because of such labels, there seems to be the public perception in the United States that Hamas does not represent the mindset of the average Palestinian. But with their recent rise to power in 2006, the opposite was proven true. When asked about the types of societal changes Hamas would like to make in Palestine, Sheikh Mohammed Abu Teir, the second highest leader in the Palestinian Legislative Council, confirmed, “The number one thing we will do is take sharia as a source for legislation. Sharia has a soul in it and is good for all occasions.” Dr. Mahmud Al-Zahar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, was later quoted by the Washington Times as making the post-election declaration that, “Israel is not a legitimate entity, and no amount of pressure can force us to recognize its right to exist.” (Washington Times, 2006) Sharia. Refusing to recognize Israel as a distinct entity. Continuing an “intifadah” against the West. All of these concepts – surely possessing undeniably “undemocratic” elements by our original definition of “democracy” – have been publicly-confessed goals of Hamas for many years, and the group still won a popular election in Palestine. How is this possible? Where does Hamas find its inspiration? The answer – Islam.

“The Islamic Resistance Movement is a distinct Palestinian Movement which owes its loyalty to Allah, derives from Islam its way of life and strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” (Hamas Charter, 1988, Article 6) “Allah is its goal, the Prophet its model, the Koran its Constitution, Jihad its path, and death for the case of Allah its most sublime belief.” (The slogan of Hamas, Hamas Charter, 1988, Article 7)

At this point you may be wondering what Hamas has to do with Iran. It is true that Iran often finds itself isolated from most other Islamic states due to the vast majority of its population subscribing to the Shiite form of Islam, while surrounded by thoroughly Sunni neighbors. But as the old adage goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” – which might explain its often bittersweet relationships with groups like Hamas whose goals are to oppose Israel, the United States, and the West in general. Of course, Iran has only found itself on such a desperate path for friends since its turn down the Islamic superhighway in the 1980s. Right before the January 2006 election in Palestine, it was discovered that the chairman of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, had paid a visit to the Iranian government. Al Jazeera soon reported his declared purpose: “Just as Islamic Iran defends the rights of the Palestinians, we defend the rights of Islamic Iran. We are part of a united front against the enemies of Islam.” (Al Jazeera, January 2006) The academic researcher must not overlook the significance of such a declaration. Mashaal’s visit effectively proved to the world that regardless of religious sects, cultural differences, and political arguments, the Islamic world will indeed continue to join together when a common enemy is perceived – the West, and the impending “democracy” it seeks to spread to Islamic states. If my argument is that “democracy” is impossible in Islamic states, my reasoning is two-fold: firstly, Islam demands of its societies a full submission to the tenets and social guidelines of Islam that do not leave room for a Western understanding of democracy; secondly, the majority of political and religious leaders, and I daresay the vast majority of Islamic constituencies, have proven time and again that indeed, they don’t want anything to do with the “democracy” that the West seeks to share with them. That is to say, democracy is both incompatible with Islam, and unwanted by most Muslims themselves.

“The West brought all this freedom to its people but it is that freedom that has brought about the death of morality in the West. It’s what led to phenomena like homosexuality, homelessness, and AIDS.” (Dr. Mahmud Al-Zahar, Hamas leader in Gaza, WorldNetDaily, 10 October 2005)

What is it, then, about Islam, and especially hard-line Islamic societies like present-day Iran, that makes traditional “democracy” so jarring to their social and political systems? When asked about the continuing Iraqi insurgencies in 2005 and the possibility of an Islamic government rising to power, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani responded, “In Iraq, it is impossible, because you have Kurds, Arabs, Shiite, Sunni, Christians – such a kind of mosaic society. It is not Iran; it cannot be an Islamic society. If anyone tried to impose it, Iraq would be divided.” (BBC News, 2005) In other words, Islam would never tolerate the diversity that exists inside Iraq. Talabani’s words bring up another point: if Islam doesn’t tolerate diversity, yet the equality of diverse groups is a qualification of democracy, than we can conclude democracy is impossible under an Islamic society. In Iran, the possibility of democracy is complicated by the fact that it is increasingly associated with the United States, and the aggressive approaches of the neoconservative Bush administration. In June 2007, MSNBC reported that the continued financing and publicizing of a so-called “democracy fund” for Iran is only further damaging the chances of such a widespread movement being supported inside Iran.

“The survival of Iranian non-governmental organizations is being threatened by the US administration’s continuing attempts to fund the country’s civil society, leading activists have warned. Prominent NGOs say the US funding, and Iranian suspicions that the money is designed to create the conditions for a ‘soft revolution’ have helped President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad justify a crackdown on their activities.” (MSNBC, 2007)

In the last few months, four different Iranian-Americans, including a faculty member from UC Irvine, have been arrested by the Iranian government while visiting Iran. Although many critics have accused Iran of simply trying to get revenge for a few of their alleged diplomats being arrested in Iraq by American troops in January 2007, there is an underlying significance that should be recognized. Ali Moayedian, an Iranian-American columnist who writes about Iranian politics, recently addressed these arrests:

“It is true that these Iranian-Americans are pro-democracy and pro-freedom. One may even hypothesize and try to prove that these people are enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, there is no evidence to suggest these people have engaged in activities to bring down the Iranian regime. There is however plenty of evidence showing these people have in fact been vocal against the US policies of regime change in Iran and have been advocating organic growth of democracy instead. This is certainly no crime. In fact, [Iran] owes a lot to these people for their efforts to bring some sanity to the Bush administration and for pushing for dialogue instead of war.” (Payvand News, 2007)

Is it merely coincidence that the Islamic leaders of Iran and their supporters, such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are the most undemocratic members of that nation? When we see hundreds of grassroots internet blogs and activist groups emerging calling for democracy in Iran and arguing that thousands of Iranian citizens seek democracy, is it merely coincidence that the majority of these activists are non-religious, or at least support a secular reformation of the Iranian government? Regardless of such points, we can draw immediate parallels in Iran to the situation earlier examined in Palestine where Hamas rose to power with popular support. When Iranians went to the polls in June 2005 to elect a new leader, they elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man who has repeatedly made undemocratic statements such as the following:

“Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury.” (Ahmadinejad, CNN, 2005) “The fighting in Palestine is a war between the (whole) Islamic nation and the world of arrogance. …Today, Palestinians are representing the Islamic nation against arrogance.” (Ahmadinejad, ABC News, 2005)

Whether or not this election was rigged, and whether or not the votes of some citizens did not accurately reflect the growing desire of democracy in Iran, it is truly irrelevant. The leading forces of modern Iran somehow succeeded in bringing such a man to power – and those forces are, as in Palestine, based on Islamic fundamentalism. It has been noted by many academics that a women’s rights movement is on the rise in Iran, and that many youth movements continue to show a desire for Western culture, let alone democratic procedures. It should be noted that both of these purported movements seem to associate democracy with the West in a positive light, regardless of various feelings of bitterness in regard to recent engagements of the West. Without further ado, we must look into Islam itself and find where this inherent hatred and avoidance of traditionally democratic ideas is rooted. The following are examples of undemocratic elements at the very heart of Islamic literature: REMINDER: The Random House Dictionary defines democracy as “a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges; political or social equality.” For the purpose of this paper, then, the idea of “democracy” will be considered the incessant pursuit of societal equality across the lines of gender, race, age, affiliation, and so on for the entire population of a nation’s citizens. Inequality for women: “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So, good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them…” (Surah 4:34, Koran)

“Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) so go to your tilth as ye will…” (Surah 2:223, Koran) “And all married women (are forbidden unto you) save those (captives) whom your right hands possess…” (Surah 4:24, Koran) “If a man is in a mood to have sexual intercourse, the woman must come immediately even if she is baking bread at a communal oven.” (Hadith Sahih Tirmzi, Vol. 1, P.428)

Inequality for race/affiliation: “Fight against those who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth among the people of the Scripture, until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (Surah 9:29, Koran)

“You (i.e. Muslims) will fight with the Jews till some of them will hide behind stones. The stones will (betray them) saying, ‘O Abdullah (i.e. slave of Allah)! There is a Jew hiding behind me; so kill him.’” (Hadith Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 4, Book 52, Number 176)

Even if the academic concedes that the idea of democracy has been recently tainted in the Middle East (let alone Islamic nations) due to sour relations with the West, it still cannot explain the historical avoidance of equality during the Islamic periods in Iran’s history, such as the banning of Western music, soccer, free press, and free speech in recent decades under the banner of the Islamic Revolution. As women continue to be gang-raped by groups of Muslim men as an Islamic “punishment” for crimes they have been falsely accused of, it is hard not to question if this “revolution” has resulted in any non-suppressive culture.  That is, after all is said and done, no amount of finger pointing or foreign relations can take away the fact that Iran is the least democratic when is it the most Islamic. The only way that Iran will become a functioning, equality-based democracy is when:

  1. The majority of its domestic population abandons Islamic fundamentalism
  2. The majority of its domestic population associates democracy with its own identity and not merely with the West
  3. The leaders and power-holders of Iran reflect these shifts in popular mindset

“They talk about democracy, about human rights, about global security, and about the war on terror, but their evil inner self reveals how warmongering they are, reveals how they trample the rights of the peoples, and reveals their great desire and insatiable appetite for the world’s energy sources. The peoples see these things. Day by day, the reputation of liberal democracy and of America – the vanguard of liberal democracy in the world – is diminished in the eyes of the world. At the same time, the reputation of Islamic Iran grows. The peoples understand that the Americans are lying, when they claim to be defending human rights.” (Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, MEMRI, March 2007)

“Tens of thousands of people filled the central streets of Turkey’s capital on Saturday to protest what they see as an increasingly Islamic tint to their government. … “We don’t want to become another Iran, another Afghanistan,” said Hanife Sahin, a retired nurse, stooping under the red tent formed by a Turkish flag that ran like a river over the crowd. News reports said demonstrators numbered as many as 300,000, an unexpectedly high turnout for a gathering that was initially expected to draw only harder-line nationalists. The numbers underlined the deepening divide within Turkish society over the role of Islam in Turkey, a country whose very charter scrubbed the government clean of religion…” (International Herald Tribune, 14 April 2007) Annotated Bibliography – Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006. – The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. – Michael Goodwin, “Democracy a false hope for Mideast”, New York Daily News, June 13, 2007 http://www.spokesmanreview.com/tools/story_pf.asp?ID=194447 – Foundation for Middle East Peace, “Quotes from Hamas Leaders”, 19 January 2006 http://www.fmep.org/analysis/articles/quotes_from_hamas_leaders_on_hamas_israel_and_palestinian_politics.html – American Jewish Committee, “Hamas Watch”, 2006 http://www.ajc.org/site/c.ijITI2PHKoG/b.1395433/k.429B/Hamas_Watch_Analysis_and_Quotes.htm – CNN, “Hamas’ past casts shadow over peace plans”, 26 January 2006 http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/01/26/palestinian.election/ – BBC News, “Iraq militias ‘could beat rebels’”, 18 April 2005 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4454985.stm – MSNBC, “Backlash feared to US funding in Iran”, 14 June 2007 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19233755/ – Payvand News, “Iran’s choice is between Ignorant friends or intelligent enemies”, 13 June 2007 http://www.payvand.com/news/07/jun/1129.html – IHT, “300,000 protest Islamic hue of Turkish system”, 14 April 2007 http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/04/15/europe/web-0415turkey.php – Middle East Media Research Institute, “Iranian Leader Ali Khamenei Threatens to ‘Strike at Them with All Our Capabilities’ If Iran Is Attacked”, 21 March 2007 http://www.memritv.org/Transcript.asp?P1=1409

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  1. Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It if truth be told used to be a leisure account it. Glance complicated to more introduced agreeable from you! However, how can we keep in touch?

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