Presidential polls in Islamic Iran: Elections without western-style democracy

For those willing to see it, there is an undeniable irony in the fact that, at a time when the US and other Western countries claim to be championing democracy in the Muslim world, the only country in the Middle East with a genuinely open, participatory and vibrant political system is the Islamic State of Iran, the country that the US regards as its main enemy in the world. Equally notable is the fact that even as the West attacks Iran for being undemocratic, and represents itself as friend and ally of oppressed Iranians demanding democratic change in their country, senior figures in Iran respond by proclaiming that the Islamic State represents true democracy, and criticising elections in the US and the UK as proving that there is not real democracy in the Western countries that hypocritically claim to be the founders and leaders of universal democratic values.

There are, of course, three simple explanations for this apparent paradox. The first lies, of course, in the supreme flexibility of the word “democracy” — it can be defined in a bewildering variety of different ways, and used to characterise very different (and mutually incompatible) political phenomena and processes. In political science terms, it is the archetypal “disputed concept” — a concept whose meaning is so unclear that it cannot be used without the user first explaining what he means by it. Unfortunately this is not widely recognised in lay usage, where everyone thinks they know what the term means, even though their understanding may be totally different to somebody else’s.

The second is that “democracy” has become a universal ideal. It is recognised as a good thing by people all around the world, even though they may mean very different things by it. Even within the West, the understandings of democracy vary very considerably from the US, to France, to Switzerland, for example. Once non-Western understandings of democracy are brought into the debate, particular theories of Islamic democracy (broadly defined) developed by thinkers as diverse as Maulana Maududi, Rashid al-Ghannouchi, Hasan al-Turabi and Imam Khomeini, the picture becomes even more clouded. Yet the term itself is almost universally recognised as an ideal. The reason is that it is associated with certain broad ideas that are themselves universally accepted, for example popular empowerment and involvement in politics, accountable government, human rights and the rule of law. No one, whatever their religious, philosophical or political persuasion, would seriously dispute any of these (although they may disagree with the ways other people define them; these too are disputed concepts, after all).

The third explanation for the irony pointed out above is a lot less complicated, and a lot easier to understand: it is the fact that Western politicians generally, and the US government in particular, are expert at manipulating words and meanings to mean whatever they want them to mean, and whatever other people want to hear, with scant regard for honesty or reality, motivated only by the entirely selfish and pragmatic need to pursue and protect their own interests, regardless of any and all other considerations. Thus they talk of wanting democracy in the Middle East not on the basis of any particular philosophical or ideological understanding of democracy — for the philosophies and ideologies that they claim to hold are also malleable according to the needs to the time — but precisely because that is what people in the region want to hear.

People around the world are fed-up of the authoritarian and repressive kings, colonels and presidents-for-life that have ruled their countries for years or decades, usually sponsored and kept in place by the West. They are demanding political change, and using the language of democracy to express their wishes. In Muslim countries, as has recently been demonstrated in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, people usually see no contradiction between Islam and democracy; indeed they usually regard democracy not as a fiercely secular ideal, as in the West, but as a means of expressing and realising their commitment to Islamic social and political values and principles. And so the West promises them democracy, meaning not representative and accountable governments in the true sense of the words, but governments that are as representative and accountable as is compatible with being as pro-Western as Washington wants them to be. And of course this is where Iran’s problem is for the US. It stubbornly refuses to kow-tow to Western demands in any area. And this absolutely disqualifies it from being recognised as a democracy, despite the fact that it has the most open elections in the region.

Last month the Council of Guardians, working as usual under the guidance of the Rahbar, Imam Sayyid Ali Khamenei, approved the candidature of eight candidates for the presidency of the country; the elections for a new president take place on June 17. They represent all major political trends within the country that are compatible with its Islamic values and character, which the system is rightly bound to protect. The object of the process is to ensure that only candidates who are qualified for office, and committed to the responsibilities that come with it, are able to be elected. How this should be done is the main problem for all Islamic theories of government.

Although the role of the Council of Guardians is the element of Iranian politics most attacked by its enemies, in truth it only does, openly and frankly, as behoves an Islamic system, what other systems do covertly: ensure that only candidates who are qualified for office, and committed to the responsibilities that come with it, are able to be elected. In the West, people are filtered as they work their way up the party system, before being approved as candidates. There, the filtering is done by the elites, who pull the strings of power from behind the scenes, while the facade of popular involvement protects these processes from general view and criticism. An Islamic system, however designed, is not without disputes, disagreements and politicking, of course; those are inescapable elements of human nature and society, found even in the first Islamic state under the leadership of the Prophet himself (saw). The role of the Rahbar (or imam or khalifah, in Islamic systems that are designed differently) must be to ensure that –as far as possible — such disputes and politicking do not damage the system or result in injustice; hence Imam Khamenei’s intervention to ensure that two candidates whom the Council of Guardians had excluded be permitted to take part. It was, in truth, not evidence of a problem in the system, but of its strength and effectiveness.

Whoever is elected president of the Islamic Republic of Iran on June 17, the West will twist the result to serve their own purposes, suggesting for example that the Iranian people demand a change of the system. That is inevitable, given that the world’s sole superpower and its allies and subordinates are committed to undermining and ultimately destroying the Islamic state by all and any means possible, and replacing it with a state that is more “democratic” in the sense of being more pro-Western. This is what Muslims should bear in mind when observing, directly or indirectly, the events unfolding in Iran, and be more discerning in their own analyses of events, however messy they may appear to be.