Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Reform

When in 1997 President Khatami was elected president of Iran, reform was somehow implicit in his very short campaign promises. It was later on that his presidency and his followers were labeled “reformist.” This being an “Islamic” republic, based on Islamic laws, I concluded that any reform, even if it were directed towards the social or political system, would necessarily mean religious reform. Khatami, however, never used this expression. He emphasized on civil society and the rule of law, though he never said which law; and he referred many times to those invisible "unnamables" that are obstacle in achieving a true civil society.

Khatami’s opponents inside Iran criticized him and his government for corrupting the Islamic system of government, while his followers criticized him for not being assertive enough. They are still angry that while he was president, even with the majority of seats in the parliament during his first term, he remained ineffective.

Opposition groups and individuals outside the country are his biggest enemy. I have read many articles attacking him and the reformists in general, even now that none of the reformists have any responsibilities in the government. Even the journalists who work for the pro-reformist newspapers are not immune of their harsh criticisms.

And in between, there are two groups which are hard to pigeonhole. One consisted of ordinary, apolitical Iranians. I recall a relative, a housewife, a mother of two teenagers, who blamed Khatami for raising expectations in people which could not be realistically fulfilled. She said, “He talks about civil society and law and lawfulness and democracy. Our kids believe it and outside the home they become disappointed and frustrated not meeting any of these institutions.”

The other group is the most interesting. They grin and say, “Reform is dead.” They do not even bother to argue or explain what they mean by “reform” or “dead.” They just grin. Their grin is most bitter these days, with the election crises in Iran, when reform and the reformists are breathing their last while we watch them, obsessively worrying for their very survival.

The dictionary definition for reform says 1- to improve by correcting errors or removing defects; 2-to abolish abuse or malpractice; 3-to give up harmful or immoral practices. Knowing Khatami as too good a  thinker to not have foreseen the paradoxical nature of this term, I think the term was imposed on him by his wishful followers, and even by some clever faction of government expecting to have some pragmatic advantage, just as when “moderate” became the permanent descriptor for Rafsanjani.

The term, which united those dissatisfied by the Islamic Republic who viewed Khatami’s campaign as a window of hope, placed Khatami in the paradoxical position of aiming to correct “errors, defects, abuse, or malpractices” within the very system of which he himself had been one of the founders, and to which he has a firm commitment to its survival and its principles. The situation has even become embarrassing when he had to keep his alliance to the office of the Valiye Faghih, who is solely responsible for appointing those very individuals who created whatever Khatami objects to.

In a historical context, reform remains a neglected and unexamined phenomenon. As the ambiguity and lack of precision is an invitation to abuse, violation, and manipulation, the reform movement was destined to be harassed and brutally crushed, and it seemed totally wiped out. Khatami recently, after almost all the reformists were barred from being candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections, admitted, “It was a very strange clean up!” Nevertheless, there was no attempt to establish a firm and legitimate foundation for the movement to prevent this disastrous blow beyond a weak reference to Imam Khomeini expressing the importance of the “people’s will,” which, it seems, not so many have ever believed him meaning anything but just a word.

Reform’s history is as old as Creation. The first reformists were Adam and Eve, who did not obey God and did what they were told not to do. They did what they thought was better, both in the Biblical version, where they ate from the Tree of Knowledge (and I still do not know why God forbade it; what was wrong with knowledge?) or the Koranic version of eating wheat and making a mess in Heaven. Well, they wanted to do it their own way and paid a price for it; God deported them from Heaven. In fact, the punishment was not harsh at all; God created another heaven for them, the earthly kingdom, with milder and gentler rules supervised by his emissaries, the prophets.

As a matter of fact, even the prophets were reformists in their own way. The first one was Abraham, who, answering God’s call testing his piety, took his son, Isaac, to be sacrificed. Being a God-fearing man, Abraham “stepped over his heart” and took his son to the appointed place with a dagger to kill him. He did not listen to his wife’s cry, nor took notice of his innocent son’s horror. He just listened to God. He fastened his son to the stone, took his dagger and raised it high, though that dagger never came down. An angel told Abraham not to sacrifice the child and he “raised his eyes” and saw a lamb, sacrificing it instead. Not only Isaac was saved, but God appeared as merciful, giving up his demand for Abraham to prove his loyalty and grants life to Isaac. However, the most important was that it was the Abraham who did not kill his son. According to the Reform movement in Judaism, this story is a God’s blessing for Reform. The Rabbis found enough in the Torah to appeal to and to argue that Reform is the original point of the religion and their arguments founded on such a firm ground, their holy book, that the movement won the majority of believers. It is worth noting that, Reform Judaism was never persecuted by Jewish orthodoxy.

In one of my trips to Iran, in the autumn of 2003, I heard so many people influenced by Abdol-Karim Soroush and even Ali Shariati talking about a reform, a sort of Islamic Protestantism. I heard this from various people in various stations, accountants of small offices, owners of some small industry, merchants in the bazaar, and workers in a tourist spot in Yazd. I heard it from housewives, government employees and students, all in a very casual tone: “Something like what Calvin did, or what Soroush says.” The expression on their faces and their language was so casual and so ordinary that I did not dare get involved into arguments with them. It was not only their simplicity and the legitimacy of their demands which stopped me from quarreling, nothing ever does, but the fact that I did not want to destroy their peace and naivety. I could not imagine where they had learned about Protestantism that they made it sound so simple. It is true that the Reformation was initiated by a “call” by Calvin and Luther, who argued against the authority and hierarchy of the Catholic Church, but it was never settled by that call alone. Unfortunately, Protestants did not have it as easy as Reformed Jews, who took their mandate from the Torah. It took centuries of pain, bloodshed, martyrdom, migrations, executions, torture, and hardship to establish itself as a legitimate branch of Christianity.

Aside from religious reform, there are social, political and economical reforms in history as well. Our epic, the Shahnameh, has enough reform-seeking stories in it; heroes, Siavash, Sohrab and, to a great extend, Esfandyar bear reformist ideas, as well as the theme of some stories such as that of Kaikavus and the Seven Divs of Mazandaran.

Pre-Islamic Iran bears witness to several reform-seeking kings. Among the Achamenids, kings Cyrus the Great and Xerxes are the most associated with reform. But most reformism appeared in Sassanid Iran, of which we have better recorded history. In this period, there were reforms done by rulers, Anushirvan for example, which were carried out successfully, although like most of reforms of this nature were more geared to strengthen and centralize their political powers; and those which were demanded by opposition forces who were resisting the establishment, at least partially, such as those of Mazdak and Mani. The first one failed and was suppressed brutally; the second fared rather better; due to its advance and progressive nature. Traces of its tenets are observed not only in Iranian culture, but in Christianity as well.

As a matter of fact, reform never has come in an easy way. One has to pay for it. I wish life would have been as easy like what Shariati and Soroush thought it was, that one can say, “I think, therefore let it be so,” but alas it is not. In every stage of human life, when a reform is called for, there is a hazardous road ahead. Every year for three days, the Shia observes the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Indeed, it was a bloody event in Islamic history. The gist of the matter is that Imam Hussein wanted to resist the corruption of Islam. He thought that his way, either the just way, or better way, or God’s intended way, was not his opponent’s way. However, willful that he was, he lost the battle and made the ultimate sacrifice for what he wanted to do. He stood for his belief, he bore witness to history, and Shia Muslims of the world still observe his testimony, his martyrdom.

Since several year before revolution when some intellectuals tried to use religion instrumentally for their own ends, Imam Hussein’s martyrdom was  referred to, conveniently, as a revolution rather than a reform, just to fit into a model for the Iranian opposition and meanwhile capture that minority of religious people who up to that time did not have a real place in the opposition to Shah. Today, this revolutionary reading of Ashura still remains as such to the Islamisists of Iran, while to a layman it could be viewed as a reform. Imam Hussein did not change or overthrow the whole system of Islam, he simply wanted to change the existing injustices of the ruling caliphs.

Indeed, Iranian history, as we studied it at school, never referred to any movement as reform or revolution. Instead, the word qiam was used to indicate that people took the lead to change. Only the Constitutional Movement was referred otherwise. Amir Kabir, Nizam ol-Molk, Sani od-Doleh, Mossadegh, Mohammad Ali Bab, and Kasravi were just a few of those who were simply blamed or praised for what they did, but never referred to as reformers. They all were killed or banished, indiscriminately, but the kind of reform they wanted to bring in the Iranian somehow survived. Each one came out boldly and courageously with a definite idea and a clear target to strike, as well as a willingness to pay the price. Today, when we look back, we should thank them all for the price they paid.

Khatami’s reform movement, however, is a totally different matter. While Iranian reformists have a mandate for reform and it is given to them by God, the holy book, history, tradition, people’s votes, and, more importantly, by that vaunted rationality, upon which Shiism claims to be based, their torch bearer refrains from committing his reform to any of the essentials of the reform. The very crucial position of reformists requires some clarity and purposefulness which is missing here. Judging from its ten year history, it seems that reform in its true sense had never been intended; rather, it was just an instrumental use of the institution by the Islamic Republic to unite the people with the government to buy time to regroup its forces. Khatami as a reformer (not a president—he remains the best we ever had) appeared as a trinity of Abraham, Isaac, and Lamb all in one. In a few swift, whirling moves, he changed from the reformer Abraham to a sacrificial Isaac and then to a sacrificial Lamb and then in a magical move everything changed. Poor Iranians who followed him turned out to be those who were really sacrificed. Khatami survived, though sadly defeated, embarrassed, disgraced, and bewildered as how to all this. “A strange swap” was the way I heard him put it most recently.

I read the news everyday to see how he will emerge from this new situation. He is buying time; he is waiting for the Guardian Council decision to save a few reformist candidates and then what? More lamentations? And that is all, the end of a legacy, reform movement!

The bitter grin of the oppositions who say that “reform is dead” is coming true after all, though for a different reason. Reform died. It died in its cradle due to its lack of identity, been born out of nothing, out of no background, with no precise message and aim. The movement died since it has no umbilical cord.

After ten years we still do not know what is it that Khatami wanted to correct or abolish. We do not know his opponents and their issues. We do not know with what means he wants to reform them. We do not know where he receives his mandate—the people, God, the constitution or what? In none of his talks does he ever refer to the Constitution, which must be above anything else, he never holds any one responsible, he never referred to any institution as corrupt or harmful. He never referred to any other reform movement to set a precedent to his reform movement. His reform movement is devoid of any history, any identity, any meaning. His reform in nothing but a name, something that cannot withstand even a blow.

His reform will die, but fortunately he himself will survive. He will see old age, he will hopefully live to see his great grandchildren. One day in the future, one on his grandchildren might come to him and ask “Grandpa, why did not you divide your love and goodness to all equally, a little for God, some for us, and some for all those people who loved you and trusted you and stood behind you and were looking up to you to do something for them, you the emissary of God who were to provide a peaceful government on earth, modeled after Heaven, the same as God did for Adam and Eve. Why did not you do that?” I hope he would have a better answer than just another sweet smile.


Dr. Darius Afnan said...

Respect My Lady.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, no controls on
government would be necessary. In framing a government of men over men, the great difficulty lies
in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige
it to control itself. Just as we have civil laws to restrain men in society, so we have constitutional
laws to restrain men in power”

- Former US President James Madison (1751-1836)

"Power over life and death -don't be proud of it. Whatever they fear from you, you will be threatened with"


Taghi Abdolhosseini said...

Very interesting look at Khatami!!!!