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Iran and the Future of Liberalism

by Danny Postel

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In this period of widespread withdrawal from internationalist thinking – in which many self-styled leftists share the traditionally conservative suspicion that liberalism and democracy are somehow foreign to non-Western societies and represents an imperializing threat to their traditions’ – it is essential to underscore that Iran has had a robust and longstanding internal struggle for democracy. Indeed, write Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, Iran’s is a “culturally indigenous and popular demand for democratization”. “In Iran”, they argue, “the democracy debate is neither a Western import nor a concession to the West, nor is it a project of the state or the élite foisted on the masses. Here the debate is now a popular idea that has developed from within the society”.

It’s not simply as a matter of internationalist principle that we should reach out to liberals struggling around the world. We certainly should – but it’s essential to emphasise that liberals around the world seek our support and recognition. When I interviewed the Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi in the spring of 2004, I asked her what she thinks of the view, widely held on the Left, that Iran’s issues are internal and that western outsiders’ (writ large) should stay out of them. She firmly rejected this position and expressed a desire for “human rights defenders… university professors…international NGOs” to support the struggle for human rights in Iran. “All defenders of human rights”, she said, “are members of a single family”. “When we help one another we’re stronger”. It is important, she said, “to give aid to democratic institutions inside despotic countries”.

Echoing this view, Akbar Ganji has said: “We don’t want anything from governments. We are looking to the NGOs. And we want people to know what the Iranian reality is, for people to know what’s going on in Iran. The intellectuals, the media and NGOs in the world have to draw attention to the human rights abuses in Iran. We need moral support. I emphasize: we don’t want intervention, we only want the moral support of the global community for our fight”.

Both Ebadi and Ganji are keen to distinguish the kind of international solidarity they do want from the sort of help’ neoconservatives would like to visit upon Iran. Indeed, not only are they against military intervention in their country, preferring instead a nonviolent transformation from within; they don’t even want assistance from the US government, which would only supply the regime with further ammunition against the Iranian opposition. Thus the Bush administration’s announcement that it was earmarking $75 million to support Iran’s democratic forces met with a resounding thud amongst those very forces, an unambiguous thanks but no thanks’.

Ebadi, Ganji and other Iranian activists thus reject both the radical Left’s phlegmatic isolationism
and the neoconservatives’ dubious, itchy-trigger-finger imperialism. This gaping political void is screaming out for liberal internationalists to fill it. Our solidarity is being sought out by our counterparts. Our internationalism demands that we listen and find ways to help them. 

I’m calling for a liberal Third-Worldism to take the place of the failed and moribund Third-Worldism of the New Left and its inheritors. Rather than cede the turf of the Global South to the revolutionary Left (as many liberals and social democrats have done since the 1960s), we should proactively claim that turf as our own, advancing liberalism as a superior framework to address the dilemmas facing the Third World today. Fred Halliday identifies the defining properties of Actually Existing Third-Worldism as follows: “a ritual incantantion of ‘no war’ that avoids any substantive engagement with problems of international peace and security, or reflection on how positively to help peoples in zones of conflict; a set of vague, unthought out, uncosted and often dangerous utopian ideas about an alternative world; a pleasing but vapid invocation of global human values and internationalism that blithely ignores the misuses to which that term was put in the 20th Century”. Now, to be fair, this doesn’t apply to everyone in the anti-globalization or global justice movement, many of whom possess a more sophisticated understanding of the world and apply more intellectual rigor than Halliday’s polemic would suggest. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of truth in this portrait. Anyone even casually familiar with the political scene Halliday is describing knows that large swaths of it are guilty as charged.

But pointing out the inadequacies of Actually Existing Radicalism is not enough. It’s necessary, but insufficient, to demonstrate the Third Worldist Left’s limitations and oversimplifications – to criticize and emphatically reject its political monism, its tunnel-vision obsession with US imperialism, and the myopic picture of the world this creates. We have to go beyond critique and propose alternative visions. Where, for example, do we liberal internationalists stand on the current architecture of global capitalism? What is our position on things like the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)? What is our contribution to the debate about international economic institutions like the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank and how they affect the Third World? Some struggles in the world today are tailor-made for a liberal internationalist analysis – but many are not. Where the core issues at stake involve the core principles of liberalism, our role is crystal clear. But where the core issues are poverty, development, trade policy, capital flows, financial markets, sweat shops, structural adjustment, landless workers, transnational corporations, ecological destruction, genetically engineered crops, and the like, we find ourselves on the home court of Marxists, anarchists, Third Worldists, and other radicals in the anti-globalization movement. It is generally they, and not we, who organize the forums and the demonstrations, who publish the magazines and the websites, who write the books and the working papers on these issues.

This needs to change. If we fail to engage the Third World ourselves, we will be seen precisely as “oddly tangential” to its most pressing concerns. Instead, we need to bring our collective intellectual energies and political sensibilities to bear on the global struggle for justice – on the economic and political fronts alike. To be sure, there are liberal internationalists and social democrats already doing vital work in this area. (Think of the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum around alternative models of development in places like India and Bangladesh). But a much more aggressive and concerted effort is required.

I’ll close where I began, with Nafisi’s Reading Lolita. Her book, she says, is about “how Tehran helped redefine Nabokov’s novel, turning it into this Lolita, our Lolita”. I would like to suggest that by looking closely at the struggle of Iranians today for human rights, an open society, freedom of expression, freedom to believe or not believe as one wishes, pluralism, democracy, the freedom to read whatever books one wants to read, without restriction – that if we take that upheaval seriously and see ourselves in it, the Iranians waging that struggle can help redefine liberalism, turning it into this liberalism, our liberalism.

Danny Postel’s Reading ‘Legitmation Crisis’ in Tehran is published by Prickly Paradigm Press.

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