Sunday, February 08, 2009

Thirty years later IRAN continues to turn heads

It is a fact that Iran is more democratic than Malaysia. The scope of political freedom has increased, due to higher public awareness of rights. Our so-called democracy is mostly to the advantages to the ruling corrupt elit under United Malays National Organisation.
With a Hadhari Mullah and soon "I swear by the Quran' Mullah, our political landscape will be more limited as per under Mahathir's megalomaniac rule.

The key slogans that echoed in Iran 30 years ago were freedom, independence, and the Islamic government. Realising these slogans and fulfilling promises are still major challenges for Iran's leaders.

Freedom was the most important slogan as the Shah did not tolerate any political dissent in the last decade-and-a-half of his rule. However, the Iranians were socially free and had personal freedoms. This has reversed and personal freedoms are more limited today. Yet the scope of political freedom has increased, due to higher public awareness of rights and spaces created by factional friction. Also interest in political activities and constant demands for more freedom have been on the rise.
Periodic attempts by the regime to restrict these spaces have not reduced the appeal for more freedom. Too often, in recent years, newspapers have been closed down on flimsy grounds such as crossing the undefined "redlines". Books and films continue to be censored on religious, social and some political grounds.
Independence was the second slogan. Political independence from interfering foreign powers, and in particular the West, is seen as one of Revolution's most important achievements, with some arguing that the revolution was just about that. The cost of achieving independence has been high. It is argued that a more responsible and nuanced, and less militant, approach by the young revolutionary regime would have brought the cost considerably down. For example, Saddam Hussain would not have been supported in his war with Iran (1980-88).
The third slogan was about the Islamic government. Debates over governance have been most challenging. After 30 years of Islamic rule, consensus has not yet been reached over its nature, either in theory or practice.
The constitution is based on the separation of the three branches of power, superimposed, with an all-powerful supreme leader, and an unelected Council of Guardians that can veto the choice of the electorate. The structure is in fact a theocracy with some democratic features.
When in 1979, the revolutionaries settled for the Islamic Republic, they made a historic compromise: Islamic to satisfy the doctrinaire, and Republic to placate the democratic forces. This will have to be resolved sooner rather than later.
Current reformists see the people as the source of their legitimacy and, despite all their shortcomings and institutional restrictions, they have attempted to respond to their constituencies' demands for a responsive government. The conservatives, who call themselves "principalists," these days see people as only offering acceptability to their rule and not legitimacy.
This attitude among the conservatives means that whenever, in recent years, the electorate has been given a genuine opportunity to exercise its free choice it has challenged their assumption. The election of president Khatami in 1997 was one such occasion. Khatami, in the eyes many of his supporters, did not fulfil, or was stopped from delivering all he promised. Yet his presidency proved to be more effective than before.
But a large segment of Iran's 50 million electorate does not always show interest in the factional politics. The politicians in the Islamic Republic have collectively failed to set up a viable system based on nationally organised and representative political parties. This means that there is neither a politically neutral professional civil service nor a shadow opposition government.
The country suffers from the trial-and-error attitude and pays for it with its largely oil-based economy. The system is so politicised that factions, when they take over, install their own officials, even locally.
Although Iran's full potential has not been realised, the process of physical modernisation of the country has gone further than ever and has connected the countryside to the cities. In the field of health, transportation and communication, the basic infrastructures have been created.
Public and private investment in education has been one of the most interesting features of Iran in the past three decades. An education-led social change, in particular in sectors of the religious middle class and countryside, has helped bring the ratio of female students in Iranian universities to over 60 per cent of intake. Many of these educated women are now leading writers, filmmakers, social workers, scientists, teachers and doctors. But they are under-represented in the political and higher decision making bodies. Financial independence for educated women means more women making their choices in where to live and who to marry.
Graduates and other young people, who make up two-thirds of the population, are also constantly struggling to win more social space from hardliners who see and turn social rebellion, so common among worldwide youth, into political rebellion. Cultural resistance to impositions on clothing, fashion and hairstyle, to mention the most obvious, is a common feature of society.
Lack of sufficient job opportunities for much of this creative and young population means disappointment at the ruling politicians. The growth of cynicism, leading a double life, not to mention addiction and other social problems are other side effects.
Faced with social restriction at home, the Iranians have turned to cyberspace. This has turned the young Iranians into a major blogging community which is surfing the internet in search of news, analysis, entertainment and interaction with millions of Persian speakers living in the Diaspora. Persian, therefore, has become a key language of the web.
The officials have done their best to control all forms of indigenous and western culture deemed un-Islamic. But they have not been able fully to control the trend as cyberspace and satellite TV stations attract millions of Iranians.
A large part of the budget is spent on fighting what they term as attempts by the West for soft overthrow or "velvet" revolutions.
A counter culture is taking root in Iran, making inroads even into the traditional and official society. Official ideology has lost its appeal among the youth.
The Islamic republic has survived for three decades and met external challenges such as a war with Iraq and even sanctions. Managing the expectations of a population that desires a better standard of living, would be a very big challenge for the republic.
Tension with the outside world has helped to postpone the internal demands of the past. That is why some hardliners are not keen to unclench their fists for the time being.

Baqer Moin is a specialist on Iran and the former head of BBC Persian service. His book Khomeini, Life of the Ayatollah will be published by I.B. Tauris in London in paperback edition next week.

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