The System Can’t Respond to the Hunger for Change

The System Can’t Respond to the Hunger for Change

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June 232013
Janet Afary
New York Times

The pragmatism of young Iranians who voted for a cleric and bureaucrat with whom they have hardly anything in common is astonishing. They likely voted for him to avoid a dangerous confrontation with the West and perhaps remove America’s crippling sanctions.

They also voted for him because they want democracy. We believe this because last year we distributed an anonymous questionnaire through the Iranian blogosphere asking for Iranians’ views on religion, gender and politics.

Over 2,000 Iranians who were born and live in Iran answered at least part of the questionnaire, which was prepared under the auspices of the Benton Survey Research Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They were young and highly educated. Eighty percent were under the age of thirty-three. Over ninety percent of them had at least some college. And they were obviously plugged into the world through the Internet.

They were hardly secular. Two-thirds said they believe the "Quran is the inspired word of God." Yet when we asked our respondents how to reconcile a conflict between the shari'a and laws drawn up by democratically elected representatives, more than three-quarters said the democratically established law should prevail. Less than ten percent thought the shari’a should prevail. Less than four percent wanted the matter decided by a committee of clerics, the current situation in Iran.

Iranians have lived in a theocratic state for more than thirty years since the 1979 revolution toppled the Shah. Responses were very different when we asked the same questions of a similar audience in Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt, where Islamist parties have just now reached for or seized power.

In Turkey, only 58 percent of those who answered the questionnaire said they would want democratically passed laws to trump shari’a. In Tunisia, the percentage dropped to 26 percent. In Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood had just won the reins of state, only 10 percent said democracy should take precedence over Islamic law. Indeed, a third of the young Egyptians thought that conflicts should be resolved by a committee of clerics, following the Iranian model that young Iranians overwhelmingly reject.

Having lived with clerical rule for decades, Iranians now support the supremacy of the democratic principle much more than their counterparts elsewhere. When Islamists bring down a military dictatorship, they garner widespread support.

But with the passage of time young Iranians have realized that the political price they have had to pay for their parents’ Islamism is very high. Change in Iran can come from within, from its younger citizens, from its most educated population. For their voices to be heard and counted Iran needs to become a republic in something more than name. Although its young population hungers for such a change, the political path to its achievement is not yet evident. Iran may have elections but the Supreme Leader – who approves all candidates -- and the Guardian Council have veto power over its laws and its candidates.