Kaveh Mousavi is an Iranian ex-Muslim blogger. Any day now his blog On the Margin of Error will move to the Atheist Channel on Patheos. In the meantime he will be guest posting here on Camels With Hammers while he gets set up. Below is Kaveh’s answer to my request that he introduce the distinctives of Iranian life to a Western audience.
If I want to describe Iran in a useful way, I can only describe it as the nation of uncertainty, of paradoxes that are impossible to solve. At heart this is what makes Iranian culture and politics almost impossible to understand. And if you do have some basic underlying understanding, it’s almost impossible to articulate, except in contradictory terms. As far as our recent history goes back, it has always been like this.
We were never really colonized, yet you could not exclude Iran from the history of colonialism. Unlike India or Algeria Iran was never conquered by a colonizing country, but colonizers nevertheless infiltrated domestic regimes and made business deals with them and were completely against Iran’s interest and received rights to Iran’s resources in return of things like luxurious gifts to the monarchs. At one point in Iranian history Russia and the United Kingdom actually agreed to divide Iran between themselves, with Russia controlling the North and the UK controlling the South. Before the Islamic Republic, the foreign powers had changed power in Iran three times in three different coups (removing the last Qajar monarch to bring Reza Pahlavi to power, then removing him to bring his son, and finally against Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister to reinstall the same king). So was Iran colonized or not? It was and it wasn’t, it was in a weird situation between being colonized and being independent. Its history cannot be written like a colonized country and not like an independent one.
The same is true about all regimes which came to power in the recent history. We had our first democratic revolution more than a hundred years ago. It wasn’t really a revolution though, it was actually a reformist movement. The revolutionaries didn’t plan to overthrow the Qajar king (and they didn’t). They wanted a judiciary, a constitution, and an elected parliament. This is why we call it the Constitutional Revolution. Since then, Iran has always been a weird hybrid between a democracy and an autocracy/theocracy. Although the autocracy/theocracy part has always been more powerful, the democracy has always been there to an extent as well.
Notice that I do not say that Iran was a flawed democracy. It has never been a democracy. Turkey is a flawed democracy. Even Pakistan is a flawed democracy. None of those countries meet the standards of a western democracy, but their elections are real. Iran has always been a tyranny with some democratic aspects. It’s not Saudi Arabia or Sudan, or not Egypt under Mubarak with entirely fake elections. The candidates are pre-approved, and the elected person (either the Prime Minister or the president) is not the head of state (either the monarch or the Supreme Leader) but all the pre-approved candidates are not the same, and there will be real change if the reformists are elected, but the change won’t be fundamental, but it will totally change our lives. The elections are because the reformist candidates are really fundamentally different from the conservative ones (and moderate conservatives also from radical conservatives), with radically different ideologies, and yet none of them want to overthrow the regime. The regime allows moderates to run and occasionally get power because of the public opinion.
A president, under Iran’s current regime, has some control over the economy. Under Ahmadinejad’s Iran’s economy was completely wrecked, but it has already recovered under Rouhani (the inflation is halved and the growth is more than 0 again), yet the president is unable to fundamentally transform the economy because most of it is in the control of the military and the Office of the Supreme Leader. They look at Iran’s resources as a way to control power and manage it like a mafia, so while a president cannot transform the economy or heal its main illness, his influence can still mean the difference between prosperity and poverty for Iranian people.
And while the president doesn’t have the absolute power over political arena – he can’t free prisoners, he can’t stop newspapers and websites from being shut down, but he can still create some spaces for the human right activists to function more easily. Under Rouhani, the academic freedoms have radically changed; he has let some banned books to be published, and although overall the atmosphere is completely strict, it is not comparable to the horror years of Ahmadinejad.
So do we have elections or not? We do and do not, and they are not real but not fake either.
And whenever the regime tries to move and take this little space away, people revolt. The Shah did that and a revolution brought him down, the Islamic Republic did that too and the protests broke out and caused the regime to walk back and let the next election be fair.
Are we an open society or a closed one? Well, maybe more open and more closed than what you think at the same time. Yes, everyone drinks, and yes, drinking alcohol can get you in huge trouble. That is true. No one can say it is false. Also many people drink it and don’t face a repercussion and that is also true. So what is true? Both, the truth is that even when we drink and face no repercussion we still feel the threat and the threat is real, not imaginary. So we are not this stereotypical image of an Islamic theocratic dystopia but we are living with lies, with fear, doing the most innocent things like criminals. I do five things that can be punished by death on average everyday and I’m alive and have never been in prison. But I don’t feel safe as if there is a de facto liberty, because there isn’t. An Iranian lives life feeling as if someone has raised their hand to slap them, and they really might slap them, but right now they’re just holding their hands mid-air and not bringing it down.
I can go on, and explain every aspect of Iranian society the same way. But the point is that everything is uncertain, and that defines Iranian society more than anything.
I believe these the complexity of the Iranian society and the complexity of our political system make Iran so hard to predict and hard to understand. But uncertainty is always present, and therefore I think if you want to understand the Iranian society, imagine that you are uncertain about where you are and where you are heading towards.
For more on the intricacies that are hard for outsiders to understand, I have tried to simplify the complexities of Iranian politics before.
This is a guest post by Kaveh Mousavi. For more of his views regularly follow his On the Margin of Error blog. Below are links to his guest posts here at Camels With Hammers, each responding to a question I had for him:
Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at camelswithhammers@ .