How the West gets Iran wrong
May 9th, 2014
04:36 PM ET

How the West gets Iran wrong

By Akbar Ganji, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Akbar Ganji is an Iranian journalist and dissident and was imprisoned in Tehran from 2000 to 2006. The views expressed are his own.

Much has been said and written about liberalism, economics and even feminism in Iran. Yet despite much lamenting among outsiders determined to paint a grim picture of Iran by focusing on the supposed stifling of political thought and discussion in the country, the reality is in many respects quite different.

So what has really been going on?

The dominant discourse in Iran before the Islamic Revolution was focused around developing world leftist ideology. Marxism was seen as progressive, with the examples of Lenin, Mao and Che Guevara preferred over the social democracy of some European nations. Indeed, those who did not buy into this view – particularly those close to the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – were not considered true intellectuals.

In an effort to fully control the country after the revolution toppled the Shah's regime in 1979, Iran's ruling religious forces nationalized the country's resources and institutions, with intellectuals like Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari declaring that the "spirit and foundations of the universal declaration of human rights are supported by Islam."

It was clear in his writing and speeches during his 10 years as supreme leader that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was not really familiar with liberalism and Marxism, yet he was opposed to both. In contrast, Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, has been pointed in his criticism of liberal democracy, dismissing it on countless occasions and presenting an alternative, "religious democracy." His criticisms of liberal democracy are based on two pillars: the track record of liberal democracies for what he considers as the destruction of family values, and his faith in "religious democracy" being superior over liberal democracy.

Yet anyone believing that Khamenei's views have in turn resulted in a top-down squashing of political discussion – even of imported ideas – would be mistaken.

True, the authoritarian rule of Iran's Supreme Leader rejects liberal democracy and feminism. And books that are published in Iran are subject to censorship and must receive a permit for publication from Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. On top of this, publishers receive subsidies from the government, making it difficult for them to survive without government help.

But none of this has prevented some of the most important books on liberalism and feminism from being translated and published over the more than three decades since the revolution (although the government does oppose the Bahá'í Faith religious minority in Iran, and does not allow the publication of books and thoughts of its adherents). Indeed, the restrictions have not prevented some of the most influential works of Western thought, from John Locke's Two Treatises of Government to John Stuart Mill's On Liberty to more recent tomes such as Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom from being published.

Meanwhile, although the ayatollahs are fiercely opposed to feminism, consider their own views on women and their rights to be fair and just, and claim that unlike the West, Islam is opposed to using woman as an object for advancing one's own agenda, an astonishing number of books on feminism have been translated into Farsi and published in Iran, from Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex to Eliz Sanasarian's The Women's Right Movement in Iran.

But Iranians' growing access to a range of views is also evident in the sheer numbers of books published or translated since the revolution. In 1976 and 1977, just prior to the revolution, around 900 new books were published in the country. This dipped to just 274 books in 1978. But fast forward to 2010 and around 65,000 new books were published, according to Iran’s parliament library, a number that climbed to some 68,000 in 2011, of which around 14,000 were translations of foreign books.

Indeed, the reality is that hundreds of books have been published in Farsi discussing freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights – on topics ranging from the separation of church and state to the importance of distinguishing the public from the private domain. Such breadth and depth, coupled with the expansion of university-level education, offer an image of Iran as a genuinely dynamic society.

This dynamism has gained momentum with the expansion of the country's urban middle class – in 1978, just 47 percent of the population lived in urban areas, compared with about 70 percent today. In addition, the literacy rate has soared from less than 50 percent in 1978 to around 85 percent today, even as the population has more than doubled. And while women represented less than one-third of the country's college students in 1978, they now make up some 60 percent of students studying at Iran's colleges.

The expansion of university education has bolstered scientific research in the country – in 2013 the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) counted 32,600 scientific articles published by Iranian scientists in ISI-recognized, peer-reviewed journals, placing Iran first in this category in the entire Middle East. In March 2011, the New Scientist declared that Iran has seen the highest rate of "scientific growth" in the world.

It is not just in the sciences that Iran has made strides – the U.N. has indicated that, whereas in 1980, Iran was performing below the worldwide average in terms of human development, it is now considered to have high human development – a shift no doubt helped by the healthy 3 percent annual average economic growth from 1979-2012, despite a long and costly war with neighboring Iraq.

All this suggests that the foundations for democracy to grow and even thrive on the back of an increasingly well educated, more urbanized middle class are in place.

None of this is to suggest that Iran under Khamenei is a democratic state – he is an authoritarian leader that has blocked the democratization of Iran. And not only is he determined to stifle the democratic movement, but he also has the power and the tools to do so. And yet, despite this, certain social developments are beyond his control, in part because his power is not absolute, and also because of the strides that Iranian civil society has made in recent years.

Of course, the balance of power between Iran's civil society and the government still favors the latter, and there is an ongoing tension between the two as the country tries to find the balance between the will of the people and a regime that wants to control everything. But ultimately, there is nothing intrinsic to Iranian society that can prevent it from eventually achieving democracy.

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Topics: Iran

soundoff (74 Responses)
  1. Chris Mullen

    I like the idea of this article, but then doesn't the Iranian government have the ability to change the content and message of each book as they please? Firoozeh Dumas (see link below) is a Persian novelist who has written about the difficulties of publishing in Iran, and it seems like even though the government will publish a book like " Two Treatises of Government", does the Iranian version deliver the same message as the original?

    May 9, 2014 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • johnsmith77801

      America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
      In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
      During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
      In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
      Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

      May 10, 2014 at 2:55 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        No doubt countries in the region feel uneasy about Iran's strength. Saudi Arabia fears a strong Iran would boost the confidence of the Shia populations across the region. It's a positive sign that there's a civil society in Iran that allows the freedom of thoughts and advocates for a separation of religion and politics.

        May 11, 2014 at 11:16 am |
  2. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    What? An Iranian leader who was not familiar with Marxism?
    Marxism is pretty simple: I build a house and grow food in my yard so that you can legally take away my food, eat it, and then sleep in my house while I sleep in the yard.
    Very progressive.

    May 9, 2014 at 6:24 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

      You know better than that. Karl Marx believed in a society where workers can enjoy the fruits of their labor and not the Capitalists. In fact, all these idiotic wars that we're currently engaged in are fueled by Capitalism.

      May 9, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Reply
      • George Patton

        Good grief Joey Isotta-Fraschini,Karl Marx believed in no such thing. Are you a fan of Sarah Palin? Such posts as the stupid one you posted got to go.
        It's as simple as that!

        May 9, 2014 at 11:22 pm |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        What gets my goat George,is all these far extreme left-wingers screaming about Kark Marx,yet don't follow his teachings. The nerve!

        May 9, 2014 at 11:30 pm |
    • zcyrus

      The supreme leader of Iran did the same.
      He occupied of Iranian people properties and money and he's the richest person with 90 billion dolla wealthr!

      May 14, 2014 at 8:55 pm | Reply
  3. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    The West has been getting Iran wrong since the late 1940's. In 1953, the C.I.A. orchestrated the overthrow of the populist Mohammad Mosadegh and put in the much hated Reza Pahlavi as Shah who both murdered and tortured his own people through the use of S.A.V.A.K. whose agents where trained and armed by the C.I.A. No wonder the Iranians resent us so!

    May 9, 2014 at 7:20 pm | Reply
    • So Much For Subtlety

      The CIA and MI6 had a small walk-on role in the Iranian coup, but they were not all that important to it. Mossadegh was doing an excellent job of getting himself thrown out of office all by himself. The West did not install the Shah. The Shah was there already. Mossadegh was trying to remove him but the majority of parties, the voters and especially the Army objected to this. They would have removed him in the end anyway.

      The odd thing is that so many people care about the Mossadegh Coup. The Middle East had a lot of coups at that time. The Syrians were averaging one a year. Why focus on this one? The obvious reason is that it allows people who hate the West, both in the West and in Iran, to blame the West for everything that has gone wrong in Iran. Even though there is no evidence the coup changed anything or that the Iranians give a damn.

      May 9, 2014 at 11:01 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Now the Joey at 7:20, is trying to be funny. The Shah brought that country out of the Middle Ages. He gave them education, jobs, and freedom of religion. As for the CIA, such a remark is ludicrous. There was no such overthrow. The people wanted to rid the religious fanatics so agreed to the Shah.
      This bozo spreading anti-American propaganda has got to go.
      It's as simple as that.

      May 10, 2014 at 8:59 am | Reply
      • Gigi

        You are clearly a terrorism and dictatorship supporter.
        You should befriend with Kim il joung un and Hitler since your mentality is basically the same

        May 12, 2014 at 2:54 am |
  4. George

    I was surprised to read that a former political prisoner is actually talking positively about Iran. While Khamenei has immense power he actually is not a dictator. He does not make arbitrary decisions. In fact, all major decisions in Iran are made by acclamation. The Iranian parliament (Majles) also is quite powerful and the election of its members seems to be fair and democratic. In fact, Iran is probably the most democratic country in the Middle East.

    The one area where Iran needs the most urgent change is the termination of the dominance of Islam in government. This obsession with religion may be useful temporarily. But, in the long run, religion and government cannot be intermingled. In particular, all talk of Sharia laws should be abolished from discourse.

    Secondly, the stupid dress code on women should be abolished. The black chador, even though it is not required, is a disgrace. Also, the the hijab (the requirement that a woman cover her hair) is ridiculous in today's world.

    May 9, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Reply
    • John

      Only candidates approved by the theocratic government in Iran are allowed to run for office.
      Not much freedom of choice in that democracy!

      May 12, 2014 at 9:19 am | Reply
      • George

        Well, only candidate approved by Sheldon Adelson are permitted to run in the United States.

        By the way about 600 people signed up to run for president last year. Did you want all of them to run? Or, maybe you wanted them to have a stupid primary system like in this country and spend $2B for stupid TV ads and ridiculous campaigns.

        May 12, 2014 at 5:32 pm |
    • zcyrus

      The writer have been security guard of regime and still to try to keep the regime with some corrections!
      Most of Iranian people got tired of iran mullah dictatorship regime and fighting to get rid of them.

      May 13, 2014 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  5. chrissy

    Thats most DEFINITELY NOT @ Joey @ 7:20! Derpasstroll!

    May 9, 2014 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  6. chrissy

    Or @ 7:13 either!

    May 9, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      Good grief chrissy,are you a fan of Sarah Palin? Such Tea Party lingo. I doubt that anyone wants to hear any of your mumble jumble. These posts of yours are a real eye sore.
      They have to go. It's as simple as that!

      May 9, 2014 at 11:12 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      @ chrissy is correct.
      I wrote the first Joey post at 6:24 pm, and no more before this one.
      I think that Marxism is evil.
      I am a capitalist.
      The USA's economy is terrible at this time, as a result of unrealistic thinking imported in the early 1900s.
      Our very poor citizens need much help now, but eventually we need to return to free capitalism.
      Our thinking needs to be redirected.

      May 10, 2014 at 5:39 am | Reply
  7. Chipster

    This article smells of old fish, but I'll wait for Ledeen's judgement.

    May 9, 2014 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  8. bestvaluecoupons

    Well said.Great article.

    May 9, 2014 at 10:59 pm | Reply
  9. dazzle

    Iranian society has not been in a fundamentalist mood since 1979 and the Iranian government is. Propaganda about the West is constantly being shoveled on the people. Iranians are highly educated and have learned the hard way how to live under the dictator and the mullahs. A dreadful theocracy.

    May 9, 2014 at 11:18 pm | Reply
    • tms5510

      The paradox is that Iranian become highly educated under this dictator regime

      May 9, 2014 at 11:41 pm | Reply
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

        Thank you, tms5510. How true that rings!

        May 12, 2014 at 1:16 am |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      Not @ dazzle.

      May 10, 2014 at 5:42 am | Reply
  10. George Patton

    Good post dazzle. I fully agree. They are fed anti-American propaganda,since childhood.
    What a disgrace!

    May 9, 2014 at 11:24 pm | Reply
    • Raad

      Agree, but is that stance unwarranted with all the actions that US has taken over the years?

      May 10, 2014 at 5:42 am | Reply
    • tari

      I wonder if they were fed propaganda, How on earth when the 911 happened the Iranian people were the only people in middle East that light up candles and prayed for the victims!!

      May 12, 2014 at 5:48 pm | Reply
  11. Jb

    Great article. Some erroneously state that the diverse population prevents democracy there. But your article debunks that theory.

    May 10, 2014 at 12:36 am | Reply
  12. Frank Dixon

    "there is nothing intrinsic to Iranian society that can prevent it from eventually achieving democracy"

    This is debatable given Iran has been historically governed by monarchs and there has never been a separation of church and state which is critical for a free and democratic society. Sure, culture is dynamic and will change over time, but the interesting question is when.

    May 10, 2014 at 2:02 am | Reply
    • Raad

      Queen of England – as were her predecessors- is the head of state and head of the Church of England. Has that stopped growth of liberal democracy in Britain. In fact one could argue that that change under Henry VIII was a necessary requirement for democracy – all the other countries that were beholden to Catholic Church remained under authoraterian rule until 20th century. France got there by a different means but first destroyed itself and then everyone else in Europe first.

      May 10, 2014 at 5:49 am | Reply
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

        @ Read is right about the Queen of England. That monarchy is glorious. It always has been.
        Of all Christian denominations, the Church of England has provided the best theologians. Although division is now sending some slower runners back to Rome, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America influences our society beautifully.

        May 10, 2014 at 6:34 am |
  13. mina

    the only thing good about iran is that they are anti-wahabi..other than that they are terrorists just like other sunnis and will end up the same fate as iraq

    May 10, 2014 at 5:42 am | Reply
    • Raad

      Mina, what a mature comment! Honi soit qui mal y pense.

      May 10, 2014 at 5:54 am | Reply
    • Faramarz Fathi

      Mina: You are an Iranian either living in Iran or an expatriate living abroad but quite clearly you are not happy about the current government in Iran.
      Conventional wisdom implies if you are not happy about the status quo in Iran you should be in Iran now and take a forefront lead on path towards the changes you desire to see taking place there regardless of any lethal fate that might await you rather than taking refuge in front of your keyboard and advertise your idiocy on net.

      Faramarz Fathi

      May 10, 2014 at 11:29 am | Reply
      • zcyrus

        Do not worry Framarz.
        Million of Iranian inside of Iran will throw your corrupted and most hated regime into history garbage bucket!

        May 13, 2014 at 8:58 pm |
    • george

      Persians are primarily Shia, not Sunni.

      May 11, 2014 at 11:17 am | Reply
  14. chrissy

    Lol @ Joey ive had a good deal of time to study george patton and joseph mccarthys derpasstroll works! Its almost comical watching one of them lie and the other one swear too it! Then add "this clown has to go"! Then you get their pal Bledsoe! Its like a bad episode of the three stooges!

    May 10, 2014 at 5:49 am | Reply
  15. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    ANY PAHLAVI, 2015!

    May 10, 2014 at 6:06 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      Are you trying to be funny, Joey? You know better than that. Besides, try telling that to the Iranian people who suffered horrifically under his rule. At any rate, it's a good thing he's gone once and for all!

      May 10, 2014 at 8:38 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      I see some clown stole my name at 8:38. In retrospect, of course the Iranian people would like to have the Shah back today. Instead they have an oppressive Old Stone Age pack of thugs running that country. No internet, must follow one religion only, no freedom of speech, and the list is endless.
      Good grief, my imposter has got to go!
      Bring back a leader similar to the great Shah!

      May 10, 2014 at 9:11 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      You know Patrick, this joker that steals names and spews out misinformed information about so many global issues is doing everyone here a disservice. He spews and he spews and he spews. I for one am tired of it!
      This clown has got to go. It's as simple as that.
      As for the Shah, he was a decent leader and brought Iran from an undeveloped country to a modern country. With him gone, the poor Iranians are back to the Stone Age.

      May 10, 2014 at 9:20 am | Reply
  16. Joseph McCarthy

    Feels good? Good grief Joey,are you a fan of Sarah Palin? What lingo! Such thinking has got to go.
    It's as simple as that!

    May 10, 2014 at 7:49 am | Reply
  17. George Patton

    You know Joseph,what really gets my goat are these Tea Party right-wingers grabbing and stealing any name they can,then spewing all this anti-American propaganda.
    These jokers got to go.
    It's as simple as that!

    May 10, 2014 at 7:54 am | Reply
  18. ✠RZ✠

    Yet another comment section on GPS fuming throughout with the stench of derpasstrolls. Holy mother of olfactory nerve damage Zak! When are you and the Mikster gonna get around to finally filtering out the freakin' troll stench around here like we've all been asking ?!? Heck, might as well watch the Terrance and Phillip Show, at least it might have some entertainment value.

    May 10, 2014 at 10:44 am | Reply
  19. George Patton

    Thank you, RZ. You said it all!

    May 10, 2014 at 11:15 am | Reply
  20. JH

    Totally agree with nearly everything the writer of the article has written simply because he has brought several facts and figures as proofs. Now compare those facts with America's "ally" Saudi Arabia in Middle East. Then you will see the extent of hypocrisy US has in spreading democracy. US has only one thing in mind and that is superiority complex. No having a big army or strong economy does not make a country great simply because they can vanish in a short period of time, see China have just over taken US economically. No US does not have democracy either. See the state of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Unfortunately US is not intelligent enough to realise that antagonising a progressive country like Iran and partnering with backward and anti democratic countries of the region will not help it achieve its aim of supremacy. One thing is for sure, US is not interested in democracy, never was never will be! The proof:

    May 10, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Reply
    • George Patton-2

      Good posting, JH. Thank you.

      May 10, 2014 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  21. rupert

    So what happened to page 2

    May 10, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  22. chrissy

    Lol @ RZ, Holy mother of olfactory nerve damage huh? Thats pretty inventive. But youre right...GPS is going down the same path as TJI for sure.

    May 10, 2014 at 8:16 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      Maybe chri§§y, but let's hope not. Apparently this derpasstroll was put under strict psychiatric orders to somehow attract attention by any acceptable means other than the usual fondling of himself in public places. I tell ya, if that don't just creep the heebie-jeebies out of anyone I don't know what does.

      May 10, 2014 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  23. me123

    The fact of publishing a few books doesn't change much. In late 1920th almost anything could be published in Soviet Union. It didn't stop Stalin's Great Terror. Few read books. Who is in power matters most

    May 10, 2014 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  24. chrissy

    Lol heebie jeebies! Been along time since ive heard that one either! But again it fits!

    May 11, 2014 at 9:33 am | Reply
  25. chrissy

    Have to agree with @ Joseph! It does NOT feel good having your name hijacked @ Joey! Cant figure out WHY you would even feel good about it. Odd!

    May 11, 2014 at 11:55 am | Reply
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