McGill University law professor Payam Akhavan says Iran holds key to democracy in the Middle East
A McGill University law professor says that Iran and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a “proxy war” for control over large parts of the Middle East. And the impact is being felt in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria. Bahrain, and Afghanistan, where Shiite and Sunni Muslims are often engaged in violent confrontations.
“These are often power struggles between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Payam Akhavan, an Iranian-born expert on international human-rights and criminal law, told the Georgia Straight during a recent visit to Vancouver. “The Saudis are more than happy to eliminate Iran as a rival, but I think the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia will be when Iran becomes a secular democracy.”
During a wide-ranging interview in a downtown restaurant, Akhavan suggested that Iran’s future will have a profound impact on the region’s transition from tradition to modernity, and from authoritarianism to democracy. He declared that the Iranian regime is in its “death pangs” because the vast majority of citizens are thoroughly sick of “political Islam” after more than three decades of Shiite rule. Akhavan, who recently spoke in Tahrir Square in Cairo, contrasted that with the situations in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, and other Arab countries that have never suffered under a religious dictatorship in the modern era.
“Egypt reminded me not of where Iran was in the 2009 uprising but where Iran was in 1979, when political Islam was still a romantic, utopian ideology,” he said. “The one place in the Middle East nobody wants political Islam is Iran, because people have lived for 30 years under this incredibly violent, brutal, corrupt rule and they see the reality. So why is Iran the epicentre of this wider transformation in the Middle East? Because Iranian civil society is 30 years ahead of Egypt’s. It’s 30 years ahead of Syria.”
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Iran after the 1979 revolution and, according to Akhavan, hijacked a secular, leftist national revolution against the Shah of Iran. The professor added that Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hoseyni Khamenei, continues exercising ruthless control over the corruption-riddled country. Akhavan claimed that the “green revolution”, which was brutally repressed following the 2009 election, reflected a widespread desire for change among average Iranians.
“So civil society in Iran has turned against political Islam,” he stated. “It is thoroughly secular, including among Islamic reformists, who may be devout Muslims but who want a separation of state and religion. So Iran’s civil society is by far the most mature: its women’s movement, its students’ movement, its labour movement, its environmental movement. In a sense, they have become mature thanks to the excesses of totalitarianism.”
Here’s where Akhavan’s views differ from those of many analysts of Iran, who liken the mullahs’ rule to a throwback to ancient times. The professor, on the other hand, characterized the Islamic regime as a thoroughly 20th-century aberration, similar to the rise of National Socialism in Germany or Stalinism in the former Soviet Union. He claimed that these “modern romantic ideologies” emerge to fill a vacuum, in effect becoming substitutes for traditional religion.
“When the ayatollahs say that the union of state and religion is consistent with our true Islamic identity before western corruption, it’s absolute nonsense,” Akhavan said, “because the tradition of 500 years of Shia Islam in Iran from 1501, when it became the official religion, was separation of state and religion—because the orthodox clerics believe that until the advent of the messianic 12th imam, all temporal authority was illegitimate.”
Under the Iranian constitution, however, Khamenei is the supreme temporal leader, and he decides who may run for president or be appointed to the judiciary. Akhavan noted that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s followers have complicated the picture by “circulating rumours that he has direct lines of communication with the 12th imam, which would obviate the need for the supreme leader”.
“So they’re setting the stage for a significant conflict,” he stated.
Meanwhile, Akhavan added, young people, who are the vast majority of Iran’s population, are highly literate and have middle-class expectations. And he claimed that they despise totalitarian Islamic rule. “They are Internet-savvy,” he said. “They are glued to satellite television. There is a huge diaspora abroad, highly successful, and a flow of information, so it’s not a country that you can indefinitely rule through terrorization.”
It remains an open question if revolutions in Arab countries will bring about religious dictatorships. Akhavan noted that Saudi Arabia is trying to promote Sunni fundamentalist rule in Egypt, Syria, and other countries by supporting Salafist political parties. He added that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is emerging as a powerful force in Egypt, is more moderate than the Salafists and more likely to work closely with the Egyptian army.
“Radical Islam is more like a modern totalitarian ideology, even though it speaks the language of tradition,” he stated.
However, he pointed out that if democratic rule emerges in Iran, it could create a powerful beacon for supporters of greater freedom and secular rule in Arab countries. “You have this revolution from below and the most mature and secular and democratic social movement in the Middle East,” Akhavan said. “So Iran could very quickly transform from night to day and become a force for stability in the region.”
According to Akhavan, any political transformation would be blocked if Iran were to be attacked, because this would strengthen the hands of fanatics ruling the country. “We jokingly say that Ahmadinejad prays every Friday at the mosque for Israeli air strikes because it’s the only thing that would prop up his regime: creating a common enemy, exciting people’s nationalist sentiment,” he said. “An Israeli air strike would set back the democratic movement by a decade, and it would give a pretext for mass execution of the regime’s opponents under the cover of war. And, at best, it would delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capability by a few years, so I think, for the most part, the Americans and the Israelis understand this.”
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