Global Context Series (Central Asia): The Ayatollahs’ Democracy

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By: Philip O. Hopkins

[Editor's Note: This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions in particular. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in a complex and increasingly hyper-connected world.]

About a year and a half has passed since the controversial reelection of Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The election and the protests that followed focused Americans’ attention on Iran in ways not seen since the hostage crisis some 30 years before. In The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge, Hooman Majd helps to open America’s eyes to a country that many fear and know little about. Majd delves into the inner workings of the Iranian political system to show that the “Twitter Revolution” or “green revolution” was not a revolution (or the beginnings of one) at all: it was Iran’s “first real civil rights movement,” (43) and not a rejection of the Islamic ideals upon which the Republic was founded in 1979.

Majd’s belief that the occurrences that happened after the election were more of the beginnings of a civil rights movement than a revolution arises in part from his extensive contact with Iranians in country. Unlike many of the Iranian Diaspora, Majd, a US citizen born in Iran but educated in the West, travels frequently to Iran and knows people in high places in both the conservative and reformist camps. All the political players are committed to Shia Islam even those in the Green Movement. “Shiism, born out of a sense of injustice perpetuated by tyrants” Majd notes, is “central to the thought of the reformists who see power vested in the people but guided by the social system of Islam” (87), which, as Majd makes clear through summarizing Iran’s political system and weaving history into the discussion, is essential to understanding Iranian thought.

Majd notes that the idea of equality is essential to Iranians, which is why civil rights are important to the people. Protests occurred after the elections because Iranians believed that these rights were violated. This is also why the nuclear issue is important. Iranians of all stripes believe nuclear power is their right; a right they seem willing to sacrifice (even Ahmadinejad) if equal conditions are met. Ironically, Ahmadinejad’s defense of this right against the West has gained him respect even among those who despise him.

Much more could be said about The Ayatollahs’ Democracy. Majd’s interaction with America’s involvement with Iran betrays his politically liberal bias (though he does criticize all parties). Even this insight is helpful as his explanation is an accurate reflection of many (if not the majority) of Iranians’ perception of American politics. While not necessary, it would be helpful to read Majd’s first book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ (reviewed on this site), before reading this one as Majd assumes that Westerners, Americans in particular, now, after the elections and protests, understand to some degree that Iran is not some monolithic terrorist country in which the entire population hates the United States; the opposite, in fact, is true. Finally, I should note that Majd’s language is a bit salty (nothing that one would not hear in any PG-13 movie, but it is worth noting).

Hooman Majd, The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge (NY: Norton, 2010), 282 pages. ISBN: 978-0-393-07259-4. $26.95. Reviewed by Philip O. Hopkins.

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