BOOK REVIEW Islam and democracy debate revisited Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change by Ali
Reviewed by Kaveh L Afrasiabi
The democratic upsurge throughout the Middle East, which has clear Islamist
undercurrents, has seen the debate over Islam's compatibility with democracy
take on a new urgency, in policy as well as academic circles.
The ongoing developments hang new question marks on the validity of the ideas
of the French author Olivier Roy's 1996 work, The Failure of Political Islam.
Roy's confident assertions that "Islamism has lost its original
impetus" and has thus been "condemned to serving as a mere cover for a
political logic that eludes it," now seem on shaky ground. The same goes for
his argument that instead of anticipating "re-Islamization" in the Muslim world
we should expect "post-Islamism".
Often a tissue of the secularist Western "enlightenment", the theory foresees a
crisis if not the imminent demise of Islamist Iran, with ideas that have also
unfortunately infected the Iranian intellectual milieu.
Mirsepassi's Democracy in Modern Iran is one such example, as well as
being a reminder that it is hard to make a difference when equipped with the
wrong conceptual toolkit.
The author, a sociology professor in the United States, labors throughout the
book with various Western philosophical and political perspectives, rehashing
familiar arguments about topics such as "Europe and secularism" or theories of
(post) modernity, drawing on the works of such modernist Muslim thinkers as
Mohammed Arkoun and Talal Asad.
In the first 80 pages there is precious little mention of Iran, and the reader
is frustrated by excess amount of attention to Western thought even in chapters
dealing directly with Iran. Instead of providing an in-depth study of the
Iranian political system and the institutions that either promote or inhibit
democratic evolution, Mirsepassi opts to focus on the contemporary Iranian
Rorty and Iran
Mirsepassi is a fan of the American pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty, who
prioritizes democratic action over "philosophizing". Mirsepassi domesticates
the insights of Rorty, a secular atheist, such as the need to "de-sacralize
politics". He also questions the "silence" of Iranian intellectuals on Rorty.
But problems with his reliance on Rorty are two-fold: first, Rorty has never
studied non-Western societies and his political insights are based on Western
liberal democracies. Second, Rorty the original philosopher has to date been
far less appealing as a political theorist, in light of his recycling the
private/public sphere dualism of the "deliberative democracy" theorists, 
and his clinging to an abstract defense of the secularist thesis despite
rhetoric about "historical contingency".
As Jean Bethke Ishtain has aptly stated, "Rorty links his commitment to
contingency, to a rough-and-ready pragmatist teleology."  Perhaps Mirsepassi
should have widened his net by tackling other democratic theories, such as
Alain Touraine's, with its focus on identity/opposition, Chantal Mouffet's
"agonistic pluralism," Carl Schmitt's singling out the tension between
democracy and popular sovereignty, or Weber's "plebiscitary democratic
Then the author might have realized that his occasional slip into the
dichotomization of "democracy or authoritarianism" leaves a lot to be desired,
given the rich insights of Alex De Tocqueville in his fascinating volumes on Democracy
in America two centuries ago. He mentions Michel Foucault, unfairly
accusing him of collapsing the distinction between democratic and
non-democratic systems, yet without bothering to scrutinize Foucault's unique
appreciation of the historical import of the Islamic Revolution. 
Ironically, had Mirsepassi followed Rorty's "historicist" and "ironic"
thinking, he may have also refrained from the rather quick dismissal of Islamic
ideologies as being "bankrupt for sometime now" or the related claim that "it
is impossible for religion and democracy to live side by side" if one were to
articulate his "intellectual orientation" in religious language". (pp 89- 89).
Such abstract generalizations are at odds with Rorty's own observations, eg,
"The use of Christian doctrine to argue for the abolition of slavery ... shows
Christianity at its best." (Philosophy and Social Hope, pp 206).
Mirsepassi's calls for a new "generalized cultural vision" (pp 188) or his
championing of new "public intellectuals" armed with "new vocabulary", smack of
traditionalist thinking and are oceans' apart from Rorty's insistence that
intellectual or philosophical preoccupations have no direct bearing on the
masses struggle for democracy.
To give another example, Iran's part-theocratic, part-republican system may be
described, from a Rortyan perspective, as an "ironic republic" denoting the
dialectical tensions of democracy and Islam, compared to Mirsepassi's tendency
to simply juxtapose the two as mentioned above.
Islam, democracy, and (popular) national sovereignty
An important missing link in Democracy in Iran is any meaningful
discussion of the external barriers to Iran's democratic evolution. That would
mean incorporating discussions of the negative feedback effect of exogenous
pressures and "shocks", such as Iraq's invasion of Iran in 1980 with Western
complicity, or the post-September 11 invasion of Iran's neighbors. In addition
there has also been the fear of "spill-over" conflicts and United States and
North Atlantic Treaty Organization encirclement of Iran, all heightening
Tehran's national security concerns and introducing a siege mentality that is
difficult to mate with democracy.
The umbilical links between (Shi'ite) Islam and nationalism have been a source
of strength of an Islamist polity that since its inception has been marked by
regular, albeit restrictive elections, and concentric circles of power in a
"checks and balance" republican system. However, Mirsepassi's book hardly
mentions the Islamic constitution, more specifically, the Iranian parliament
(Majlis) or the role of the legislative branch, though these are key parameters
to gauging the democratic progress of "Islamic populist" Iran.
Uncritical embrace of the Green movement
Both in the introduction and several concluding chapters, Mirsepassi shows his
bias in favor of the opposition "Green" movement. Rejecting the assumption of a
"populist" president in Mahmud Ahmadinejad, (pp xii, 4), the author adopts at
face value the allegations of "stolen elections" in the presidential race of
2009, without bothering to delve into any detailed evidence that would
But, as this author has repeatedly shown, there is thin evidence to support the
allegations of opposing candidates (see
Mousavi states his case Asia Times Online, June 19, 2009; also
Crunching the numbers Asia Times Online, June 26, 2009.)
The Green movement's future lies in apt re-conceptualization and not simply
obsession with action, discounting Mirsepassi's quasi-Rortyan accent. A great
deal of rethinking on the tactics, strategies as well as analysis of the
Islamic Republic is called for by Iran's self-declared reformists and
The Islamic Republic has been to some extent a self-reforming "movement-state"
from the beginning and, to state the obvious, it is critically important for
the regime's intellectual advocates to invest in the rule of law and protection
of human rights, otherwise they risk losing the prestige and attraction of
In Democracy in Modern Iran there are some useful chapters on Iranian
intellectuals, Alireza Alavi-Tabar, a leader of the reformist group Iran's
Islamic Participation Front, who admits readily that in his ideal Islamic
polity there would be no role for the clergy (p 145).
The author seemingly shares this sentiment, hence his guarded optimism that
Iran is moving in the democratic direction (p 18). However, this optimism that
is not firmly grounded in an institutional analysis of today's Iran, or in the
role of political clergy in safeguarding national interests.
Undue criticism of Iranian universities
In the concluding chapters, the author indulges in a severe criticism of Iran's
educational institutions, claiming that "neither the professors nor the
students have nurtured the growth of their academic disciplines". (p 158). Even
harsher words are lobbed against Iranian sociologists for making "no attempt at
sociological study or the exploration of Iranian society in its historical or
This is nonsense and clearly an affront to dozens of sociology departments at
various universities across Iran. It would be one thing if the
self-aggrandizing author had himself filled this lacunae, such as by
undertaking a laborious study of changing pattern of electoral behavior in
Iran, or campaign politics, among other subjects.
Yet, the book under review is distinguishable by its lack of any in-depth, let
alone systematic, study of various political and sociological topics that are
relevant to our discussions of democracy in Iran.
This reviewer, who has worked at Tehran universities and research centers, can
personally attest to the creative input and contribution of political science
professors, researchers, and students to the study of Iran's foreign policy, in
light of volumes of books and hundreds of impressive doctoral dissertations
It would require the patient research of scrutinizing those intellectual
outputs in the library basements, at Tehran University and other universities,
to reach a diametrically different conclusion than the cynical one reached by
the Iranian professor penning from the comfort of his American ivory tower.
A more "ironist intellectual" would have readily refrained from such blatant
generalizations and pseudo-academic privileging his borrowed terminologies
that, as stated above, are only half-baked.
On the whole, this is a theoretically semi-interesting yet empirically poor
work that unfortunately sheds little light on the complex problems of democracy
1. For more on this see Afrasiabi, Deliberative democracy and its discontent,
Telos (1999). Also, Afrasiabi,
The problems of deliberative democracy in Iran.
2. See Jean Bethke Elshtain, "Don't be cruel, reflections on Rortyan
liberalism," in Richard Rorty, edited by David R Hiley (Cambridge University
3. For more on this see Afrasiabi, "Islamic populism," Telos (1995).
Democracy in Modern Iran: Islam, Culture, and Political Change by Ali
Mirsepassi. New York University Press, May 2010. ISBN-10: 0814795641. Price
US$42, 192 pages with notes and index 218.