Iran’s macabre reputation seems, to most foreigners who know the country, undeserved. It is evidence of a cruel mismatch between a people and their political system. It is also—if one ascribes a country’s reputation to its human rights record—evidence of conflict between citizens and the state.

Ramin Jahanbegloo, an accomplished philosopher who is now Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at York University in Toronto, was arrested at Imam Khomeini International Airport in 2006, and spent four months in Evin Prison, where authorities accused him of spying and planning a “velvet revolution.” Non-violence is his big idea, and Iran’s modern history, he argues in Democracy in Iran, is “a narrative of violence” which has encountered an “ethical moment of nonviolence” in the Green Movement. Iran remains, in his view, “a country of violence” in which the “myth of violent emancipation” has yet to be refuted.

Jahanbegloo’s argument is partly historical and partly philosophical, an experiment in teleology wherein he marks stages approaching a “history-to-be-made of nonviolence.” Iranian elites, he says, have been engaged with modern ideas for 150 years, and those ideas have borne upon two revolutions, the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and the revolution of 1979.

In the 19th century, Iranian intellectuals influenced by European Enlightenment thinkers advanced notions of political reform. Many of their big ideas—such as secularism and “a state of law” – ran aground on domestic realties, and some thinkers found themselves settling for cosmetic modernizations like the introduction of gaslights. But constitutionalism was the big idea that got through.

The Constitutional Revolution was “a multiclass, popular movement” which advanced the idea of “nonviolent mass action” and drew upon non-violent traditions such as the taking of bast, or sanctuary. It brought no Robespierre, no Lenin, and no terror, and raised  the question of tyranny. It was also unique in “bringing together social actors from different social backgrounds and ideological convictions.” Alas, this proved to be something of an elision, an “uneasy” alliance wherein western-influenced intellectuals and Islamic factions “ignored many inherent contradictions,” a dilemma that feels somehow contemporary.

Then in 1908 Mohammad Ali Shah enlisted the Russian-led Cossack Brigade to overthrow the majles. Russia and Britain divided the weakened state into spheres of influence and “nonviolent resistance to tyranny and constructive politics became disassociated from one another.” The Constitutional Revolution was both a “milestone” and an “unfinished project” that “[fell] short of establishing firm political grounds for nonviolence in Iran.” Anatomizing the failure, Jahanbegloo notes that it discredited the movement’s philosophical influences and “pushed Iranian elites to search for more violent methods of mobilization.” Indeed, this can be seen in the accommodation some of them later found with Reza Shah’s “reforms from above.”

Jahanbegloo dismisses as “simplistic” suggestions that 1906 was an inspiration for 1979, but examines the role of the leading clerics in both. In both 1906 and 1979, he writes, “those who carried the ideas of nonviolence and liberal values abandoned critical rationality to win the support of the Ulama.” Though he notes the absence of a single leading religious figure in 1906, he finds a precedent for Khomeini’s velayat-e-faqih in Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri’s denunciation of the “man-made” constitution as a “blueprint against the will of God.” Early “concessions to the traditionalist Ulama” prefigure the Khomeinist conception of state that “signified the institutionalization of theocratic violence.”

Jahanbegloo’s passions flare when he writes about the Islamic Republic. Khomeini’s regime, he writes, had “one name, one identity and one essence: violence.” He signposts a traumatic “road to authoritarian violence” emanating from the CIA-backed coup against Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Jahanbegloo’s Mossadegh, a figure of modernity, liberalism, and nonviolence, fell victim not just to foreign interference, but also to the prejudices of some clerics and to “Iranian mob psychology.” Even without a foreign-backed coup, he suggests, “It is…difficult to think how Mossadegh’s nonviolent premiership would have survived.”

The years between 1953 and 1979 emerge as a theater of violence short on heroes. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s conception of his legitimacy was rooted in the violence of the coup. Opposition groups like the Mojahedin-e Khalq and Fada’iyan-e Khalq “played a prominent role in promoting the heroic myth of violent action.” In an intellectual milieu enamored of Frantz Fanon, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Ali Shariati, “general focus was on the victims and on the perpetrators of state violence rather than on the violence itself.” Khomeini, Jahanbegloo concedes, did not romanticize violence, but simply “practiced it in an unbending manner against his enemies.”

The constitutional order Khomeini established in 1979 offered up “two constitutions: one which emphasizes people’s authority and rights and another that is a divine clerical-rights constitution.” It marked “a redefinition of Iranian identity accompanied with a great movement of violence” in which people’s rights became “increasingly symbolic.” And yet reactions to that order have “led to the strengthening of civil society.” Early in the life of the Islamic Republic figures like Hossein Ali Montazeri found themselves in a “gray zone between the regime and the civil society.” The election of Mohammad Khatami marked the “evolution of the power struggle.”

Following the Green Movement, Jahanbegloo contends, “peace and nonviolence are among the core values of the Iranian youth.” Much of his analysis of Iran’s political trajectory will be uncontroversial to Iranian liberals, although his contention that “Iran today is very much like the Soviet Union in its last days” may be obsolete—not least because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has heard of Mikhail Gorbachev. He hints strongly that 2009, “a year of extraordinary cruelty,” damaged the legitimacy of the Khomeinist order, but that idea appears, in the first year of Hassan Rouhani’s presidency, to be on hold.

Jahanbegloo’s big-picture sketch of the idea of non-violence is heartening, even compelling, albeit partly wish-based. There may be a touch of Persian pride underlying his hope, too: His claim that Iran has “learned far more than other Middle Easterners” about the horrors of violence suggests that traumas have instilled principle, whereas in some cases they may only have instilled fear. His predictions, meanwhile, are daunting, necessary, and timely: “At some point in the future,” he writes, “Iranians have to decide what should be done with the secret police, torturers, informers and collaborators from the previous regime.” The question of how Iranians explain violence to each other is often postponed, but it will never be effaced. 

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