The Ayatollahs’ Democracy
An Iranian Challenge
by Hooman Majd
Norton, 282 pp., $26.95
One of the more amusing anecdotes related here by Hooman Majd involves a preelection conversation between the author and a deputy minister for science. Majd, an Iranian-American journalist with close ties to the Green Movement leadership, pointedly questions the Ahmadinejad appointee about his government’s decision to cap band-width speeds across the country at a slow 128 kilobytes per second. The deputy minister responds sternly that the cap simply reflects the Iranian cultural context: “We like to pay visits to each other, to drop in and chat with our friends and family, to see one another’s faces.”
Who needs Facebook when we have the tea room?
The Persian blogosphere is estimated to be the world’s fourth largest. When permitted by the regime, Iranians are avid YouTube, Twitter, and SMS users. Majd naturally rejects the minister’s invocation of cultural relativism to mask repression. “The matter of the Internet . . . is purely one of control, not culture,” he rightly concludes. It is a shame, then, that his book reacts to recent developments in Iran with the same basic intellectual reflex as the hardline theocrat tackling the foreign menace of Internet access.
Much of The Ayatollahs’ Democracy is devoted to a garden-variety defense of Iran’s nuclear program and aggressive foreign policy under Ahmadinejad. More provocatively, however, the book advances the thesis that the Islamic Republic of Iran forms the basis of a democratic order reflecting the broad consensus of a devoutly Shia and
Persian polity-—some recent “excesses” notwithstanding. To make this case, Majd relies on a number of fascinating personal vignettes. What is remarkable about many of these is precisely the extent to which they tend to undermine his own characterization of the Iranian political system.
Take, for example, one of Majd’s many get-togethers with his relative by marriage, former President Mohammad Khatami. The two are happily drinking tea when Majd broaches the topic of politics. Suddenly, “Khatami pauses and then waves one hand toward the ceiling and the walls, and says, ‘You know how it is.’ . . . His offices are thoroughly bugged, his every conversation monitored, his every movement tracked.” Majd’s tea room meeting with the son of the reformist-leaning Friday prayer leader of the city of Yazd is also monitored, this time by ominous security agents visible across the tea room. The latter incident occurred prior to the 2009 election and subsequent crackdown.
In the face of these police-state encounters, Majd resorts to some remarkable intellectual contortions to present the Islamic Republic as a democracy. He goes to painstaking lengths to distinguish the repressive
“Ahmadinejad regime” from the benevolent “Iranian republic” and its (supposedly) democratic ideals and institutions. The republic has always had a repressive apparatus, Majd concedes, but it is only the Ahmadinejad regime which has put it to really bad use—a claim belied by the summary executions of thousands of dissidents during the first decade of the Islamic Republic.
Majd also attempts, unsuccessfully, to present Iranian politics as similar to those in any other democracy by carelessly applying labels like “left,” “right,” “liberal,” and “conservative” to a system that defies these familiar coordinates. Conscious of his target audience’s politics, Majd often compares the Iranian president to George W. Bush, casting both as provincial conservatives intolerant of dissenting views. Say what you will about Dubya, but “Not My President” bumper stickers never landed American liberals in jail. In Iran, a “Not My President” bumper sticker market is unlikely to survive—literally.
While the Bush/Ahmadinejad comparison marks a cheap attempt to appeal to Western leftists, the parallels Majd draws between the Iranian political system and America’s are perverse. Every election cycle, Iran’s Guardian Council bars candidates for the presidency unless they are male, Shia, and possess irreproachable revolutionary credentials.
To dress up theocracy as democracy, Majd turns to some unattractive yes-buttery here: Yes, the Guardian Council prevents thousands of otherwise qualified individuals from running for office on political, ethno-sectarian, and gender-based grounds, he concedes; but don’t the media play the same role here in the United States by targeting candidates who are outside the American mainstream? This sophomoric argument raises the question: Are Iranian women, who make up half of the electorate and more than half of university graduates, not “mainstream” enough for Iran?
Then again, faced with such political conundrums, Majd always has the concept of the “Ayatollahs’ democracy” to fall back on—though he pointedly never defines the term with precision. Instead he relies on a repetitive series of synonyms to describe Iran’s political system: “Islamic democracy,” “Islamic ‘democracy,’ ” “religious democracy,” “Shia Islamic democracy,” “Iranian democracy,” “Persian democracy”—and so on. The vagueness appears deliberate:
Islamic democracy . . . is possible because there are republican aspects of Islam and Islamic aspects of republicanism, such as respect for and protection of the rights of the people, and the ability of the people to choose their leaders. That’s far too vague to be a description of a political system, and one that melds theology with governance, but perhaps it’s that vagueness—and the anomalous nature of the Ayatollahs’ democracy—that has allowed its survival this long.
Or perhaps it is the brutal efficiency of Evin Prison. Fear, not opacity, has been the backbone of Iran’s dictatorship—or rather, the “Ayatollahs’ Persian-Shia-Islamic-Iranian democracy.”
Using these ethno-sectarian predicates allows Majd to pretend that Iran is a democracy even when the regime callously disregards the most basic democratic norms. Just as Persian culture demands slow Internet speeds, Persian democracy needs a robust dose of authoritarianism. The Ayatollahs’ Democracy thus feeds into an embarrassing Western intellectual tradition of fetishizing Khomeinism, dating back to Michel Foucault’s early embrace of the 1979 revolution. Today, romanticizing the Iranian regime as a culturally appropriate “democratic” order allows uncomfortable Western audiences to avoid confronting a dictatorial reality that spells injustice in any language.
And yet, because of the glaring inconsistency between its on-the-ground reportage and political analysis, The Ayatollahs’ Democracy invites esoteric reading. The book’s first section, which recounts the events of the 2009 election through the eyes of regime officials and Green leaders, is structured like a play in two acts with an entr’acte and listing of dramatis personae. Each scene in this play is punctuated by variations on the 11th-century Persian mystic Hassan-i
Sabbah’s enigmatic pronouncement (popularized by Nietzsche and William S. Burroughs) that “nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Perhaps Majd is asking his audience to read between the lines. After all, as an American-based journalist, he holds a visa from the ayatollahs’ bureaucrats that would be at risk should he draw the obvious conclusions.
Regardless of any ironic hidden message, Majd’s theatrical form ultimately comes off as a feeble attempt to add literary verve to trite apologetics, a style reinforced by a Warholesque dust jacket and the slang and vulgarity interlaced throughout the book (when it comes to foreign policy, Majd appreciates the fact that Ahmadinejad’s Iran has “balls”).
So why does an independent journalist and son of a Shah-era diplomat apologize for a system that so mercilessly victimizes Iranian dissidents? It is tempting to psychoanalyze Hooman Majd or to think him desperate to maintain his remarkable access to the regime’s establishment. But Majd has yet another escape hatch: Just as the regime practices a unique, culturally centered form of “democracy,” Majd has pioneered a unique form of independent journalism. Call it Ayatollahs’ Analysis.
Sohrab Ahmari has written about reform in the Muslim world for Commentary, the Boston Globe, and PBS|Frontline’s Tehran bureau.