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August 31, 2003

Democracy: Having or Practicing
Hazhir Rahmandad  [info|posts]

democracy.jpg Two alternative views exist in the field of organizational behavior. While one focuses on understanding the concept of "Organization" itself, the other is concerned with understanding the process of "Organizing". I believe the same type of distinction (focusing on structure versus focusing on process) is useful in looking at the concept of democracy. Specifically, one can talk about having a democratic system, which entails having certain institutions and social structures, versus practicing democracy, which can be embedded in small actions of individuals. In this article, I want to argue that the "process view" of democracy is more enabling for individuals, better conforms to the spirit of democracy, and helps us explain a diverse set of phenomena, however, it is very much under-appreciated in public discourses.

The structure-focused view understands democracy in terms of the existence of specific institutions, such as the parliament, the free press, elections, etc. In this view societies "have" or "have not" democracy, depending on whether they own the required institutions. Consequently, the path to democracy is through creating these institutions. Therefore achieving democracy is a very challenging task that requires collective action of large groups of people in society who pool their resources together in order to change the traditional institutions and power structures.

On the other hand, the process view of democracy defines democracy in action: in making decisions and acting democratically. In this view democracy does not come with specific institutions, rather, it is an attribute of decisions and actions that are continually made and taken by different social actors. In this view we do not talk about "having" a democratic system, but rather, we understand practicing it through acting and deciding democratically in the individual, group, or society level.

Taking a process view of democracy has deep consequences in theory and practice. First, this view brings democracy to flow in every-day actions of the individuals. This is a very empowering change: to achieve democracy your role is not to change the gigantic, non-democratic institutions single-handedly, but instead, you can decide and act democratically in your simple affairs and that is what counts. Second, by empowering individuals and distributing the responsibility of being democratic between all instances of social action, this view embeds the spirit of democracy in the definition of democracy. Finally, this view can recognize instances where democracy does not coexist with democratic institutions. For example, we have parliament and elections in Iran, but it is easy to question the liveliness of democracy there.

It is fair to say that the static, structure-focused view of democracy dominates most of the public conversation on the subject. We all know friends and family members who complain about the lack of democracy while they play the role of little dictators in their personal sphere of life. This tendency is not limited to our beloved countrymen: think of the officials who believe they have the greatest democracy on the planet while they are signing the bill to restrict the rights of some minority group; or scores of people who boast of the democracy in their country, while they never participate in elections, or even in their community decision-makings.

An interesting question is that why the process view, despite its empowering role, consistent spirit, and explanatory power, has been widely ignored? I can speculate about two possible reasons. First, cognitive wise, individuals allocate their attention based on the salience of different aspects of life. The static view of democracy, by signifying salient social institutions, is an easier target of attention, understanding, and theorizing, than elusive notion of democracy in practice. Second, the process view raises the responsibility of the individuals and challenges them to act democratically, which usually stretches them out of their comfort zone. In fact most people are more comfortable to whine about lack of democracy or boast on its existence, rather than constantly worry whether they are acting democratically.

In sum, eventhough a process view of democracy is enabling, consistent, and more informative, it is widely ignored. However, by recognizing this view, we open door to new opportunities and challenges: the opportunity of embedding democracy in our actions as individuals, parents, group members, and communities; and the challenge of being responsible if we fail to use these opportunities.

Comments
saoshyant at August 31, 2003 01:46 PM [permalink]:

Dear Hazhir,

I found your post intriguing and since your post directly relates to my area of academic interest, I also found it very insightful.

I would like to add a few points:

In political science, there is a different approach, very similar to that of yours that categorizes the modes of analyses into two:

1) Outcome oriented; and 2) Process oriented;

This categorization became very popular after John Rawls came up with his idea of a liberal democratic state in "A Theory of Justice" (1971).

He left the idea of substance to those of ideologies. Nonetheless, Rawls insisted that certain fundamental principles have to be in place to ensure that those with different ideas of arranging the society abide by so that the competition of ideas play against each other, and not violently fight against each other. Despite you have not gone at length in explaining what you mean by "democratic spirit", I think adhering to those basic principles contribute/give shape to essentially.

Now I have some questions for the purposes of clarification:

1) Can we understand your approach to a process oriented democracy as an approach that sees bottom-to-top democratization, such as the creation and expansion of civil society organziation, will spread the idea of practising basic democratic principles across all socio-economic strata? If so, if one takes the conditions imposed by the forces in the real world, how would you say such a goal can be realized when certain anti-democratic actors in a society do everything to prevent that; examples in the Middle East are numerous (Iran, Egypt and Pakistan). The same phenomenon can be seen in Russia and Ukraine, where there are a group of actors that actively are against the spread of such a democratic spirit.

2) Can we conclude that your approach finds institutions merely as instruments that can be corrupted, however well-designed they might be, if there is not a true conviction and commitment towards democratic fairplay?

3) Can we further conclude, from 1 and 2, that you hope that as a result of pracising the rules of decmoracy at the civil society/societal/individual level, the society will overall develop a layer (thick or thin) of democratic culture?

4) If (3) is true, would you suggest that institutions are of secondary or tertiary importance?

5) Would you think in this picture, a libeal democratic constitution that acts as a social contract by means of which everybody would agree over the basic rules of the game is relevant at all? Do you not think that such practices should be somehow protected or acknowleged, if there are forces out there who want to actively prevent that from happening?

PS: by the Constitution as a basic social contract I mean a set of conventions that has to be in place so that : everyone is equal with others in expressing one's opinion, there is a pluralism in the public arena, that people would not be persecuted for what they believe, treated with discrimination because of their gender, sexual orienation, and colour, and allows for public forums and multi-pary/factions/groups activism, with political freedom for the press.

Senior Grad at August 31, 2003 06:22 PM [permalink]:
This is a worthy article, addressing an important issue. Some of the ideas here reminded me of, although they are not identical to, a recent article by Emadeddin Baghi (in Persian) titled ESLAHTALABI-E BAZIGARANEH, ESLAHTALABI-E TAMASHAGARANEH. (Search the archive of http://iran-emrooz.de if you can read Persian.) I think the distinction between democracy as a "process" and democracy as a "structure" is better elaborated on in Hazhir's writing. However, in both articles a question is left unanswered: In exactly what ways can individuals, as opposed to institutions, contribute to producing a more democratic environment? In other words, what does the term "acting democratically" really signify? And what are the instances of such action? Some examples would be clarifying. Another question that is left unanswered, even hardly brought up, in the public discourse among us Iranians concerns the Why of democracy. More precisely, why should people, individually or as groups, struggle for produing a democratic system through a democratic process? This question is unfortunately taken for granted, to the extent that raising it anywhere will result in raising quite a few eyebrows. In my humble opinion, Iranians' approach to democracy has shown, by and large, the same characteristics that our approach to other Western phenomena shows and shares important features with our attitude to other things that have first appeared in the West, from technology to fashion to different "-ism"s. Therefore, I also believe that our approach to democracy suffers from all the ailments of our "westoxicated" (May God bless Jalal for his shrewd originality) approach to anything Western. It lacks intellectual[=FEKRI] foundation. Our reasons on why we should act democratically (democracy as a process) or why we should have democracy (as a structure) are not deep enough to sustain a continual committed struggle for the ideal democracy. To be more specific, most Iranians want democracy mainly because they neither like the system that mullahs provided for them, nor the previous monarchial system of government. This is what I have previously called a *reactionary* approach to democracy. We think that democracy will bring us a better system (some believe even a paradise on earth--an illusion that must be fought), but honestly we are not sure why and how. Also, we want democracy, if I may dare to suggest, because it has hailed from the West, and in our collective unconscious Iranians have (since a couple of centuries ago) always admired whatever the West has had to offer. In fact, our sticking to our past and our old Persian culture and the ruins of Persepolis are all symptomatic of this collective lack of self-esteem when we face the "greatness" of the West, be it manifested their military might, their scientific and technological advances, and recently even their system of government. Democracy, it must be noted, is but the tip of a huge iceberg and can only be supported on an intellectual and moral foundation that the Iranian society is in dire poverty of. Without such moral and intellectual foundations the effect of any political change will be as transitory as cosmetics are on the wrinkled face of a 90 year old lady, as the proverb goes. It seems to me that democracy is the result of the moral thought (that is to say, debates on "How Ought We to Live?") of the secular Western man throughout centuries, and we cannot possibly import it the way we imported electric razors ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Senior Grad at August 31, 2003 06:37 PM [permalink]:

Follow-up as usual:

First, I meant "the ideal OF democracy", not the "ideal democracy". An important difference.

Second, I hope the more secular-minded readers do not jump into conculsions about the "motives" of me for making such comments! In Particular, wherever I invoke God in my comments (such as in "God bless Jalal"), I do not mean it literally, but symbolically, the same way that in Persian people say KHODA-HAFEZ (literally: May God protect you) when departing each other whether they believe in God or not. It's just a figure of speech. :-)

There seem to other rather unimportant typoes in my comment above that I'm sure you can fix yourself.

Navid at September 1, 2003 04:46 PM [permalink]:

Both comments and the article itself challenge the very important question of democracy, I want to look at it from a different aspect and I appreciate Hazhir’s attention to the topic, the first appealing point is the abstraction which I see in the definitions for democracy, I see the “democracy” as a method for governing a “country” (by definition based on the concept of sovereign territory, defined after France revolution 1789), which is running regarding the majority’s opinion.

About what Hazhir says in the article, I do not think that we can categorize democracy, to 2 parts. Both mentioned parts are joined concepts of a unite movement, that is basically affected by history, culture and many other factors, our country Iran is not in the good shape for accepting neo-democracy because of lack of post-modern and even modern look among governors and intellectuals and people are not acquainted with essences of democratic movements because of lack of essential institutions or organization to support these kind of thoughts or culminating the initial idea.
As you might see in this frame, both parties affect each other; people inspired by the region’s culture affect the government and the government, especially an ideological based one, affects its people.
Regarding Iran, I think it is more important because our look (or our government’s look or our intellectuals’ look, no difference regarding to our former discussions they are related to each other) so our look to the “Estate” has not been improved or has not gone through the changes that outer world has gone through, the traditional look at the definition of “Nationalism”, “Foreign Politics” and “Country”, mostly preached by a conservative and totalitär government, has retarded the usual growth of awareness in the country.
Then let ‘s ask this question from ourselves: how a “person” can shape a social trend? If the deficiency is related to our look at the imported western concepts that are not localized according to a local culture, then how can we re-structure it due to our needs? How it can be changed, the important question: how a “one” can affect an organization?

I am asking: Is the “west” a solid concept not doing well in a traditional eastern Muslim country, as some people like Jalaal Aal Ahmad have said, or is it a look or an approach which flourishes and goes through your look at life and your behavior and your solutions for the unknown.
More explicitly, is “west” (as stated In Jalaal’s works) is a compartmentalized attacking agenda to our identity, or totally it is addressing the movement which west and Christian world initiated in renaissance era?? If that is the case, I am sure that these days, sound minds look at it as a contribution of some brave souls to the history of man kind that its prejudiced points now are melting in a multi-national, globalized, tolerant culture.

Hazhir at September 1, 2003 05:11 PM [permalink]:
Thanks Saoshyant and Senior Grad for thoughtful comments. First, I acknowledge Senior Grad's point about the lack of examples and not bringing up the "Why" of democracy. I will try to write more later on the example part, and hopefully other people will chip in on the important question of "Why Democracy?". To address Saoshyant clarification questions, I should first point out that my posting had two dimensions, First, the more academic part, which was about explaining/understanding/studying democracy. There I argued that a more balanced view (less structure focus and more process focus) of democracy will help us understand the phenomenon better. Second, the practical aspect, was that a process view of democracy is enabling and empowering for individuals, and therefore for the real audience of such public discussions and this article. From my explanatory point of view, I do not think that one can dismiss the importance of democratic institutions. I believe these institutions enable individuals to act democratically (i.e. the structure influences action/process) while they are also shaped through individual, and more often collective, action (i.e. the action influences the structure). For example an independent and robust judiciary provides safety for individuals to speak out and play a role in community decision-making (institution facilitating democratic action) while activists protests can path laws for protecting the rights of minorities (Democratic action creating institutions). I think we need to consider both sides of this dynamic interaction, and how they interrelate, in order to understand democracy and democratization. To sum up, rather than dismissing the importance of institutions, my focus on process/action part arises from a bias in public domain towards emphasizing institutions that I argue should be balanced. I am not familiar with academic literature on this, but if that resembles the organizational behavior literature, then my emphasis is also pushing for a balance academically! From my prescriptive, practical perspective, I think a focus on process is empowering, so drawing attention to process/action in fact increases the chances of building democratic institutions, because in the structure/action duality, action is were individuals can have any impact on institutions (assuming that everything is not pre-determined!). To more directly address Saoshyant questions: 1- I think I have a contingent approach on democratization: if the audience is normal people, then highlighting the bottom-up view of democratization enables them to make a difference. If high-level policy makers are listening to you, you shouldn't undermine the importance of institutions, because they may have a more direct impact on institutions. 2- I agree that institutions are not enough for democracy, and a social conviction is needed to accompany it (as well as to gradually create institutions). However, I don't want to undermine the importance of institutions in shaping action, and even public conviction. 3 and 4- Sharp observation about culture of democracy! I agree with its importance, moreover, I look at a culture of democracy as an institution that can protect acting democratically, so I don't rank institutions as secondary in general. 5- I definitely think that a constitution plays an important role in protecting and enabling democratic action, and therefore is important in either view of democracy I have discussed. I commend anybody who has ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Senior Grad at September 1, 2003 06:33 PM [permalink]:
I just read Navid's comment and also Hazhir's detailed and eloquent reply to saoshyant's comment, but I need to read them again and think more before I can add something, if anything at all, in response to what you have brought up, especially Navid's thoughts on "West" and Jalaal... Here, I would like to add something to my own comment(s) on democracy and how Iranians are related to it. I want to start by trying to clarify a possible misunderstanding that is likely to occur due to my bad choice of words. It's about the word "reaction-ary". Unfortunately, this word has an established meaning in the political jargon and my using it could hardly be more misleading. Reactionary is normally translated to the Persian word ERTEJA'I, while by using that I had meant to mean VAKONESHI[=as a reaction, rather than an action]. What I mean by calling Iranians' approach to democracy "reaction-ary" is the following: Unlike what has happened in the West, it has *not* been the case for Iranian thinkers to start from certain moral premises and then base their arguments on those values and finally come up with a system of government that is in line with and serves those original moral values (equality of rights of human beings, the goodness of justice, etc.) Such an approach, the way it happened in the West, would be an "action-ary"[=KONESHI] approach to democracy. As a result of such long and hard deliberations among Western social thinkers, thinking democratically has become the predominant attitude of the Western man. Democracy is now part of a vast well-estebalished cultural vocabulary of the Western man. What the Iranian man is trying to do, however, can be best captured by the following metaphor: A man is fascinated by how a tree looks and how it brings fruits (freedom of speech, economical well-being, etc.), but either is not aware of the fact that there is more to the tree that he can see, or is unaware of the importance of the roots for the viability of the tree and its fruition. So in an attempt to transport the old tree to his own backyard, he cuts the trunk (to him, the important part of the tree) and carries it home and places it in his orchard. If he is smart, he digs the ground a little bit and plants the tree in the little pit that he has dug. (Don't read too much into my metaphor!) But this will either lead to the downfall of the tree at the passing of the slightest breeze, or in any case it will not bring fruits for the simple man, because the roots have simply not been carried along. Now, in my opinion, the moral discourse of present-day Iranians, is not at all compatible with what has led, in the course of centuries, to the emergence of the idea of democracy in the West, with all its theoretical and practical remifications. (Not a bad metaphor, after all!) That democracy is *the* best way to govern morally may be obvious to the Western man, because that is how he thinks: democratically. But it is not obvious to us. So we need to make it very clear for ourselves, through discussions of this sort, that WHY, exactly why, we are after democracy. Let me go back to my misuse of the word "reaction-ary" and suggest, once more, that our interest in democracy is first: because we are unhappy with the two forms of un-democratic regimes that have rules our country in recent past, and secondly, because we see that democracy has *worked* well in some countries and we would like to think that it therefore would work well in Iran. At the r ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Senior Grad at September 1, 2003 07:37 PM [permalink]:

I liked the word "conviction" in saoshyant's comment and although it is not yet very clear to me at this point what the instances of "acting democraticaly" are (and I am looking forward to Hazhir's forthcoming article to see what he has in mind by "democratic processes"), it made me wonder: How could someone persuade a human agent (in particular, one of our fellow Iranians) to act democratically in a given social situation? In other terms, how could this agent be convinced that acting democratically is the "right" way to behave vis-a-vis other agents in the social unit that he is acting in? Why shouldn't he be ZERANG[=smart] instead, as Iranians happen to be most of the time, and form bonds with a few of other agents in the group that are somehow, even on purely circumstantial bases, related to him and thus pursue the well-being of this smaller group, through undermining the more fairly distributed well-being of the whole bigger group?

I am asking these questions just to point out to a part of the iceberg that usually remains hidden from the naked eye: the moral basis of democracy. So I believe saoshyant is right in suggesting that without a true conviction and commitment to democracy among the people it is unlikely that democracy as a form of government can take root.

As for Navid's question about how a person (or a few persons) can trigger a social change? This concern was addressed in an article by Babak Seradjeh titled "Changing the Culture". Without claiming to have the best answer to this key question, I think the answer lies in education, in a very deep and broad sense of the word. I had mentioned in one of my comments that Iranians abroad (and nobody else for that matter!) cannot influence much change in Iranian political arena. The experience of the last 25 years is clear proof to that. What we can do to help better Iran would be, in my opinion, through *educating* Iranians (including ourselves), especially, about what the West is really like and how it "works". Needless to say, it is a big challenge to erase the biased misconceptions that are so deeply instilled (or installed?) in the Iranian mindset.

This education need not, even *should* not, be limited to a one-sided flow of knowledge and information. I think forums such as this one that allow a dialogue among individuals (including a lot of unrelenting self-criticism) are crucial, even indispensable, though not enough, for such education. My hope is that the thoughts that we scatter in such forums find their ways among a wider audience, get a chance to be challeneged and subsequently modified and refined and re-challenged ad infinitum! This would be a truly educational endeavor indeed, and will slowly, but substantially effect a change that will be more durable than any cosmetic change of the political structure.

Navid at September 1, 2003 09:38 PM [permalink]:

As a short comment, I do not agree that Iranians outside the country cannot initiate a substantial “change”. It is totally based on our look to the word “change”. I am not talking about some immediate, physical change in the country ‘s atmosphere; I am talking about the delicate changing of minds toward a more stable point so that we can judge ourselves according to our surrounding world.
As Senior Grad mentioned, the key factor is “education”, and first of all educating ourselves. Broad knowledge that is needed to destroy the biases is sth which will be gained by a solid intention for learning.
In this regard sharing our ideas in such forums will gradually ignite the sparks of a movement toward a self-aware and outside-aware life among the ones that can be a source of change for the place they were born in, I mean Iran.

Senior Grad at September 2, 2003 12:41 PM [permalink]:

Hereby seconded.

Joe Katzman at September 2, 2003 01:31 PM [permalink]:

There is a specific term for what you call the "process view of democracy." Eastern European dissidents during the days of the Soviet Empire called it "living in truth." Some also called it "living as if." It was very powerful.

Neo A. at September 3, 2003 01:38 PM [permalink]:

0) I prefer short and organized comments so that my comments been clarified by numbered parts..

1) Related to the 2 suggested points of view in studying democracy , I think that attention to "process" may not be ended to build a democratic structure and it can be a critic area in case people sometimes attribute democratically in the life but don't effort to creating a democratic system ;because of their many reasons such as comfortable with thoughts or etc. I mean a trapin process view in practice.

2)As a matter in fact, there are so many persons or groups who attempt to install a democratic system or try to maintain the existing version of it, BUT they disable to achieve it in their real life or unfortunately ever think about this important matter. it can be endangered and create problems according to a long-duration angle.
I believe that it's too harmful to ignore it in our social acts of life.

It's preferable that we be vigilant to understand and avoid these two traps.

N. Fazeli at September 3, 2003 07:47 PM [permalink]:

I would like to thank all of you for providing us with this great Open Forum about Democracy. I learnt a lot and I will try to contribute to it as much as my knowledge and English language competency allow. The idea that Democracy has a moral base is theoretically convincing and undestandable. However, I think, history does not show that the exsiting so called democratic societies/governments had first developed a moral democratic ground,before creating a democratic state/system. As you know, Britian, as the birth place of Industerial Revolution, and one of the earlist parlimantry systems of the world, did not accept women poltical right and their right to vote until 1926. Also, USA did not stopped race discrimination against the black people until about 1970. Still there are many forms of social and political discriminations, violance, inequality, and anti-social, anti-moral, aniti-human right behaviours in the so called democatic societies.
So, how could we say that reaching to a certain amont or state of morality or democratic morality is the prerequiste of democracy?

I do apologize if my English is not good enough to express my view vividly.

Senior Grad at September 3, 2003 09:24 PM [permalink]:

C'mon, N., your English is more than good enough. Welcome aboard! Since it was me who brought up the moral thing, I guess I have to make it clear what I mean by "moral". I do not necessarily use the term as one having a positive connotation. An issue, for instance, is a "moral issue", if it has to do with what we *should* do, what choice we should make, in certain given circumstances.

I by no means suggested that a society must first reach moral perfection (here I'm using the term in a positive way), before it starts developing democratic institutions. What a meant was the following: democracy has deep-rooted moral prerequisites (i'm using the term in its neutral sense here), without which it will not last. I was suggesting that Iranians, elites and laymen alike, pay little attention to this aspect of democracy. Democracy is not only a system of government, it's a way of thinking, a way of living. The exisiting undemocratic practices in democratically governed countries do not disprove my claim that democratic morality, if you will, have had a strong basis among the majority of people in those countries. Some call them rules of the game, and thus bare it from its moral content, but one has to note that it's not just any arbitrary game. Otherwise, one would simply violate the rules of the game and go back to the rule of the jungle. My contention is that the democratic man *believes* in the moral rightness of abiding by democratic rules. We don't.

If you see that feminism, for instance, has had so many triumphes against the popular culture, or if you see Martin Luther King manages to effect a change in how blacks are viewed and treated in America, it is by that very moral thrust of their arguments that they could land such victories.

I have more to say about the morality of Iranians (or lack of it thereof), I'll leave it to another occasion.

N. Fazeli at September 4, 2003 04:15 PM [permalink]:


My question was do emprical evidences support and prove the existing of a democratic morality among the democratic societies before these countries establish a democratic society? Your response is that You are not suggesting that idea. But you have again argued that democracy has deep-rooted moral prerequisites. Maybe my understanding of prerequisite is different from yours. I agree with you in that democracy is a culture and a value system, rather than a political system. But, again, the question is do western people act and behave democratically? If yes, is American foreign policy a democratic policy? Is the structural inequlities existing in capitalism compatible with democratic values? I can list a thousand examples of undemocratic practices among western people in an individual level.
It is a matter of fact that democracy requires a certain kind of value system. But in reality it is a relative issue. Some societies are relatively more democratic, and some other less.

Senior Grad at September 4, 2003 07:54 PM [permalink]:

We're not making much progress here; are we? I guess it's called a deadlock! Let me step back a little bit and start over from another angle, so hopefully I can reach you via a detour. :-) Let me use a hypothetical scenario. Your buddy, an Iranian male, comes to your place and among many other things, he shares with you his story with a girl that you happen to know very well (but he doesn't know it). You know that she has not been as happy as she used to be recently, but do not know why. Your buddy tells you, proudly, how he fooled that girl into sleeping with him over a period of time, only to let her know later that he was only playing with her and all he has said to her were a bunch of lies. Imagine also, for the sake of argument, that your buddy is a very logical guy and yields to your logical arguments.

The question is, How do you convince him of the fact that he *should not* have taken advantage of that girl (or any girl, for that matter)? If we were living 100 or even 50 years ago, you might attempt reading for him a hadith or a verse from Koran or something of that kind. However, it's 2003, and religion is not taken seriously in Iran anymore; not by the majority of the youth. So how would you convince your buddy that what he has done to that girl was *wrong*? With a logical American guy, I would have no problem. With an Iranian buddy, I have no clue where to start.

True, this didn't have much to do with democracy. But I just wanted to make a point. Believing in a value system is one thing and acting according to that system is another. However, if you *believe* in a moral system, then there is a good chance that people who share the same values can argue with you and thus convince you that, for example, you should have acted differently under such and such circumstances. So if, for example, women do not have the right to vote, then you can appeal to those common value system and argue for their suffrage. But what if you don't have such common ground to begin with?

N. Fazeli at September 10, 2003 07:05 AM [permalink]:


Thank you for your cogent argument and provocative writing style. I think it is not so much necessary to reach in a certian point that we all have to be agree about it, are we? In particular, when we talk about such cultural and social themes as democracy. Democracy means all voices, colors, senses, views, and all diversities and differnces are equally legitimate and have the right to be different and alive.
Anway, there is another critique towards your opinion about democracy in Iran. Here I shall briefly explain it.
As an anthropologist who is expert in contemporary Iranian culture and society, I do believe that Iran has in recent years structurally changed into a more democratic society. Becuse of this we should not assess the present state of Iranian society according to its past periods. Individualism in Iran has developed, the society is much more pluralistic than ever been, the media are reflecting very serious political challenges, people are more aware of their civil rights, women movement has succeeded to gain many rights such as more access to higher education, managerial and administerative posts, cultural acctivities, and so forth. There are many evidences to show that the process of democracy is progressing in Iran. Albiet I am not arguing that Iran has no problem and difficulties in his way to establish a relativel ideal democratic system and society. Rather, my view is that we should be realistic not pesimistic about recent development in Iran.

Senior Grad at September 10, 2003 11:48 AM [permalink]:

N. Fazeli:

I am glad I am dealing with an expert in the fascinating field of anthropology. I like your optimism (or, as you would like to have it, your realism), and I admit that it helps to see the full half of the glass sometimes rather than being cynical all the time.

I agree, to a good extent, with the changes you have mentioned in the Iranian society, thanks to, among other things, relatively free press in Khatami's era. I do have my doubts, however, whether these changes have been deep-rooted and "structural", or we could expect to go back to the old modes of behavior any time, because the changes have been more of a cosmetic nature.

We have seen in the past how such changes backfire at times. For example, there seems to be more tolerance towards the issue of women's public clothing for a while, but then there is a sudden backlash pushing things all the way back to square one. (I'm sure there are other examples, in different scales perhaps, but this was the one off the top of my head.)

What I find detrimental to the democracy's taking root in Iran are some social traits of us Iranians that I have briefly pointed out to in some of my other comments in this forum. I do not claim to have a comprehensive list, but let me mention two of them. PARTI-BAZI and ZERANGI. (Your fellow anthropologist, William Beeman in his book "Language, Status and Power in Iran" uses the same words becausae, I presume, it's not been easy for him to give a one-word translation of these.)

I will attest to the progress of democratic thought in Iran when I see fewer and fewer Iranians bragging about how they could get ahead of others by resorting to parti-bazi or zerangi. A walk around the streets of the Iranian capital and watching how people behave in their daily interaction with others should confirm for you that there is unfortunately a great deal of such attitude at work there. I don't know how one should go about fixing this. This will take years, to be sure, but maybe one way to start is to give people the assurance that they need not be zerang, nor need they have a parti everywhere they go in order to have their rights respected. Of course, it must be also instilled in the mind of new generations of Iranians that justice is *better* than having injustice and being on the "right" side of it, so they will be content as long as their rights are not violated, and do not look for more at the expense of violating the rights of other fellow Iranians, or other human beings.

Having said all that, I do believe that Iran is perhaps the most democratizable country in the region. (Look at liberated Iraqis for example, who, by and large, seem to have no notion of democracy whatsoever.) This I welcome, but I also find kind of ironic, because I believe the Sunni version of Islam must show more affinity with democracy than the alternative Shiite version, where people seem to have no problem with having their Imams (literally: leaders) appointed by God, or by blood, rather than by some sort of democratic process. But that's another story. (See the discussion under Niyayesh Afshordi's most recent posting in this very forum.)

Senior Grad at September 10, 2003 12:46 PM [permalink]:

Follow-up: bringing up the irony and mentioning Iraq as an example at the same time may have confused some readers. My fault. True, the majority of Iraqis are Shiites too, but what I meant was, among all Islamic countries, most of them with a strong Sunni majority, Iran seems to have a better chance for adjusting itself to a democratic system, as far as I can tell. I once mentioned this idea to somebody who is more knowledgeable than I am in these matters (what are the odds?) and he said Lebonan has a fairly democratic system. Is Lebonan an Islamic country though? Hmmm.