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Aunt Kobra's Islamic democracy

In Iran, as throughout in the Muslim world, the personal is political, and religion is always both.

FAMILY DINNERS in Iran are elaborate affairs, particularly at the home of my Aunt Kobra. Unlike the rest of my Iranian family, most of whom are smugly irreligious if not brazen heretics, Kobra is a devout Muslim. Even in her own home she often remains shrouded in a thick, black chador - the tent-like covering that particularly pious women wear when in public. She keeps a corner of the fabric clenched permanently between her teeth as she flutters between the kitchen and living room, her arms piled with steaming plates of saffron rice, vegetable stew, barbecued lamb, sizzling coils of gizzard, and baskets upon baskets of radishes, scallions, and mixed greens to cleanse the palate between courses. With considerable deliberation, she sets the dishes on a large, intricately woven tapestry spread on the floor, then steps back and scrutinizes the banquet as though it were a sacrament. Only when she is satisfied are we allowed to sit.

Cross-legged on the floor, we shovel food onto our plates in a frenzy. We eat, and laugh, and talk with our mouths full, shouting to be heard over each other and the constant drone of the television, which, as is the case in nearly every Iranian household, is almost always on. Today's program is a dry news-talk show broadcast from Los Angeles. There are dozens of shows like this, preaching revolution against the Islamic Republic by satellite from their studios in Westwood and Beverly Hills.

I switch my attention from the boisterous dinner conversation to the television, where a mustachioed Iranian exile renowned for his audacious anticlerical sentiments is taking calls from Iranian-Americans encouraging the United States to do whatever it takes to foster regime change in Iran. The host assures the callers not to fret.

He has heard that plans are already underway in Washington for a military attack. They should be patient, he says. Iran will again be theirs.

''Change the channel!'' Aunt Kobra shouts. ''This is not proper dinner viewing. This man is a lunatic and an infidel.''

My cousin Maryam, a shy, slender 17-year-old, obediently switches to another LA station. All at once the room pulses with music. A teenage Iranian-American pop singer in a black Armani suit grinds his body against two sweaty, half-naked girls in a foggy nightclub. In a strained, half-Persian/half-English falsetto, he sings a lilting love song not to a girl, but to a country. He sings of his longing for Iran before the revolution: an Iran that exists only in the distant memories of his parents; an Iran he can know nothing about.

Maryam squeals in delight. She claps her hands and sings along as she sits back down to dinner. Aunt Kobra straightens up, moves the chador away from her eyes, and, as the young singer gyrates across the TV screen grabbing his crotch, says to my absolute astonishment, ''Ah! This is the best song on his album.''

. . .

In the neoconservative imagination, Iran is a deeply polarized country locked in a Manichaean struggle for the soul of its people. On one side is the Iran of the secular nationalists: young, zealous reformists who yearn for a democratic country stripped of its repressive religious ideology. On the other is the Iran of the fundamentalist mullahs who wish to sink the country deeper into the slough of Islamic theocracy.

But this conception of Iran is as crude and simplistic as the now debunked theory of a polarized America caught in a culture war between moralistic ''red-state'' evangelicals and godless ''blue-state'' liberals. Just as this fabricated dichotomy masks the wide range of religious and political thought in the United States, so does the image of a polarized Iran obscure the many shades of theo-political sentiment that make Iranian politics - and the politics of the Middle East - such a complex and often ferocious affair.

Sketched broadly, there are those in Iran who are convinced that the path to democracy must be built upon the ruins of the Islamic regime. On the other hand, there are those who are struggling to unearth the democratic ideals buried in the country's post-revolutionary constitution so as to make Islam the moral rather than the legal foundation of the state. The clerical regime is itself a fractured and disjointed group, many of whom now actively call for the clergy to return to their traditional role as the arbiters of moral behavior and leave the government in the hands of Iran's capable technocrats.

Meanwhile, the technocrats are split between pragmatists who favor a free-market economy and isolationists who advocate self-reliance regardless of the consequences. The so-called ''new right,'' which currently dominates Iran's Parliament, stress the importance of promoting the Islamic moral values on which the Islamic Republic was founded but are not necessarily averse to open dialogue with the West, while the ideological conservatives reject ties with the West as a betrayal of the revolution's goals. The radical hard-line factions are propped up by Iran's massive rural class. The secular reformists are supported by Iran's wealthy urban elite.

The truth is that most Iranians fall somewhere between these broad categories. My Aunt Kobra, for example, is a pious Muslim, spiritually bound to the worldwide Muslim community yet fiercely proud of her Iranian heritage; nostalgic for pre-revolutionary Iran yet bitter at the memory of the shah's tyranny and corruption; infatuated with American culture yet suspicious of American moral values and unforgiving of the United States for its role in supporting the shah; desperate for democratic change in Iran, yet unsure of American intentions and horrified by the staggering cost of democracy in Iraq.

In all her contradictions, Kobra represents the vast majority of Muslims striving for religious and political reform in the Middle East, who are neither secularists nor theocrats but who are convinced that if democracy is truly going to take hold, it cannot be imported from the West. Rather, it must be reared from within, framed in recognizable terms, based on familiar ideologies, and rooted in indigenous values and traditions: in short, it must be built on their terms.

. . .

The struggle for political reform in the Middle East is in many ways indistinguishable from the fight for religious reform. This is a conflict between Muslims over how to proceed with the Islamic Reformation that is already underway. Indeed, the struggle for democracy is in reality only one front in a larger struggle taking place throughout the Muslim world between those who seek to reconcile their faith and traditions with the realities of the modern world and those who react against those realities by reverting - sometimes violently - to the ''fundamentals'' of their faith. All great religions grapple with these issues, some more fiercely than others. Let us not forget the violence with which the inter-religious conflicts of the Christian Reformation were fought.

Thanks to the efforts of reformists and modernists throughout the Muslim world, most Muslims have already appropriated the language of democracy, recognizing traditional Islamic concepts like shura, or ''consultation,'' as popular representation; ijma, or ''consensus,'' as political participation; bay'ah, or ''allegiance,'' as universal suffrage; and so on. Democratic ideals such as constitutionalism, government accountability, pluralism, and human rights are widely accepted throughout the Muslim world - even if most of the region's rulers refuse to implement them.

What is not necessarily accepted, however, is the distinctly Western notion that religion and the state should be entirely separate, that the foundation of a democratic society must be secularism.

From the inception of the faith in the seventh century to the birth of the Islamic state in the 20th (with the founding of Pakistan in 1947), Islam has always endeavored to be more than mere religion. When the Prophet Muhammad created the first Islamic polity in Medina 1,400 years ago, he deliberately set the foundations for a comprehensive way of life meant to satisfy the social, spiritual, and material needs of the people, while at the same time fulfilling the will of God. In short, Islam is not just a faith; Islam is, above all, a culture, a civilization, a way of being. Like all great religions, it is shaped not only by metaphysical concerns but by the social, cultural, spiritual, and political milieu in which it finds itself.

This is not to suggest that Islam rejects the separation of ''mosque and state.'' On the contrary, there are very few countries in the Muslim world in which clerics exercise direct authority over the government. Those countries that have attempted such direct authority - Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia - have been, without exception, devastating failures.

Nevertheless, it is true that when it comes to religion the boundary between the public and private realm is far more fluid in the Muslim world than it is in the West. This is partly because, having originated in a tribal culture and been reared primarily in the communal societies of the Middle East and North Africa, Islam tends to eschew radical individualism, preferring to stress the needs of the community over the rights of the individual.

It is precisely as a result of this fluidity and the often ferocious relationship between faith and government which has been the hallmark of political culture in the Muslim world, that political opposition in the region is so often religious in nature: not because opponents seek to establish a religious state, but because it is the language of religion that holds the most currency with the Muslim community. Thus, in Iran both the liberal ''left'' and the ultra-conservative ''right'' use the same symbols, the same rhetoric, the same language to fight for either democratic reform or theocratic intransigence.

For this reason, if democracy is to have a chance in the Middle East, religious factions must be encouraged to participate in the political process. This is especially true with regard to moderate factions like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But even more extremist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine must be brought into the democratic fold. Certainly there are those extremists who have no interest in establishing anything other than an oppressive, archaic theocracy - and who pursue their theo-political ends by terrorist means. They must be opposed by all necessary measures. But when even legitimate religious opposition is discouraged or outlawed, the unfortunate result is that it becomes radicalized.

That is what happened in Iran, when the shah suppressed all legitimate clerical opposition to his despotic rule, only to see it radicalize into a wholly new brand of revolutionary Shi'ism that ultimately cast him from his throne and transformed Iran into the Islamic Republic. Ironically, the same religious fervor that fueled the events of 1979 has now been turned against the clerical establishment. In the words of Abdolkarim Soroush, Iran's foremost political philosopher and one of the original architects of the Islamic Republic, ''We no longer claim that a genuinely religious government can be democratic, but that it cannot be otherwise.''

. . .

After dinner, while my family and I sit around the living room smoking and drinking tea, discussing religion and politics (the only two polite topics of conversation in Iran) I watch Aunt Kobra preparing to go to the mosque for evening prayers. She wraps the chador tightly around her face and body so that all that remains visible is a single, heavily made-up eye, grabs her pocket-sized Koran, and steps out of the house. As she descends the steps into the street, I catch her humming the chorus of the pop song we heard earlier, the melody lilting through the thick black fabric.

Reza Aslan will speak on ''The Contest for Islam's Future: Islam and its Reformation'' at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, room Littauer 130, on Tuesday at 4 p.m. For more information, call (617) 495-1100.

Reza Aslan is the author of ''No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam'' (Random House).

Religion is deeply intertwined with all aspects of life in Iran. Evening rush-hour traffic in downtown Tehran, January, 2005.
Religion is deeply intertwined with all aspects of life in Iran. Evening rush-hour traffic in downtown Tehran, January, 2005. (Corbis Photo / Morteza Nikoubazi)
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