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  • Emerging Civil Society in Iran
  • Hooshang Amirahmadi (bio)

In recent years the issue of civil society has taken on new salience among students of international affairs. The emergence of civil society as a vehicle for democratization in Eastern Europe and Latin America has led to increasing scholarly attention to the role of non-state actors in promoting political and economic reform. Research on Iran, however, still suffers from a narrow state-centered approach that neglects the growing importance of societal actors in recent years. This article attempts to fill this gap by providing an analysis of the emerging civil society in Iran. After defining civil society and explaining why this topic is so important, it discusses the various nascent discourses in Iranian civil society. It demonstrates, first, that a civil society is indeed in the process of formation in Iran, and second, that its endurance and cohesion will depend on achieving a balance between government and non-government sectors. The essay argues that development and popular sovereignty in Iran hinge on the growth of civil society alongside political reform. [End Page 87]

Defining Civil Society

Civil society can be defined in at least three different ways. First, in the classical economics paradigm, the term signifies transition to bourgeois society. In this context, “civility” means respect for liberty and personal property. Economists use the concept to refer to non-state actors that contribute to economic and social development. Second, the term is employed in relation to political reform and the transition to a modern social order. This definition of civil society originated in grassroots movements in the former communist bloc and is often applied to contemporary Islamic societies. In this second definition, civil society refers particularly to non-state actors seeking access to political power. Finally, the term civil society is sometimes used to capture the role and importance of non-power oriented societal actors such as charity organizations, religious foundations, and pro-welfare groups.

These three definitions of civil society are not mutually exclusive. They share a focus on the role of citizens and the nature of the state-society relationship. Civil society thus can be defined as the sphere of social discourses, trends, and autonomous social movements that attempt to regulate society. The goal of such activities is to bolster citizens’ capabilities and protect them from the arbitrary exercise of power by the state or any other organized group. While civil society is a political concept, it must be distinguished from the political sphere where actors are preoccupied with access to, or the exercise of, power.

The above definition is better suited to Iran today than more conventional definitions because it allows for a dynamic conception of contemporary Iranian civil society. In countries where civil society is in its incipient stages, a static conception of civil society will not be useful in deciphering these phenomena. To understand contemporary Iranian civil society, we need a comprehensive conception of civil society that includes emerging political, ideological, and philosophical trends in the country—as well as the role of opinion leaders, the power elite, and the leading dissident intellectuals. The proposed definition also contains social movements, professional associations, economic organizations and cultural institutions. [End Page 88]

The Need for a Civil Society Discourse

Research on Iran since the 1979 revolution has primarily focused on two issues. At first, scholars focused on the causes of the revolution, with an emphasis on Islam as the new state ideology. In the mid-1980s, attention shifted to the goals and future of theocratic rule. During both periods and continuing into the present, studies of Iran have been held captive by a “state trap,” that is, an almost exclusive focus on the ruling clerical elite.

One of the principal reasons for this narrow focus on the state is the West’s profound disapproval of the Iranian regime. The government’s policies in the early years of the revolution, especially its efforts to export Islamic militancy, fundamentally antagonized the West. The resulting preoccupation with the regime’s international behavior inevitably bred inattention to the internal dynamics of the Islamic Republic. Political repression, economic failures, and the war with Iraq further contributed to focusing experts’ attention primarily on the...

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pp. 87-107
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