Since Iran’s contested presidential elections in mid-June, the world has watched with shock and horror the Iranian regime’s systematic silencing of political dissenters. From the perspective of some Western commentators, the nation’s political turmoil is indicative of an fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democratic governance.1 Subsequently, these observers contend that the experiment that is the Islamic Republic of Iran has failed because its Islamic-ness restricts its capacity to respond to the ‘modern’ social and political yearnings of the nation’s youth. This common interpretation of Islamic governance and the Iranian experiment is deeply flawed, however, due to its reliance on superficial observations influenced and reinforced by a modernity discourse that situates the modern in the West. In fact, recent research persuasively demonstrates that adherence to Islam is not antithetical to representative governance.2 With this information available, the Iranian regime’s current legitimacy crisis must be analyzed at the subjective, rather than objective, level. An examination of the country’s dominant political elite – and their stake in the status quo – will reveal that the Iranian government has long deviated from its official title. That is, the regime presided over by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is neither a republic nor Islamic, but a well-established oligarchy with a vested military elite.

For some Iran-watchers, the suspect victory of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and Khamenei’s unwavering support for the declared victor, signaled the country’s shift from religious to military rule. In Spring 2008, distinguished Islamic historian Richard Bulliet even warned a group of Columbia University students and academics that Iran’s recent presidential election could redistribute power from religious authorities to the military establishment. He noted, as others have, that during the mid-1990’s the IRGC methodically seized political and economic power from some of the revolution’s most influential clerics – most notably Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – with the support of the Supreme Leader. The June 2009 election, predicted Bulliet, would determine the IRGC’s future level of participation (or one might say interference) in the nation’s politics. While individuals such as Bulliet correctly identify the IRGC as the nexus of power in Iran, they misplace the group’s emergence on the nation’s political time line. Iran’s political transformation from an incomplete republic to a martial oligarchy commenced the day following death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, when Ayatollah Khamenei, a religiously unqualified but politically adroit individual strongly affiliated with Iran’s security establishment, was appointed to replace the father of the Islamic Revolution.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s collaboration with the security forces began in the early days of the Islamic Republic. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the current Supreme Leader served as Deputy Defense Minister and later as a leader of the IRGC. In both positions, he frequently visited the front to assess the situation and boost morale. In early 1981, Ayatollah Khamenei was wounded by a would-be assassin and, later that year, was elected president following the assassination of his predecessor. The political chaos fomented by internal and external foes impelled the Khamenei administration, under supervision of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, to crackdown on opposition groups and implement policies that ensured the security establishment’s loyalty. Initially, it seems unquestionable that the president was dedicated to preserving the gains of the revolution. Yet, at the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict, the Iranian regime was burdened with the task of reintegrating veterans into civilian society. Ayatollah Khamenei, secure in the position of the Supreme Leader, understood both the nation’s indebtedness to the soldiers and the existential dangers of inadequately responding to the needs of an armed, battle-hardened constituency. In a stellar example of selectorate theory, the Khamenei-led government thanked IRGC members by implementing social and economic assistance programs benefiting veterans and their families. The state’s generosity, though, did not stop at the individual level. Iran was not only indebted to the veterans, but the IRGC organization, which planned and performed the bulk of the ‘holy defense’.

As the 1990’s progressed, the Revolutionary Guards emerged as an economic and political powerhouse. With the tacit support of Ayatollah Khamenei, the IRGC and umbrella organizations were awarded no-bid contracts by the state, from benign construction projects to nuclear technology research and development. Eventually, the organization’s growth in economic power translated into political influence. During the middle of the decade, former guardsmen formed political alliances and movements that today dominate Iran’s government at the national and local levels. Tehran’s current mayor, for example, previously spent virtually his entire adult life in the Revolutionary Guards and internal security apparatus. Moreover, in Iran’s 2008 parliamentary elections, just over 40 percent of the candidates had served in the Iran-Iraq war, the vast majority as guardsmen. While the IRGC is more overtly participating in politics – in both democratic and non-democratic capacities – they have dominated decision-making for over a decade. With economic clout and political legitimacy conferred by a Khamenei-led coalition, the group drowned-out the voices of more democratically-minded clerics. The IRGC, with its sizable economic concerns, predictably used its position to preserve the status quo and enhanced its political position over the years. There is even evidence suggesting that the group’s power has exceeded that of the Supreme Leader, whose orders are not infrequently dismissed by Ahmadinejad.3 By brazenly ignoring the concerns of supposed allies, the IRGC has revealed its previousl-veiled leading role in the governing apparatus. When a subordinate actor influences the policies of a excessively responsive superordinate actor, it logically follows that the subordinate will take actions to supplant the superordinate when its privileged position is jeopardized. Such a scenario presumes the entrenched, demanding power of the subordinate. Consequently, the violence following the June election did not signal the inception of a military-heavy regime. It was merely the existing martial oligarchy’s first public exposure.

The IRGC’s preferential treatment from the Supreme Leader displaced the revolution’s old guard, comprised of politically active ‘reformist’ clerics including the aforementioned Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami and laypersons committed to the ideals of the Islamic Republic such as 2009 defeated presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. For many in the West, these figures represent Iran’s ‘Western-liberal’ movement. Yet, as a group the ‘reformers’ promote the Islamic Revolution’s post-modern elements. According to scholar Reinhard Schulze, post-modern Islamic politics is determined by the practitioners of Islam: “Stated simply, Islam is what the Muslim makes of it.”4 While Ayatollah Khomeini certainly embraced a modern, post-colonial notion of Islamic politics that sought to create a utopian Islamic society founded upon religious jurisprudence, he simultaneously endorsed the post-modernist vision. As Khomeini once said, “The measure [of legitimacy] is the people’s vote.” Inspired by this pronouncement, the ‘reformists’ have constructed a counter-revolutionary political platform aiming not to replace the idea of an Islamic system, but to imbue the state with the 1979 revolution’s post-modern ideology. In what seems like an odd pair to those in the West, an alliance between Iran’s clergy – which has traditionally provided moral legitimacy for dissent and facilitated unrest – and the people is forming to combat the IRGC’s usurpation of the Islamic Republic.

By and large, the West has framed Iran’s current political unrest as a predominately secular society revolting against Islamic overlords hellbent on subjecting the nation to tyrannical rule. This interpretation of the events unfolding in Iran, though, is deeply flawed. Ayatollah Khamenei, in his capacity as the nation’s Supreme Leader, elevated the IRGC at the expense of the post-modern revolutionaries, creating economic and, eventually, political schisms that, when exploited by the IRGC resulted in the organization’s political ascension. Iranian resistance to marital-oligarchical rule, though, is deriving political inspiration from Islamic post-modernism, to the chagrin of Western secularists. Protestor’s oft-repeated slogans of “Marg bar diktator” (death to the dictator) and “Allah akbar” (God is great) and their adoption of the color green, which is as much a symbol of allegiance to Islam as it is Mousavi, is a testament to the desire for the post-modern symbiosis of Islam and republicanism. In the end, the protesters’ struggle against the fraudulent result of the June 2009 presidential election has not only bared the licentious role of IRGC in Iranian politics but also – and perhaps more importantly – demonstrated the compatibility of Islam and representative governance.

1See Michael Lind, “Wanted: Freedom from religion,” Salon.com, 23 June 2009, [http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/06/23/religion_iran/index.html] and Martin Amis, “The end of Iran’s Ayatollah’s?” The Guardian, 17 July 2009, [http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/17/martin-amis-iran].

2Mark A. Tessler and Ameney Jamal, “Attitudes in the Arab World” Journal of Democracy 19 (2008): 101.

3Muhammad Sahimi, “Showdown between Khamenei and IRGC?” Tehran Bureau, 28 July 2009, [http://tehranbureau.com/looming-confrontation-khamenei-irgc/].

4Reinhardt Schulze, “The Ethnization of Islamic Cultures in the Late Twentieth Century or From Political Islam to Post Islamism” in Islam, Motor or Challenge of Modernity ed. by George Stauth (Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 1998), 190.

Dear President Obama

Since the inauguration, your administration has repeatedly announced that you will be addressing the Islamic world from a Middle East capital within your first 100 days in office. While your supporters have endlessly praised this decision as prudent and respectful attempt at dialogue, I believe it is an ill-conceived decision. The speech will not, as many hope, help the United States rebuild its image in the region. Forgive my presumptuousness, but I base the following suppositions on the comments directed to the region in your inaugural address.

In the upcoming speech, I anticipate that you will speak to the political ‘moderates’ of the Middle East, asking them to stand with the United States against the fundamentalists bent on embroiling the region in conflict. I also assume that you will give lip service to the United States’ dedication to regional democratization, peace, and economic progress. While these goals are noble on the surface, the modernist discourse underpinning them bares their imperiousness and, consequently, undermines your aims.

In the West, the discourse of modernity rests on the belief that the non-West has existed on the periphery of the progress of the West. As scholar Tim Mitchell argues, modernity exists in a spatial and temporal relationship to the West. In the context, modernity geographically emanates from the Europe and the United States. The history of the non-West also derives its significance from its relationship to the West. To achieve modernity, then, the West requires the non-West must mimic and actualize Western values and its institutions.

Surely, the West-centric assumptions of the address will not be lost on the inhabitants of the Middle East. In fact, this approach throughout the decades has ignited the ire that you now seek to quell. The address will restate one of the primary justifications for European imperialism, that is the so-called white man’s burden. You seek to drag the people of the region from their seemingly stagnant, if not regressive, cultural, economic, and political relations and introduce them to the West’s definition of modernity. Yet, you do not comprehend that that modernity is a universally affective and objective set of ideas that illicit individuated socio-cultural responses.

The strong political public has long existed in the Middle East, and its liberation from the authoritarian regimes that the United States currently supports will be more beneficial to the image of the United States than your ill-advised but well-intentioned address. Through unimpeded public deliberation, the peoples of the region will be able to formulate a stable and culturally-responsive reaction to modernity. The people of the region yearn for democracy, but on their own terms. When the present governments in the region fall – and they eventually will – Islamist governments will fill the void. But, then again, any truly democratic government in the Middle East will take this form.

Islamist democracies are to be embraced, not feared, for two reasons. First, they are likely to be moderate governments for a myriad of reasons. Second, possibilities for cooperation or conflict between an ego (the United States) and an alter (Islamist democracies) is based upon their previous interactions. A conciliatory orientation by the United States toward these populist movements in the present will build and secure mutual amity and cooperation in the future. Despite the arguments of many in the policy establishment, politics is not just a zero-sum game.

Mr. President, I urge you to rethink your address to the Middle East. While many on the American left will favorably compare your address to John F. Kennedy’s historic 1963 Berlin Speech, the response from the region will certainly be sour. I agree that the United States must act to improve its image in the Islamic world, but the likely undertones of a West-centric modernist discourse in the address will undermine its primary objective.

With respect and honest intentions,

politics & metapolitics

During the recent presidential campaign, public commentators and supporters of President Barack Obama contended that his election would introduce a new era of relations with the peoples of the Middle East. With his “global man” image, pragmatic policy proposals, and, most importantly, his general lack of resemblance to George W. Bush, he will supposedly win a substantial number of hearts and minds in the region. These positives, though, are undercut by his interpretation of modernity that falsely synonymizes modernity and Westernization.

For many in the West, modernity is understood as both a Western product and possession. Since modernity and its ideals are perceived as Western, so-called “backwards” nations must Westernize to become modern. Conversely, this assertion implies that non-Western states are unmodern and incapable of formulating indigenous responses to modernity. Scholars like Reinhardt Schulze disagree with this hegemonic interpretation and cogently demonstrate that modernity is a global phenomenon separate from its regional origins. Every nation, he argues, is affected by modernity and attempts to formulate an indigenous response through competing public political discourses. Moreover, indigenous responses to modernity, once made concrete, are responsive to the values of a society – therefore producing more stable states. Modernity, in other words, is universal in effect and particular in consequence.

The paragraph of Obama’s inaugural address focusing on the Middle East, however, echoed the dominant interpretation of modernity. On the surface, the president’s proclamation to the Muslim world is bold and progressive but, upon deconstruction, subtle and damning contradictions are exposed. Obama initially reached out to the Muslim world, announcing that the United States “seek[s] a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Yet, he followed this statement by implying that the path to modernity for ostensibly resistant nations requires the acceptance of Western values. Thus, he divides the world in “the West” and “the rest.” For Obama and his administration, the ideas of modernity are clearly equated with the Westernization of non-West nations. Rather than ushering in an era of “mutual interest and mutual respect” between the United States and the peoples of the Middle East, the president’s approach will maintain the current contentious relationship because it promotes the imposition of Westernization by anti-democratic leaders. Any popularly and indigenously-formulated response to modernity by “the rest” are dismissed because of their failure to accept and implement the West’s model.

In ignorance of the dynamics between modernity and good governance, he equates Westernization with participatory governance. He announced: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” As noted above, however, the West-centric interpretation of modernity requires that official institutions exist to suppress indigenous (i.e. backward) responses to the forces of modernity and implement Westernizing policies. For the inhabitants of the contemporary Middle East, the United States’ support for exclusive and corrupt governments competes with its unqualified support for Israel as the primary socio-political flashpoint. If an Obama administration actually seeks democratization and the rectification of its image in the region, they must fundamentally alter the way in which modernity is viewed.

The issue of modernity is complex, and the way in which it is perceived can have profound implications on the policies pursue by policymakers. The West’s imperial conception of modernity has resulted in political intervention and interference, the subjugation and radicalization of individuals, and has ultimately jeopardized the safety of those living in the West. If modernity is instead perceived as simultaneously universal and particular, the security of the West will be enhanced while the desire for modernity of people outside the Western world will be fulfilled.

For many years, scholars have viewed modernity as a category exclusive to the Western world while non-Western states ostensibly remain in a near inert, pre-modern stage of political, social, and economic development. These traditional academics contend that in recognizing their backwards state, non-Western states engage in a continuous process of borrowing “modern” concepts and ways of life from the West, since modernity originated in the West, in an effort to bridge the divide between modernity and pre-modernity. Well established academics of the Islamic world, such as James Gelvin, have contributed to the prevalence of the traditionalist discourse, asserting that the Islamic world continuously looked westward, borrowing “modern” ideas in an attempt to bridge its various disparities with Europe and stave off Western domination. In his examination of the region in The Modern Middle East: A History, Gelvin labels the western orientation “defensive developmentalism.”[1]

In A Modern History of the Islamic World, however, Reinhardt Schulze departs from the mainstream perspective and analyzes the political discourse surrounding the social, political, and economic changes in the 20th Century Islamic world without resorting to the archaic and Orientalist notion of modernity. Instead, Schulze founds his argument upon a belief of a universal modernity defined as “universal time”. To put it more precisely, his modernity occurs in global simultaneity, irregardless of socio-political and geographic location.[2] Modernity is a set of conditions to which nations, as a collective, must respond; thus, no nation or region maintains a monopoly over modernity. For example, the prevalence of ideas such as nationalism, constitutionalism, and civil law in the Islamic world’s political discourse in the early 20th century does not, Schulze suggests, indicate an acceptance of “Western” concepts as there is nothing inherently “Western” about them. These concepts could have equally originated elsewhere. Further contributing to the common miscategorization of the non-Western world, and the Islamic world in particular, as pre-modern is the West’s inability to correctly translate the Islamic world’s approach to modernity, which has been often shrouded in an Islamic discourse. When the Western conception of modernity has been defined to a significant extent by secularism in social and political affairs, a reliance on religious, and in this case a specifically Islamic, justification for contemporary responses to modernity become difficult for western observers to comprehend as modern. This lack of cross-cultural synchronicity, and the shortcomings of Gelvin’s approach, becomes apparent when examining primary sources from nationalist thinkers from the Islamic word.

During the Islamic world’s nationalist era, Schulze identifies competing discourses of nationalism, the most popular of those providing reasoning for nationalist and constitutionalist movements through a return to the organic values of Islam. Typifying these ideas were the Salafists, who believed that deviations were the result of the fracturing of Islamic theology resulting from the end of the reign of the rightly guided caliphs. For instance, Muhammad ‘Abduh, an Egyptian proponent of modernist Islam, contends the uniqueness of Islam rests in the Qur’an’s promotion of rational judgment, but the variety of interpretations of the Holy Book since the death of ‘Uthman have been diluted by other philosophies, which lack the rationality Islam provides.[3] He writes, “A glimmer of Islam, it is said, illuminated the west, but its full light is in the east. Yet precisely there its own people lie in the deepest glom [sic] and cannot see.”[4] In his argument, ‘Abduh implies that a unification of Islamic world behind a purified conception of the faith would allow it to respond “rationally” to the challenges posed by modernity. The argument complements his essay on the change of laws in the Islamic world from arbitrary law to of civil law, which purportedly occurs only when polities gain a capacity to challenge habits that are anachronistic within the prevailing zeitgeist. It is safe to assume that ‘Abduh perceives Islam as central to the transformation of his society.[5] It is important to note that references to western ideas and values are absent from his work, which directly contribute to a refutation of Gelvin’s assertion regarding “defensive developmentalism” as the driving force of the modern Middle East, which of course includes the nationalist era.[6] Moreover, Gelvin’s sweeping categorization of the nationalists under the rubric of “defensive developmentalism” homogenizes what was, as Schulze recognizes, a plurality of movements espousing complex and varying nationalist programs.

Abduh’s mutually influential contemporary ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, a Syrian born journalist, found an outlet for his disdain for the adulterated state of the Islamic world in a fictional account of meetings in Mecca. He too identifies a “stagnation” resulting from theological, political, and moral divisions in the Muslim civilization that must be remedied through pan-Arabism and a return to Arab-centric interpretations of the faith. Notably, al-Kawakibi, like Abduh and, as I will mention momentarily, Na’ini, advocates the implementation of civil law and accountable rulers.[7] To make this example concise, Al-Kawakibi provides another instance where Gelvin’s argument falls short. The diffusion of interpretations of Islam, according to Al-Kawakibi, was identified as the central reason for the “stagnation” of the Muslim world. The inculcation of a purified Islam among the masses was again seen as the sole way in which the Islamic could be institutionally modern.

The Iranian religious scholar Muhammad Husayn Na’ini also advocated a return to Islamic scholarship, yet while ‘Abduh and al-Kawakibi explicated their belief that a return to the fundamentals of Islam would guide the path towards confronting general issues of modernity and promote pan-Arabic or pan-national Islamic unity, Na’ini utilized Islamic theology to directly influence Iran’s 1906 constitutional revolution. In his political tract, Na’ini argues in favor of constitutionalism insisting that absolute power, as a tyrant on Earth possesses, belongs solely to God; thus, for a man to wield such power is an “affront to the Creator and His creation.”[8] Furthermore, he attributes the weakness of Islamic society in the modern world to tyrannical – or “possessive”, as he labels it – rule. The absolute and arbitrary rule of the tyrant is juxtaposed against a government in which a ruler is restricted by the citizens’ participation in the decision-making processes of government – ensuring that citizens’ rights are not violated by the ruler.[9] Na’ini frequently borrows from the Qu’ran and the hadith to bolster the Islamic foundation of his denunciation of tyrannical rule and oppression, appropriating verses referencing the Pharaoh and the Israelites. “So let the Israelites come with us and do not oppress them,”[10] he recites while placing it within the modern context. To end the scourge of absolutism, Na’ini writes, the people must recognize its un-Islamic quality and enter into a cooperative pact with the government protected by a constitution. Again, he quotes the Holy Book: “Verily, God does not change the state of a people til they change themselves.”[11]

For these three reformists, the first step towards achieving a common good, which they identify as the construction of legal-governmental orders that are responsive to the demands imposed by modernity, is a realization by the masses of historically-located deviation from the fundamentals of Islam. To be modern, in their sense, is to possess a government justifiable under traditional Islamic teachings. If a common good is central to the modern nationalist movements as Schulze contends, [12] the reasons for dissynchronicity between Western and non-Western understandings of modernity is elucidated. The utilization of an Islamic discourse for the purposes of promoting the ideas embodied in the nationalist fervor of the early to mid 20th century does not, as the West has assumed, indicate that the Islamic world is anti-secular and pre-modern. Instead, the return to Islam was the catalyst for the region’s drive to modernity and the foundation of nationalisms.

When examining primary sources emanating from the Islamic world’s nationalist era, Schulze’s nuanced argument ultimately prevails over that of Gelvin. By recognizing the importance of reintegrating the notion of “universal time” in the historiography of the modern Islamic world, Schulze has accurately represented the internal dynamics of that civilization and produced universal intelligibility concerning the modern Islam world.


[1] James Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 74.

[2] Reinhardt Schulze, A Modern History of the Islamic World (New York: New York University Press, 2002) 3.

[3] Muhammad ‘Abduh, “Laws Should Change in Accordance with the Conditions of Nations and The Theology of Unity,” in Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 58.

[4] Ibid, 60.

[5] Ibid, 54.

[6] Gelvin, 203.

[7] Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, “Summary of the Causes of Stagnation,” in Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 153.

[8] Muhammad Husayn Na’ini, “Government in the Islamic Perspective,” in Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 117.

[9] Ibid, 119.

[10] Ibid, 123.

[11] Ibid, 121.

[12] Gelvin, 198.