Iran’s Islamic system and its parliamentary elections: An alternative perspective

Even when only the initial results of the elections of February 20 in Iran had been announced Adam Ereli, a US state department spokesman, immediately declared that they were neither free and fair, nor consistent with international norms. The basis for this verdict, he said, was that a large number of candidates had been barred from contesting. In addition to this official US position, almost the entire media coverage of these elections in North America was negative. A characteristic feature of this coverage has been to describe the political situation in Iran as a contest between "conservatives" and "reformists", as if these terms define the entire political reality of a country that remains unique in the entire Muslim world because of its genuine attempt to develop a political system based on Islam’s fundamental principles. This experiment is not only unique in modern times, it is the product of a political philosophy that is itself of considerable importance because it is based on principles that provide an alternative to the West’s political philosophies.

Although numbers tell us little about the true importance of Iran’s unprecedented political experiment, they do need to be qualified for the sake of clarity. At the time of writing this article, voter turnout was estimated at between 26 and 28 million out of 46 million eligible voters. This means a turnout of between 48 and 50 percent (the interior ministry gave the figure of 50.57 percent), which is certainly less than the 67 percent who cast their votes during the elections of 2000, when President Khatami’s allies won two thirds of the seats in parliament. But this decrease may not be a sign of voters’ apathy, because voter turnout in elections is declining worldwide. According to figures compiled by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), an intergovernmental organization, most Western democracies have had a continuous decline in the proportion of voters voting. For Canada this number has fallen from 70 percent in 1945 to 54 percent in 2000. Only 49.2 percent of American voters cast their votes in the presidential elections in the US in 2000 (see The record for other Western democracies is similar. In England voter turnout dropped from 70 percent in 1945 to 57 percent in 2001; in France it dropped from 73 percent in 1945 to 59 percent in 1997; in Switzerland this drop was from 66 percent in 1947 to 35 percent in 1999.

These facts and figures aside, what is of greater importance in the case of Iran and the process that has turned it into a laboratory for Islamic political philosophy, is the fact that Islamic Iran is the only Muslim country in modern times where a contemporary Islamic political system is evolving. Those who wish to see this experiment as a process that can be divided neatly into a struggle between "conservatives" and "reformists" are blind to the forces that are shaping this flexible, growing system.

This new political system owes its existence to a Revolution that removed a highly Westernized, morally corrupt and oppressive monarchy. This system is not based on personal ad hoc decisions but on the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which was endorsed by the people of Iran in a referendum (March 29 and 30, 1979), through the affirmative vote of 98.2 percent of eligible voters. The fact that, despite the great difficulties and hardships it faced, the Islamic Revolution was able to anchor itself in a constitutional form within a few weeks of its initial victory, speaks volumes for the maturity of the leadership that led the Revolution. But more important for the continuation of the Revolution and its firm foundation are the Islamic features of the Constitution.

According to Article 2 of the Constitution, the Islamic Republic is based on a framework in which the concept of Tawhid (oneness of God) is primary. This Article states that the Islamic Republic is a system based on belief in: (i) the One God (as stated in the phrase "There is no god except Allah"), His exclusive sovereignty and His right to legislate, and the necessity of submission to His commands; (ii) Divine Revelation and its fundamental role in setting forth laws; (iii) the return to God in the Hereafter, and the constructive role of this belief in humanity’s ascent towards God; (iv) the justice of God in creation and legislation.

These fundamental aspects of the Iranian Constitution –” which emphasise Tawhid, Revelation, justice and the Hereafter –” form the basis of the political system that has evolved in post-Revolutionary Iran since 1979. These primary concepts also set this system apart from the secular political systems of the West and the pseudo-Islamic political systems in other Muslim lands.

Equally important for our discussion are the qualifications required for the office of the president. The Constitution states that the president "must be elected from among the religious and political personalities possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin; Iranian nationality; administrative capacity and resourcefulness; a good past record; trustworthiness and piety; convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official religion of the country."

These qualifications, which are extracted from the political philosophy of the Revolution, place great importance on trustworthiness and piety. This moral dimension of the political system in Iran, which is reinforced throughout the Constitution, makes this system unique among contemporary political systems. For example, there is no concept of personal morality of this kind built into the Constitution for qualification to hold the presidential office of the US. So it is possible for that system to elect morally bankrupt presidents whose drinking habits, affairs with women, and other moral failures have often impaired their ability to steer their society in any worthy direction. Added to this is the pervasive corporate corruption of the US, which makes this system a sickening storehouse propelled mainly by big money and untrammelled greed for it.

The political system of Islamic Iran takes into consideration the Hereafter, which is a concept that secular systems lack utterly. These and various other aspects of the Islamic Revolution, which have defined its political dimension, have remained important ingredients of what can only be described as a laboratory of modern political experimentation. What has been achieved in Islamic Iran in the realm of political thought is fascinating, because it has provided an alternative vision of politics and political philosophy to a world in which secularism claims to be the only viable basis for political action. It is this challenge to the secular political philosophy that frightens the secularists: so they try to taint the validity of the political process in Iran by various means. They claim, for instance, that the whole process is unfair because certain individuals are prevented from running for office, so the elections do not meet "international norms". This charge is worth a comment.

First of all let us note that all political systems have built-in requirements which must be met by candidates. In addition, there are non-stated limits that act as unofficial filters and determine who can and cannot stand and be elected. In the case of Islamic Iran there are clearly stated guidelines. For a polity guided by a Revealed message, it is impossible not to take into consideration the belief-system of its elected representatives. It is also a built-in requirement of this system to have morally sound leadership, capable of leading the people toward the goals set by Revelation. There may be human lapses in the implementation of these aspects of the system, but these qualifications cannot be challenged without challenging the whole philosophy upon which this system is based. Such limits are present in every political system; sometimes they are stated clearly, sometimes they are not stated at all in any document, but nevertheless operate to define the contours of political reality in that society. In the US, for example, there is no provision in the Constitution to bar an African-American from becoming president, yet the day when this is possible will be the day when the good Angel blows the trumpet, as the Afro-Americans themselves would put it.

As for other limitations that in practice bar candidates from running for the House, the Senate or various offices, the greatest impediment is money. It is not wrong to say that the US political system is made by the rich for the rich. The issue of "soft money", which has become a major issue in US elections in recent years, and which has been the subject of so-called campaign-finance reform debates, provides a legal cover for this dubious practice. In truth it is money obtained from private and corporate donations that determines almost all aspects of candidacy in the US political system; this money is the main determining factor in who can stand.

Further, the role of money in the US political system is also linked to post-election decisions. Consider the fact that only a small group of US construction firms were allowed to bid for lucrative contracts for the "reconstruction" of Iraq. These were the companies that had contributed more than $3.5 million, 66 percent of which had gone to the Republicans, in the last two election campaigns. This is merely one of many facts that have come to light in recent months; there are thousands of other links between the donors of so-called election soft money and post-election decisions of the Senate, the House and the presidents that make the whole system a mutually beneficial process of making money and wielding power. Thus when the US Agency for International Development asked Bechtel Group Inc., Fluor Corp., Halliburton Corporation’s subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root, Louis Berger Group Inc., Parsons Corp. and Washington Group International Inc. to submit bids for the $900-million contract for repairing and building water systems, roads, bridges, schools and hospitals in Iraq, it knew perfectly well what it was doing and why. This link between money and politics on the one hand, and between the political system of the US and its invasion of other lands on the other, is barely the tip of the iceberg. Underneath lie layers and layers of issues that expose fundamental weaknesses of the entire political system, and betray the real reasons for the built-in, ‘legalised’ limitations on who can and cannot stand for election and hold office.

When one examines the various political systems now operating in the world, one finds none that does not have built-in checks to ensure that the system works for the goals and aspirations of those who devised the system. The main question, then, is who builds the system, and for what end. In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the system is devised to guide society toward a life-pattern that aligns individuals, families and communities with the Revealed paradigm of Islam. This means that the leadership has to be such that it can act as a model, and guide the government and the people toward the goals of the deen.

This contrasts starkly with Western democracies, in which the imperatives of the Hereafter are left to individuals, and the state has no or very little concern for this end. In most Western democracies the government and its various arms are mainly concerned with running institutions that look after the material needs of the society: education, health, roads, transport and the like. These systems are also shackled by the pursuit of big money by big business, and so often lead to international conflicts in which these states play the role of modern-day Pharaohs. The recent invasion of Iraq is a case in point.

The post-invasion phase has revealed so many links between the powerful political donors and the causes of the invasion that it has begun to seem that this barbaric action was committed mostly to repay these corporations before the next presidential election. For instance Bechtel, the engineering giant that employed the likes of former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, former secretary of state George Shultz and former CIA director William Casey before they took their government posts, gave $1.3 million in political donations between 1999 and 2002. Bechtel was, let us note, also among the twenty-four US companies that supplied Iraq with weapons during the 1980s, when it had attacked Islamic Iran. Kellogg, Brown & Root and parent company Halliburton –” headed by vice-president Dick Cheney until 2000 –” was the second-largest donor of the group of six US companies that have now been granted contracts worth millions or billions of dollars. Halliburton donated at least $710,000 in the previous election; it also gave more to Bush’s presidential campaign than any of the other six companies. Fluor, which gave more than $483,000 in contributions in the previous two election cycles, also has ties to the defence department. Kenneth Oscar, the company’s vice-president of strategy and government services, recently served as the acting assistant secretary of the US army, where he directed its $35 billion-a-year procurement budget. These links between who runs and comes to power in the US and the US’s corporate world are integral, not accidental. They show that this system has built-in limitations placed on the possible candidates, and serves peculiar interests.

As for the Iranian elections not being consistent with "international norms", one must ask what international norms and who defines them. What are the principles on which these are defined? And what makes them "international"? Obviously such norms cannot be defined by those who tell the world that they will establish democracy in Iraq not by free elections but by appointing a hand-picked group. What passes for "international" cannot be a made-in-America claim; it has to pass certain principles accepted by all nations.

Islam comes with its own norms and standards; its social, political and personal aspects all form an interlocking system of ethics and priorities that cannot be practised piecemeal. Islam’s political philosophy rests on concepts and practices that take into consideration society’s needs in this world and in the Hereafter. Regardless of its specific forms, it envisions a distribution of responsibility of governance based on certain ethical standards and personal piety. These fundamental qualities of the Islamic political system cannot be bargained for "international acceptance"; rather these values must eventually be adopted by other political systems.

Islamic Iran’s political system may not be the best manifestation of Islam’s ideals yet, but it is certainly a system that has come into existence by the application (or attempted application) of those ideals. True, like all human aspirations, it is still in the making, yet one cannot ignore the importance of its coming into existence at a time when there was no other such system in the world. What is important, then, is the fact that there is a functional political system, based on Islamic principles of governance, which is going through its own refinement with time: this is enough of an achievement to be commended and celebrated.

Another important aspect of the political situation in Iran is the relative youth of the Revolution. It is only 25 years since this unprecedented event took place, and during these years Islamic Iran has been forced to deal with terrible difficulties: an unjust war inflicted upon it by Iraq; various forms of sanctions imposed by the West; and enormous internal challenges arising from its own history. But despite all these upheavals, including the deaths of millions of people from the generation that worked for the Revolution, the recent elections prove once more that Iranian society has great potential.

The presence of a large proportion of young Iranians in Iran’s population poses unique challenges and provides unique opportunities. Young people are always volatile and energetic. If their energies can be harnessed for a new vision that places the first Islamic Revolution in the framework of the global Islamic movement, the Islamic political system in Iran will mature further in the future, insha’Allah. Thus the Revolution in Iran must not be regarded as something that happened 25 years ago; it must remain a continuous process of growth, learning from experience, and developing institutions for the global revival of Islam’s message of hope for all humanity, and through humanity for all creation.