Democracy without political tolerance: A critique of moral attitudes of Iranian intellectuals

Democracy without political tolerance: A critique of moral attitudes of Iranian intellectuals
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Tolerance is thought to be a necessary element of a democratic structure. Definition of tolerance has been an old topic of philosophical inquiry. There has been an ongoing debate among political philosophers to define tolerance and determine its boundaries. Here I argue that by narrowing down the scope, and offering a definition of tolerance that most scholars would agree upon, it would fall outside of the discourse of moralist Iranian intellectuals. I argue that Iranian intellectuals have not made much effort to come up with an Iranian definition of the concept of tolerance and their efforts are limited to occasional general announcements and propositions regarding tolerance. I further explore the issue through some historical examples of the contemporary Iranian society, and finally focus on the relationship between tolerance and politics in Iran.

Tolerance within the limits of morality

Let us imagine a society with a long history of violence against its minority groups. This society has been experiencing organized violence against minorities supported by the government for almost four decades. Taking into account social and political structure, the question arises as to the stance of its intellectuals toward government’s discrimination and whether they are to be held responsible for the organized and consolidated violence against minority groups. Now call this imagined society Iran; Iranian intellectuals have been persistently evasive on whether and how the Islamic regime has been a cause or a catalyzer to human rights violations in Iran. Instead, they have tried to establish a philosophical and mystical justification according to which they could cultivate moral virtues of the people based on their own desired objectives and rally support for their own agenda.

Importantly, one needs to make a distinction between moral reflections on tolerance and making a moral ideology from an intellectual point of view. Furthermore, the duty put on the country’s intellectuals in making moral judgments is much higher than everyone else in the society. If one asks about the group with the highest obligation toward citizens’ moral lives and with the authentic claim to work for the human rights and form the civil resistance against any discrimination in the public sphere, the first answer would be: intellectuals. In this paper I argue that the approach of Iranian intellectuals suffers from the lack of clear and articulated features distinctive of a group known to be intellectuals and that this lack of clarity makes them an utterly unpromising group in Iran.

Let’s proceed with bringing forward an acceptable definition of political tolerance. Some has defined political tolerance as follows:

Political tolerance is defined as a willingness to extend basic constitutional rights -- the right to speak, to publish, to run for office -- to minority groups and ideas. History is littered with examples of political repression made possible by widespread intolerance among the mass citizenry. … And some have made the forceful argument that public support for democratic values—especially tolerance—is a prerequisite for the effective functioning and survival of democratic government. Yet survey studies in the U.S. and abroad continue to document a striking inconsistency between nearly universal public support for general norms of democracy in the abstract, and extremely low levels of support for applying these principles to minority groups. … This "gap" between support for democracy in the abstract and intolerance revealed in specific applications is seen as distressing not only because of its political implications (i.e., the public may be more easily mobilized to support political repression of minority groups in society), but because it suggests a weak and superficial public commitment to democratic values.”[i]

Now the question arises as to how to raise public support for democratic values. How can we focus people’s attention toward ineffective application of democratic and liberal principles? First thing we need to consider is that we cannot solve a subjective problem by making it more subjective, abstract and disconnected from the reality. What we need to do is to go beyond the borders of subjectivism and embrace a more concrete system of representation by which any discrimination would fall under the umbrella of violation of human rights. In this situation where the intellectuals are to play a significant role, we face the epidemic of “silent intellectuals” in Iran’s case. A tragic example is that in decades after revolution of 1979 that sexual, ethnic and religious minorities suffered severe repression by the Islamic regime, Iranian intellectuals remained silent and never once talked about the depth of the calamity. In this case, the very first duty of an intellectual should be an announcement that “the rights of Baha'is should not be neglected” or “the homosexuals are the citizens of Iran”. Instead, Iranian intellectuals use to make abstract speeches on “universal kindness” or “being the servant of the truth and the slave of the moral obligation” and similar platitudes, which imitate the classical teachings of the Iranian mystic tradition, so that they could survive in and work within the Islamic regime. I argue that exercising tolerance is not made possible through making general prepositions and speeches about ethics, rather, what needs to be addressed is the existent problems of Iranian minorities including Baha'is, LGBT’s and factors leading to Iranian regime’s oppression of minorities and dissidents.

The continuity and discontinuity of the nation and the government

The idea of “the authenticity of the culture” shapes the main line of theoretical arguments of the discourse of Iranian moralist intellectuals in the past. The fundamental claim in support of their intended culturalism is that there is no distinction between people and the state. Therefore, they would not differentiate between a political evil, namely Islamic regime, and the people. They argue that it is the Iranian people who chose the Islamic republic and the reason behind leading the country by a religious and Islamist sect should be found nowhere except within the character and behavior of the Iranian people. A simple response to such vague claims would be the fact that the state represents neither the unity of the people and government nor their duality. The inseparability of the nation and the state does not mean there is no distinction between them.

Moreover, talking about tolerance, it is not an eternal or immutable essence but is subject to evolution and transformation over time. Tolerance would be best defined as a secular invention that was borne out of the very necessities of social life in modern history. Therefore, our first task is to learn how to apply the concept and respect its values. The latter shows the importance of the institutions in every society. Unfortunately, in the case of Iran, society’s institutions are imposed to work under the intense control of the Islamic republic regime. We can conclude that it was historical intolerance supported by intellectuals that led to the Islamic revolution. However, the revolutionary regime transformed intolerance into a more complex socio-political issue and elevated the issue to the highest level of social and political crisis.

Tolerance and secular order

There is lack of a strong theoretical framework that promulgates tolerance among citizens of countries with weak background of respect for tolerance. In explaining the reasons of widespread intolerance in such countries, two factors come to mind: the lack of political stability and existence of a fragile secular authority. We can witness aforementioned factors by taking a glance on Iran’s history. A historical example could be found during the premiership of Mohammad Mossadeq (1882-1967) from 1951 to 1953. According to Dr. Eliz Sanasarian[ii], at the early 1950’s due to the political instability in the country caused by tensions between the Shah and the prime minister, Iranians simultaneously faced two sources of hostility:

“The short period of Mossadeq’s influence was accompanied by a weak central government and, in spite of him, it set in motion sporadic attacks against non-Muslims. The West was a target and so were non-Muslims. Mossadeq’s removal restored the power of the central government.”[iii]

This particular historical era of Iran would demonstrate the fact that Iranians should always deliberate about boundaries that have long since been drawn between the national senses of independency on the one hand and the anti-western sentiments on the other. Furthermore, I need to mention that Middle Eastern cultures tend to refer to the aliens and foreign forces as “others”. As for the relationship between the situation of minorities and such anti-hegemonic approaches, I argue that the result of radical rhetoric against Western countries (as Mossadeq espoused) could easily lead to violence against religious minorities. In Bahai’s case, clerics in Iran tried and are still trying to introduce Bahaism as a superficial religion made by aliens such as Britain to oppose the power of Shiism in Iran. Baha’i minority has been the target of persecution by the Iranian officials and has been accused with baseless charges such as affiliation with Israeli intelligence agencies, support of the Jewish state, American expansionism, etc.

Tolerance and secular interest

In mid-1950s, the second Pahlavi let the Shiite clerics to promulgate negative sentiments against Baha’is among people:

During the month of Ramadan in 1955, Sheikh Mohammad Taqi Falsafi, a populist preacher, started one of the highest-profile anti-Bahá'í propaganda schemes. After receiving permission from the Shah to state anti-Bahá'í rhetoric in his sermons, he encouraged other clergy to discuss the Bahá'í issue in their sermons. These sermons caused mob violence against Bahá'ís; Bahá'í properties were destroyed, Bahá'í centres were looted, Bahá'í cemeteries desecrated, Bahá'ís were killed, some hacked to pieces, Bahá'í women were abducted and forced to marry Muslims, and Bahá'ís were expelled and dismissed from schools and employment. During the third week of the sermons the National Bahá'í Centre in Tehran was occupied by the military and its dome later destroyed." (Wikipedia; Persecution of Bahá'ís)

In a society like Iran in which people have little experience with tolerance and in which the concept of “otherness” is superior to any form of social life in the minds of people and intellectuals, the biggest mistake of a secular regime is to appease the clerics and let them to actualize their sectarian bigotry in the form of speeches, prayer gatherings, etc. It is not hard to fathom that by putting pressure on Pahlavi and continuing back and forth relationship with the monarchy, the Iranian revolutionary clerics set their feet on a battleground with Pahlavi dynasty which led to the Islamic revolution. There is a historical reality regarding the political power in Iran during Pahlavi era. We may all agree upon the fact that Pahlavi embraced an autocratic form of political structure with the most power being held in the hands of government and its institutions. Considering the necessity of intervention of the secular power in the land like Iran where the authoritative official religion has its own suppressive tools leads us to conclude that the secular denomination of the first Pahlavi was more beneficial than the secular hesitation of the second Pahlavi.

Tolerance and social margins; a critique of the authoritative political centralism

In order to champion the idea of tolerance, first we need to explain the limitations of political centralism. The reason is that political centralism tends to remove the local characteristics of the society in favor of making a false social unification. The problems arose with marginal identities during the recent century in Iran are somewhat derivative of government oppression and the fact that in a diverse country such as Iran, identities are being monitored through the lens of xenophobia.

Although we have a historical exception, and that is the reign of Pahlavi monarchy (in comparison with the Qajar dynasty and the Islamic regime) during which the Iranian society was progressing and the country was leading toward achieving big historical accomplishments, the narration of minorities tells us some discontents (like the one on restrictions imposed on reaching governmental positions) and the feeling of being an estranged citizen under the official discourse of unity and nationalism still existed.

We can deliberate on the idea that after the formation of concepts of nation and state in Iran, governors (Like centuries before) still tended to construct the political power based on a unification discourse according to which considering its religious and ethnic differences, the society should have been unified based on a homogenous definition of identity. In such a society, individuals and groups are subject to the hierarchical authority of the state and the government can easily mobilize population in support of the regime.

For example, the discourse of recreating the national image of ancient Iran could have been successful if it was theoretically consistent and practically had the capacity to receive Iranian society’s support. It is contradictory to praise the glory of the tomb of Cyrus on the one hand and at the same time accept the authoritative Shiism as the official religion on the other (as Pahlavi did). What we need to do first is to deliberate on the continuities of and the gaps between ancient and post-Islamic Iran and at the next step try to create a consistent and pluralistic idea of Iranian identity. The idea of nationalism can lead to a stable political body if all diverse local identities let to be part of the public dream, participate in making national decisions, and never feel to be dropped out of the country’s shared history. Therefore, there would be no wonder if the idea of “great gates of the Modern civilization” on the part of Pahlavi monarchy and the ideological nuclear ambitions of the Islamic regime both received indifference in Sistan and Baluchestan Province (one of the poorest regions in the southeast of Iran). A sense of shared identity can facilitate collective action because it shapes what individuals want government to be.

Such considerations do not mean that minorities and marginal groups were treated the same before and after the revolution of 1979. We all know about brutal oppression of minorities by official clerics and revolutionary guards in Iran. It is intended to rethink the history of Pahlavi monarchy that shaped one of the most remarkable periods of Iran’s history during which the political events had far reaching implications for the destiny of Modern Iran.

The necessity of signifying morality to the politics

In conclusion, tolerance is a historical insight that can be understood within the domain of politics rather than being a mere ethical concept. We cannot speak about tolerance without proper understanding of the political power. Putting values such as citizenship within the framework of ethics can only lead Iranian people to become passive in personal and moral spheres while the concrete societal ills remain unsolved.[iv] It is impossible to discuss tolerance without taking into consideration domestic (secularism, liberal values, and human rights) and international politics (national interests and regional policies).

For too long, Iranian intellectuals preached tolerance (as an ethical virtue) without addressing the Islamic regime to put an end to the oppression of Baha'is or to stop intervention in Syria. The approach of Iranian intellectuals has hollowed out Iranian society’s political accomplishments in the recent century. Contrary to such destructive attempts aiming at transforming politics into mysticism, spirituality, or abstract metaphysical theories and de-politicization of the public sphere, we need a contemplative return to the politics.

* Many thanks to my friends Mrs. Roya Izadi Dastgerdi (the PhD student of political science at the Miami University) and Mr. Daniel Jafari (physician and translator) for reviewing and editing the text.


[i] From the course of “POLITICAL AND RACIAL TOLERANCE” at the University of Kentucky, with a little change in some parts.

[ii] She is the professor of political science at the University of Southern California.

[iii] Sanasarian, Eliz. Religious Minorities in Iran. Cambridge University Press: 2000. p. 15.

[iv] Unfortunately, due to the simplistic approach to the complexities of politics in Iran, the political behavior of Iranian intellectuals has always been detrimental for Iranians, politically and ethically. For example, at the time of elections, they always call for people’s participation and invite them to vote. They justify such invitation to vote for even the most non-competitive and second-hand elections by the rationality of choosing the bad instead of the worse. They claim it as to selection of hope rather than disappointment in a closed political and social sphere. I call such a situation as “theater of democracy” in Iran. I argue that the terms used by some Iranian intellectuals such as bad and worse, and hope and disappointment are vague and unclear. As an intellectual, our task is to articulate precise terms and statements in order to represent our actual purpose by making a political action. Terms used by Iranian intellectuals are appropriate for poems but not politics and the attitude of Iranian intellectuals is poetic but not political.

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