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Reviewed by:
  • Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty, and: Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change
  • Kevan Harris (bio)
Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty, by Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. xvii + 158 pages. Notes to p. 184. Bibl. to p. 206. Index to p. 214. $19.95 paper.
Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change, by Ali Mirsepassi. New York: New York University Pres, 2010. xv + 192 pages. Notes to p. 204. Index to p. 217. $42.

Visit any major bookstore in Tehran, or peruse the Iranian reformist newspapers that open, close, and then open again under new names, and one quickly notices that Iranians take philosophy very seriously. Most of the publication of classical and contemporary works in the Western philosophical canon are today translated in Iran by self-funded autodidacts and pressed in tiny batches as careful labors of love. Arguably, a larger amount of "cutting-edge" work in social theory and philosophy is available in Persian than in Arabic. Whether this has aided the democratic struggle in Iran over the long term, however, is another question. As Ali Mirsepassi contends in Democracy in Modern Iran, the state of social science in Iran is not just plagued by inadequate educational institutionalization — necessary to train and support networks of young scholars as well as transfer accumulated knowledge of social science practices inter-generationally — but also suffers from the grandiose abstractness of philosophical thought misapplied to the everyday problems of social life. In Iran, it is a given that most journalists consider themselves to be philosophers, but we should also include most politicians, bureaucrats, generals, doctors, and taxi drivers.

It is therefore welcome to see the two books under review enter the English-language literature on Iran, since both take the ideas of social science seriously and attempt to draw insights from sociological theory on the problems and possibilities for a democratic future in the country. Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr recast the 20th century history of Iran as the struggle for both state-building and democracy, moving through the major periods of the Constitutional Revolution, the rise of Reza Shah and the Mossadeq interlude, the long reign of Mohammad Reza Shah, the Revolutionary turmoil of 1979, and the Islamic Republic. Arguing, "the case of Iran shows that democracy must permeate citizens' political mindsets before it can change their political system" (p. 14), the authors reject any cultural explanation of the failure of a democratic transition in the country over the past century. Instead, they focus on how the "prevalence of ideological thinking on the one hand and the dominance of state institutions on the other" (p. 15) impeded the emergence of a democratic polity. In the first instance, the authors identify both the heavy-handed developmentalist ideology of Reza Shah and his son, forever placing "order and progress" before any decentralization of power, and also the impact of Left thought on the Islamic and secular opposition to the Pahlavi monarchy, as sidetracking the intellectual milieu of two generations of Iranians away from democratic principles. In the second instance, the exigencies of state-building from a position of "late developer" in the Third World favored centralization of power within the government against the centrifugal forces of foreign intrigue and domestic unrest. Using this framework, the authors place the 1979 Revolution and its offspring in a longer historical arc of political development that began in the late 19th century. [End Page 660]

This book was written in the wake of the Iraq debacle, and the underlying message (one which, hopefully, Nasr repeated in the ear of the current US president) is that democratic institution-building is an indigenous and long-term process, always balanced against other pressing needs of states in the global South. It marvelously compresses key episodes of Iranian history into brief and lucid passages. It is rare that one sees the political sociology of Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, and Peter Evans combined with what impressively appears to be the entire mass of English-language scholarship on Iran in the past 40 years, in addition to the mining of oral history...


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