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The Failure of Democracy in Twenty-First-Century Iran

by Geneive Abdo & Jonathan Lyons

Pub Date: March 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-8050-7299-3
Publisher: Henry Holt

Which is stronger: the ayatollah or rock ’n’ roll?

Progressive Iranians, weary after 20 years of the ever-more repressive regime of the mullahs and their religious police, had much reason to hope that the inauguration of President Mohammed Khatami, a dark-horse candidate who in 1997 “had won by a landslide, beating out the handpicked conservative designated for the job,” would usher in a period of comparative freedom. And Khatami at first did much to reinforce that hope, write husband-and-wife journalists Abdo (No God But God, 2000) and Lyons, who were based in Iran from 1998 to 2001. Himself a journalist, Khatami declared, for instance, that the press would henceforth be free to criticize the government and himself, to say nothing of the clerics. The clerics responded angrily, bringing their considerable power to bear on the civil government and, in the authors’ view, repudiating the traditional Shi’ite Muslim vision of a society free of religious despotism. Abdo and Lyons point to a paradox that the Iranian government has failed to resolve since overthrowing the Shah: “Is it an Islamic state ruled by clerics or a republic ruled by the people?” Neither, it would appear—or perhaps both, though in either instance Khatami’s attempt to liberalize the government was steadily undone, with opposition newspapers closed and journalists, trade unionists, and student leaders imprisoned for having dared question the authority of the “Minister of Slogans” and other arms of the octopus state. In the authors’ blow-by-blow account, the mullahs emerge as villains through and through, victimizing not only the progressives but also ordinary Iranian Muslims by coveting the power they are supposed to shun. Whether the reform movement is truly dead remains to be seen; though the authors fear that it is, recent newspaper headlines suggest that plenty of Iranians still long for “an Islamic system but one built on social justice and civil liberties” and are willing to fight to bring it about.

A thoughtful, reasoned contribution to the distressing affairs of the Middle East.