City of Brass

City of Brass

The Myth of Secular Inevitability: Iran, Islam, America, Israel and Palestine

This is a guest post by Haroon Moghul.

Not surprisingly, in the days since Iran’s election fiasco, Western media have attempted to fit the events inside the Islamic Republic into a convenient framework. I call this the myth of secular inevitability, or the legend of liberalization. (Because it is an ahistorical and metaphysical claim, kind of like “science”). Of course, we all attempt to understand events around us — especially chaotic and uncertain affairs — in a language and in the framework that makes sense to us and that appeals to us. Nevertheless, in the case of Iran, this is extremely dangerous. I have said before that the incumbent, Ahmadinejad, is quite popular. A significant proportion of the Iranian society supports him and elements of his agenda, separable from his person. Nevertheless, a large chunk of Iranian society chafes under the controls imposed by certain elements within the Republic. Of course nobody can predict what’s going to happen in the next few days or weeks – but let’s pretend.


It’s fun.

Let us conduct a thought experiment however and assume that a favorable outcome emerged after a second election. “Favorable” means the candidate I believe would be better for Iran, Mir Mousavi, wins… he’s also the candidate that Western media is overwhelmingly behind. Shockingly to some of my readers, that does not imply full convergence or agreement. Nor does that imply I believe blindly that Mousavi will necessarily win a second election for certain; I am simply saying that we assume, for the sake of this thought experiment, this Mousavian outcome. Would this mean that Iran becomes a secular Democratic Republic? Would this be a more favorable outcome for the United States, Israel and their policies in the region?


No. It would not. Iran will remain an Islamic republic. The majority of Iranians support a prominent role for Islam in their national and political identity. It is highly unlikely that the Islamic Republic would be changed in such a deep way as to negate its Islamic character, which is popular and institutionally deeply entrenched. Like most Muslim countries, religion plays a role in the articulation of modern, democratic governance in the Iranian system — perhaps the most significant role, as it is the legitimating principle: Islam, throughout most of the Muslim world, represents a significant source of law and outlines the ideals, norms and ambitions of hoped-for political culture. In other words, the myth of secular inevitability does not apply. Just as a minority of intellectuals among the American liberal elite and in Europe, except by a greater majority there, believe(d) that modernity would mean the end of religion, so too should we dismiss the idea that Muslim countries in general or Iran in particular are looking to become carbon copies of Western modernity. This is neither possible nor, in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of the peoples of the Muslim world, ideal.


More significantly, a victory for Mousavi actually represents a greater threat to an imperialist projection of American power and influence in the Middle East. For President Obama, Mousavi would be a more favorable candidate to conduct negotiations with — but Obama’s reading of the Middle East, and his awareness of the decrease of American power there (and more generally), is not the reading many American pundits and politicians adhere to or aspire to. I think there are some in Western media who are (self-)deluded into believing that a more liberalized Islamic republic would mean a more pliable Islamic Republic. I would actually argue the opposite. Assuming a second election went smoothly and Mousavi became president, we would see Iran develop further, with a more open political culture, a stronger public mandate and more transparent and therefore more effective government. That Iranian government would not suddenly become a Western lackey. Iran has accomplished too much, and Iranians are on the whole too independent, to allow themselves to be put in such a position: Khatami’s attitude, for example, to Palestine, to the Middle East and to American hegemony is not a happy parallel to most Americans’. He just has a nice smile and a smarter style about him, nor does he stuff his religion down his peoples’ throats. In fact an Iran under Mousavi would be more able to develop nuclear power on its own resources and more likely to dictate stronger terms against the United States and Israel’s interests in the region in any negotiations. Just because the president is Mousavi instead of Ahmadinejad does not mean that suddenly Iran would also abandon its allies in the region, namely Hamas and Hezbollah.*


In fact, Iran would probably gain allies in the region and power in the region. Good for Obama? In a way, yes. But also tougher for those who support a right-wing or even hegemonic vision of the Middle East, wherein they decide what goes and what doesn’t.

With a ruler perceived to have more of a mandate, and one who is less prone to saying stupid and frankly offensive things every other time he opens his mouth, it is harder to isolate Iran — and harder to create a perception among Sunni governments (that is, dictatorships) that Iran is a threat to their power and their privilege. While, yes, in fact that Iran would be actually more threatening to them, because it would be more democratic and more open and therefore more attractive, it would again be harder to isolate and marginalize — and would probably become even more popular among the masses of the Arab and Muslim worlds in so far as it would represent an independent power, with rising ambition, and yet with a less oppressive and suffocating government. Just as Turkey, under the Justice and Development Party, became a more open supporter of Palestine, a more popular regional player and a more prominent player in the Muslim world, so too would Iran find greater success in the pursuit of a position commensurate with her capacity in the Middle East and in the Muslim world.


Some people should be careful what they wish for — they may not get what they expect they would. (Of course, you can throw this whole ‘thought experiment’ out the window, assuming the instability spreads, no happy compromise can be reached, and an internally divided Iran becomes harder to deal with and finds it harder to pursue its ambitions, domestically and regionally. That would be worse for President Obama, and would represent the ideal outcome for the advocates of sustaining American empire in the region — as Iran is one of the few countries in the region with an independent perspective; Turkey is, broadly speaking, another. Syria is too small to count. Pakistan would be Iran if Hezbollah were seizing neighborhoods around Tabriz and then getting carpet-bombed.)



* Am I the only person who finds the idea that the regime has imported Hezbollah to do its dirty work not only implausible, but racist? Among Iran’s tiny secular elite – many of whom I have met, and found to be insecure wanna-be Europeans, there is a virulent strain of racism, what Dabashi describes as an inability to believe that one is actually part of the Middle East and in fact looks the part. Considering that the regime itself is composed of Iranians, why wouldn’t the regime’s own police and other security forces be capable of violence against Iranians? What was the Shah, a Belgian? [Many people around the Shah wish they were].

Haroon Moghul is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University. This post was reprinted from his personal weblog, avari, with his kind permission.

  • Buzz Kill

    “Among Iran’s tiny secular elite – many of whom I have met, and found to be insecure wanna-be Europeans…”
    A little unbalanced. You are not gonna make a very good professor with broad brush strokes like that. But you can join the thousands of hack ideologues who comment critically on Iran.

  • Jacqueline

    There is a difference between a secular SOCIETY and a secular GOVERNMENT. America is NOT a secular country. According to a recent Pew study the US is second only to India in the role that religion plays in the daily lives of its population. Second only to India.
    That means the role of religion is higher in the US than it is in any Muslim country- where people are supposedly praying 5 times a day…
    There is a massive distinction between how a European interprets separation of church and state, and how and American does. In Europe, it has worked to install Atheism as the new state religion.
    In America, however, it is the reason why Muslims are freer here to practice Islam as they see fit than they are in their countries of origin. Separation of Church and State here in America creates a religious public discourse that is interested, open, and accepting- as no one is being forced one direction or another.
    On the darker side of the religious push of the the American population is the way that it plays out in Middle Eastern politics- especially concerning Israel. The irony is, if Americans were as secular as pundits like yourself claim they are, they wouldn’t be involved with Israel. It is their loyalty to the idea (recently invented, but whatever) of a shared Judeo-Christian heritage and the elevated place of Jerusalem and Israel in the Bible that blinds them to the plight of the Palestinians.
    Islam is not a monolith,
    but neither is “The West”.
    This is indeed one of the biggest problems we have in the Muslim community- we want people to give to us what we will not give to them. We want them to be understanding of us while we judge them. We want them to be tolerant of us while we are intolerant of them. Do you really think God doesn’t notice this? That He is fooled by all our pompous self-righteous rhetoric and posturing? Like He can’t see through faulty logic?
    I don’t think so.
    I think we’re getting from others what we give.

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