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Journal of Democracy 11.4 (2000) 135-138
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Is Iran Democratizing?
The Role of the Intellectuals
Two decades after Iran's Islamic revolution, the majority of the Iranian people manifested their despair and frustration with the outcome of the revolution by voting for democratic reform in the 2000 parliamentary elections. The revolution had failed to fulfill its promise of establishing a state in which people with all kinds of political views could participate in the affairs of the country. In 1997, Mohammed Khatami rose out of the revolutionary establishment to win the presidency, vowing to reform the system and affirming that reform was indeed possible on the basis of Islamic principles. Despite all the obstacles he encountered, Khatami's new political discourse emphasizing dialogue and tolerance won him the support of the outside world and ended Iran's 20 years of isolation. Signaling that Iran is ready to reenter the international community, Khatami even took a big step toward mending relations with the United States.
The key question, however, is whether Khatami will be able to succeed in creating a democratic state within an Islamic system. The answer remains unclear. There is no question that working within the Islamic system is the best way to initiate reforms in Iran, a country that witnessed two revolutions in the past century and has been plunged into deeper problems by the most recent one. These problems can be mended only by nonviolent democratic reforms. Yet since such reforms will begin to [End Page 135] replace Islamic laws with secular ones and gradually lead to the elimination of a large part of the current judicial system, it is uncertain how they will affect the Islamic character of the present regime.
The election of Khatami opened once again the political debate about democratization in Iran. The main issue in this debate, however, is less the transition to some kind of multiparty democracy than the consolidation of Iranian civil society and the improvement of civil liberties. Khatami has shown himself to be a skillful politician, and he is not lacking in courage or resources. Yet I think he needs the aid of a generation of young Iranian elites ready to contribute to the drive for change in Iran. Certainly, the success of the democratization process is determined not only by the state but also by the society. Thus what I call the Fourth Generation of Iranian intellectuals--mostly younger thinkers in their thirties and forties--has a strategic role to play in building a strong civil society. 1
With the emergence of a new public attitude in Iran, resulting from the increasing independence of civil society (as witnessed by the out-spokenness of the press and the student protests), younger Iranian intellectuals have become important actors in the process of democratization. Their role is not one of engaging in ideological politics, but of expressing critical views concerning the antidemocratic and authoritarian aspects of Iranian political and social traditions, as well as of encouraging the people to be wary of all forms of utopian thinking and all dreams of totally rearranging Iranian society. A generalized loss of faith in mobilizing ideologies, especially Marxism and Third-Worldism, along with the disappearance of the charismatic principle among the new generation of Iranian intellectuals, has created a shift in the notion of "intellectual engagement" itself. This has resulted not only from political changes since the revolution but also from theoretical debates among the postrevo-lutionary intellectuals in Iran concerning the concepts of "tradition" and "modernity." In short, the "prophetic" and "utopian" Iranian intellectual of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, represented by such individuals as Samad Behranghi, Jalal Al-Ahmad, Ali Shariati, and Bijan Jazani, has disappeared from the political scene. 2 The traditional view of the Iranian intellectual as the servant of the modern prince (Ehsan Naraghi) or as the upholder of ideologies (Ehsan Tabari) also has lost its relevance. 3
This move away from master ideologies among the Fourth Generation of Iranian intellectuals is echoed by a distrust of any holistic idea that presents itself in terms of moral and political...