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  • The Iranian Revolution and its Nemesis: The Rise of Liberal Values among Iranians
  • Mansoor Moaddel (bio)

The rise of revolutionary Shiism that led to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1979, the establishment of theocracy in December of the same year, and postrevolutionary development display two contradictory facets about the process of historical development in twentieth-century Iran.1 On the one hand, the revolution in no uncertain term posed a serious anomaly for the notion of universal history that projected an evolutionary process of secularization and individuation. The overthrow of the monarchy was no triumph for secular politics and democratic individualism. The zenith of the revolution marked by the establishment of clerical absolutism and reinforcement of patriarchy in the family was a low point for the proponents of secular order. On the other hand, thirty years after the overthrow of the monarchy, the ruling clerics, despite their extensive financial and organizational resources and consistent brutality in eliminating their secular opponents, have failed to create a religious order in the country. Iranians today appear to be less religious than the publics from other Islamic countries, and the trend in their value orientations is toward individualism, gender equality, democracy, and national identity.

These postrevolutionary developments, while consistent with a secular view of history, cannot be explained in terms of the secular theory of values change. This is true because the new secularism is different from the secular trend unleashed by the constitutional revolution of 1905. Many reformist critics of the clerical absolutism arrived at the notion of secular government through religious reasoning—a secular orientation that is at variance with the overly antireligious orientation of prerevolutionary secular intellectuals and policy makers. In fact, the intellectual leaders of the reformist movement are defending their democratic position in terms of their reading of Islam; traditional liberal democratic discourse plays only a minor role in legitimizing the demands for personal freedom and the rule of law.2 These two facets are contradictory; the formation of a massive bureaucratic administrative and military organization of the modern state and the impressive rate of economic development in prerevolutionary Iran did not produce a secular order, but the formation of the repressive and administrative apparatus of the religious state seems to have given impetus to secular movements.

In this article, I argue that the rise of secular values is far from being an inevitable product of historical development of capitalism, the development of modern social classes, or the formation of the modern state. It is rather an outcome of a specific social arrangement and [End Page 126] historical conjuncture. At the same time, the institutionalization of secular values also depends on the existence of social support as well as the behavior of secular intellectuals and policy makers that may strengthen or undermine such values. To support these arguments, I first present a theory of cultural change. Then, I specify the parameters of the conditions that promoted secular values in Islamic countries in the past. Next, I argue that such conditions have emerged in postrevolutionary Iran. Finally, I present findings from two major values surveys, carried out in Iran in 2000 and 2005, to demonstrate that the trend in values change among Iranians is toward social and political individualism and national identity.

What Is Cultural Change?

Cultural change is a complex process, involving changes in (1) people’s values, rituals, bases of identity, and lifestyle; (2) principles of social organization; (3) arts and literature; and (4) religious beliefs, institutions, and movements. One way to manage this complexity is to consider cultural change as resolutions of significant issues, when the existing societal model is abandoned in favor of another one. For example, the Iranian constitutional revolution (1905–11) intended to resolve the problem of politics; constitutional law replaced monarchical absolutism. The Iranian revolution of 1979 resolved the same problem. This time the absolutist rule of the clerics was substituted for monarchical power. The first step in explaining change is thus to specify the issues that dominate the public discourse. The next is to identify the factors that shape the probable direction of resolutions—toward a religious or secular government, religious supranationalism or territorial nationalism, individualism or collectivism, democracy or authoritarianism...


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pp. 126-136
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