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Iran and the Future of Liberalism

by Danny Postel

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First, let me state exactly what I mean by liberalism. There is of course a robust and complex theoretical debate among philosophers, political theorists, and intellectual historians about the precise contours and varieties of liberal thought, its historical evolution, its tensions and contradictions. Many of the arguments being advanced in that debate are important and useful. But for purposes of this essay, I’m going to focus very concretely on what liberalism means in Iran today. Broadly speaking, it signifies the struggle for human rights, women’s rights, civil liberties, pluralism, religious toleration, freedom of expression and multi-party democracy.

The struggle for these things defines the present upheaval. And the reason is pretty straightforward: Iran is a theocratic police state. The so-called Islamic Republic, established after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, defines itself largely in opposition to these things. Its human rights record is atrocious. Newspapers and magazines that criticize the regime are routinely shut down. Dissident journalists and intellectuals are jailed and tortured, in many cases killed. Article 4 of Iran’s Constitution prohibits the establishment of any law or policy not in keeping with Islam. Without the official permission of the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, in the words of the Iranian author Naghmeh Zarbafian, “no books or magazines are published, no audiotapes are distributed, no movies are shown, and no cultural organization is established”. The unelected Guardian Council – a body of six clerics appointed by the unelected Supreme Leader – has the authority to veto any legislation passed by Iran’s parliament and decides who may or may not stand for office. Women are required to follow a strict dress code, covering their heads in public. A 16-year-old girl was recently sentenced to death and hung for having sex outside of marriage. That she claimed to have been raped counted for nothing.

Under conditions like these, liberalism is a radical political project. A triumphant Iranian liberalism would involve dismantling the entire apparatus of the reigning political order and constructing a dramatically different one. In the Iranian context, liberalism is a matter of life and death: people are literally putting their lives on the line when they write articles for opposition newspapers calling for an end to theocratic rule; when they take to the streets to participate in student demonstrations for democracy; when they publish a blog at an internet café that dares to criticize the régime’s human rights record.

For Iranians, liberalism is a fighting faith. They have to struggle, at great personal risk, to realize the ‘bourgeois liberties’ we take for granted. “Human rights and freedom are luxuries for us”, says Akbar Ganji. “In order to get them, we have to pay. We have to fight, actively resist, go to jail”.

As the French political philosopher Pierre Manent says, most of us who live in liberal democracies have forgotten what it means to be political. We are tempted, he writes, “to forget that [we] are political animals”. We’re largely incognizant of the struggles that had to be waged in order to achieve the rights and arrangements that liberal societies enjoy today: the sacrifices that were made, the blood that was spilled, the lives that were lost, indeed, the world-altering convulsions that were endured. Many, if not most, of us inhabit a liberal landscape whose provenance is invisible. We exercise rights and liberties more or less the way we drink water – as things that simply are, rather than things that we have to fight for.

Left-wing critiques of liberalism, which seemed in many ways to have lost their sting and appeal amid the revolutions of 1989, have been making something of a comeback in the Age of Bush. Whereas in the immediate aftermath of Communism’s collapse, radicals like Peter Osborne were arguing that “the future of socialism seems now to hang in the balance of its reorientation towards the liberal tradition”, liberalism now finds itself, if anything, on the defensive. Liberals are saddled with the burden of disentangling their project from neoliberalism, from the Iraq War, and from US imperialism. They are busy responding, in other words, to the radical critique of liberalism.  

Marxists like Immanuel Wallerstein thus talk about liberalism’s “essential links with racism and Eurocentrism”; radicals describe human rights as nothing more than “the rhetoric of empire” and characterize liberalism as a global “virus”; or, as a Marxist friend of mine put it recently, “liberalism is The National Security Strategy of the United States of America”. Thanks in large part to Bush & Co. this kind of talk isn’t easily dismissed. There is not only a receptive audience but a growing one for claims like Wallerstein’s that we are witnessing “the collapse of liberalism and our definitive entry into the world ‘after liberalism’”.      

So as we teeter between boredom and suspicion, as we stammer between insouciance and jaundice about what I’ll call Actually Existing Liberalism, it might be worth considering the upheaval in Iran today. By reasserting those values that we now take for granted, the Iranian struggle can breathe new life into our own liberalism by reminding us, among other things, of how profoundly radical a force it is.

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