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Iran and the Future of Liberalism

by Danny Postel

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Habermas himself has made this point. When he was invited to lecture at the University of Tehran in 2002, the event drew an enormous crowd – the auditorium was overwhelmed. His visit left Iranian intellectual circles abuzz; study groups have since formed in Tehran to read his work. Reflecting on the experience, Habermas has spoken of his “encounters with intellectuals and citizens of an uninhibited, spontaneous and self-confident urban population” laboring under the weight of authoritarian rule. A young political scientist he met told Habermas of how he “likes to return home from Chicago, where he occasionally teaches, despite all the difficulties that await him”, because in Iran “there is at least a political public realm with passionate debates”.

And those passionate debates have high stakes. They carry deadly serious consequences for those engaged in them. First, because merely being a participant in political discourse in a closed society and having the ‘wrong’ views can land you in jail or in a grave. And second, because the outcome of those debates could determine the future of your society. We’re not talking about Oxford-style debating societies or mass-mediated spectacles like CNN’s Crossfire (now fortunately in the grave itself). Iranians are trying to figure out what kind of society and political system they want. They’re thinking through the essential questions of political life, and doing so at great personal risk – holding clandestine meetings in dormitories, pondering what role religion might play in a pluralistic, post-theocratic system, and brainstorming about how to get from here to there.

In a context like that, ideas take on vital, burning relevance: Popper’s open society; Arendt’s emphasis on the primacy of the political and her anatomy of totalitarianism; Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty; Habermas’s notion of a legitimation crisis and his reconstruction of how the public sphere took shape in modern European coffee houses; Kolakowski’s insistence that there is “one freedom on which all other liberties depend – and that is freedom of expression, freedom of speech, of print. If this is taken away, no other freedom can exist, or at least it would be soon suppressed”. These ideas are the intellectual raw materials of a revolution-in-the-making, a liberal revolution.

The great theorist of liberal revolution, the early 20th century Italian writer and agitator Piero Gobetti, believed that it was precisely the marginality of liberal movements – their being on the outside rather than the inside of political power – that underscored their radicalism. The Italian liberalism of Gobetti’s age, of course, had to labor under the creeping weight of Mussolini’s Fascism, which came to power while Gobetti was editing the journal Liberal Revolution, furiously writing essays, and being beaten and arrested (eventually dying from wounds inflicted in one attack by Fascists). This sense of battling uphill, of the precariousness of the liberal project, and the eventual experience of its being thwarted convinced Gobetti that liberalism was, at its best, a militant and revolutionary force. His writings are, in the words of the political theorist Nadia Urbinati, “witness to a liberalism conscious of its imminent and perhaps long-lasting twilight”. But precisely for that reason they are a fog light in the historical sea of liberalism, illuminating the liberating power of the credo.

I should be clear, however, that the parlance of ‘revolution’ is far from the lips of Iranians today. Iranians are understandably turned off by revolution-speak, given the ‘revolutionary’ regime they’ve been living under since 1979, but also – and this is critical – because of the general failure of the revolutionary Left in Iran. “The leftist, anti-imperialist ideas of the 1970s have given way to a more pragmatic discourse about economic and political dignity based on Western models of secular democracy”, observes the Iranian journalist Afshin Molavi. “Iranian youth largely dismiss the radical ideas of their parents’ generation, full of half-baked leftism, Marxist economics, Third World anti-imperialism, Islamist radicalism and varying shades of utopian totalitarianism. ‘We just want to be normal’, is typical of what hundreds of students have told me. ‘We’re tired of radicalism’”.   

Some sectors of the Iranian Left, moreover, forged outright alliances with Khomeini’s forces – with disastrous results, both for themselves (upon fully consolidating power, the Islamic Republic decimated the Left, murdering thousands of its members and scattering the survivors into exile), but also, crucially, for its reputation and legacy among Iranians. As the dissident Iranian writer Faraj Sarkohi has noted, “the left wing’s co-operation with the despotic government and their rejection of democracy is firmly engraved on the memory of the Iranian people”. Their many differences aside, what united the Islamist and ultraleft wings of the Iranian Revolution was their virulent antipathy toward liberalism. “Death to America!” may have been the more famous slogan of 1979, but it is worth remembering that “Death to Liberalism!” was shouted along with it on the streets of Tehran. As many Iranian commentators have pointed out, the Iranian Left – not unlike its counterparts elsewhere in the world – lashed out at liberalism with a ferocious zeal, and this contributed to the Islamist ascendancy. This anti-liberalism was especially misplaced and ironic, given that the greatest anti-imperialist leader of 20th Century Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq, was nothing if not a liberal democrat!

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