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Iran’s Unlikely President

Bim-e Mowj [Fear of the Wave]

by Mohammad Khatami
Tehran: Sima-ye Javan, 205 pp., 5,700 rials

Az Donya-ye Shahr ta Shahr-e Donya: Sayri dar Andisheh-ye Siyasi-ye Gharb [From the World of the City to the City of the World: A Survey of Western Political Thought]

by Mohammad Khatami
Tehran: Nashr-e Nay, 293 pp., 8,500 rials


Mohammad Khatami became Iran’s new president in May 1997, winning a surprising victory over a more traditional candidate favored by the clerical establishment. Khatami attracted voters with a campaign in which he emphasized the need to strengthen the rule of law and the institutions of civil society, and to protect the basic rights of Iranians. He said he would tolerate and even encourage open debate and a diversity of views, and address the aspirations of women and youth. If official figures are accurate, over 80 percent of the voters went to the polls-a figure unprecedented since the early years of the Islamic revolution. Khatami received nearly 70 percent of the vote.

The victory was all the more striking because Khatami’s rival and the supposed front-runner, the speaker of the Majlis, or parliament, Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri, was endorsed by most of the regime’s leading clerics, cabinet members, and, implicitly, by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor of the Ayatollah Khomeini who, in principle, can overrule any other official in Iran, including the elected president. Khatami did well among voters of differing political views and in almost all the provincial districts, even in small towns and villages where citizens traditionally follow the advice of local religious leaders. He did particularly well among the young (anyone above sixteen can vote) and women. Khatami also gained support among the intelligentsia and the middle classes for his more tolerant policies toward the press, book publishing, movies, and theater when he was minister of culture and Islamic guidance in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Since taking office in August last year, Khatami has brought about some startling changes in Iran. Except for his current dispute with the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, he has greatly improved Iran’s relations with the states of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. In January, in an interview with CNN, he began the difficult process of mending an eighteen-year estrangement between Iran and the United States by inviting Americans to a “thoughtful dialogue” with Iranians. The Clinton administration has welcomed this initiative, although the US continues to be troubled by Iran’s efforts to acquire long-range missiles and nuclear weapons and by its support for radical Islamic groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the West Bank, that use violence to pursue their goals. Whether Khatami will have an effect on these policies is still too early to tell; but he appears to have reined in Iran’s own fearful security agencies. Since his election, the assassination of Iranian dissidents abroad appears to have stopped.

Equally important are the changes he has brought about in Iran itself. Censorship has eased and numerous films and books long in the censor’s hands have been released. Khatami’s minister of culture, Attaolloh Mohajerani, has issued permits for dozens of new newspapers and magazines. His minister of interior has allowed several independent cultural associations and political groups to be formed. Iran today has a vigorous press, a parliament more lively than Egypt’s, and a politics which, though restricted to the ruling elites, is nevertheless competitive and engaged with real issues.

The changes Khatami has made possible are all the more striking when we recall conditions during the last three years of the presidency of his predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, when the Majlis was inert and the press, with one or two exceptions, was politically insignificant. The security agencies seemed out of control; a number of writers and intellectuals were subjected to cruel treatment; some were found dead on the streets, or died in police custody.1 In 1997, when a publisher was found dead and his car abandoned, a friend wrote to me from Tehran that “we feel as if we are on death row, waiting our turn.”

The presidency of Khatami raises intriguing questions. He has written approvingly of Locke and Rousseau. Can he significantly curb repression, pervasive corruption, and the clerical monopoly of power, and create conditions to foster the civil society and rule of law he speaks about with passion and commitment? The obstacles are formidable. But Khatami has made a start.

Khatami is not an outsider. Since the 1979 revolution, he has been very much part of the ruling clerical establishment. He was born into a prominent clerical family and married into another. He received traditional clerical training at the seminary in Qum, where Ayatollah Khomeini’s son was a classmate and a close friend. Just before the Islamic revolution of 1979, he was picked to run the Iranian-sponsored Islamic Center in Hamburg, where he had his first direct contact with the West and learned some German. Until 1992, when he was sent into the political wilderness, he held important offices in the Islamic Republic. Yet he always had an independent streak. After his studies at the seminary, he also took a degree in philosophy at Isfahan University. Seminary classmates remember him as a good student but one always interested in “secular” ideas outside the seminary curriculum. Soon after the revolution, while briefly serving in parliament, he was appointed, then dismissed, as editor of Kayhan, then the largest newspaper in the country. After he left it, Kayhan became increasingly strident in tone, a forum for America-bashing and vicious attacks on the Westernized intelligentsia.

He then served for ten years as minister of culture. During most of this period, which coincided with the consolidation of the new regime, Khatami went along with repressive policies: books were systematically censored, some book publishers had their licenses revoked, and the government parceled out scarce and subsidized newsprint to favored publications. However, during his last three years Khatami eased cultural controls. The Iranian film industry flourished. Writers found they could appeal the censorship of a book directly to Khatami or his deputy, and it was after such an appeal that Mahmud Dowlatabadi’s impressive multivolume novel, Kelidar, was finally reissued in its original form. Set in Iran in the 1940s, the book centers on the political awakening of a simple villager who leads a desperate and ultimately futile rebellion against an oppressive government. The censors, suspicious of Kelidar‘s wide popularity, insisted on numerous revisions, unacceptable to the author.

Khatami reinstated annual awards for the best books, and established a press arbitration council to deal with complaints against the journals and writers charged with violating the press code, with its obscure standards for political and moral correctness. At least one writer and publisher, Abbas Maroufi, the editor of the journal Gardun, believes that the press council saved him from jail.2 When Gardun‘s offices were trashed by the regime’s stick-wielding bullies, Khatami was virtually the only member of the government to condemn the attack, describing it as “autocratic, irresponsible and illegal.” In 1992, hard-liners in the parliament forced Khatami out of the cultural ministry, claiming his policies toward books, film, and the press were excessively lenient.

Khatami spent the next five years as head of the National Library-a job of little importance in Iran. He used his time in the political wilderness to think, to lecture, and to write. He published two books in Persian, both collections of essays originally delivered as lectures to university students. The first, Fear of the Wave, consists of essays on Shi’ite Islamic reformist thinkers-men whom Khatami admires for attempting to reinterpret Islam in ways that address problems of the modern world. The second, From the World of the City to the City of the World, is a long rumination on Western political thought, from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. It concludes with an account of the age of liberalism which, in Khatami’s telling, these political philosophers made possible.3

The two essay collections provide insight into the two sources of Khatami’s political inspiration. He is deeply committed to Islam and to Iranian culture, history, and traditions; at the same time, he greatly admires the Western political tradition. It would be a mistake to see Khatami, as some in the West have done, as a kind of Jeffersonian democrat in Islamic dress. In fact, Khatami sees the Islamic revolution of 1979 as one of the central events in Iran’s history in the last few centuries. He believes in the centrality of religion to Iran’s culture and society and, presumably, to its political and governmental structure as well. But he is one of the Iranian thinkers who are seeking to reconcile Islamic law, and Islamic tradition and practice, with individual rights and basic freedoms, and with Western concepts of the rule of law and of a civil society.

Two themes run through these writings. First, Khatami sees Islam as a religion and civilization in crisis or, at least, as a religion and civilization no longer responsive to the needs of the times, whether in science, the economy, or political organization. Islamic civilization, he writes, reached a high point of creativity, power, and influence in the Middle Ages, and then, like Greek or Roman civilization, went into decline. It is demonstrably no longer the world’s dominant or most relevant civilization. Second, Khatami believes that today “the world is the West, or lives in the shadow of Western thought and civilization.” The West is the source of the world’s most powerful, creative, and relevant ideas; it is superior in military prowess, technology, and economic resources; it dominates the world’s financial institutions and information networks. Muslims can deal with the exigencies of the modern world only if they acknowledge this reality.

At the same time Khatami observes that the West came to the non-Western world as colonizer and exploiter, and as a threat to the identity and culture of other peoples. Western civilization ignores the spiritual aspects and needs of man. But Muslims must distinguish between the West in its political activities and the West as a civilization. Khatami is advocating not Westernization but an intellectual engagement by Iran and the Muslim world with Western thought, with the dominant ideas of the age.

In presenting to his countrymen the outstanding achievements of Western civilization, Khatami, significantly, concentrates neither on the scientific nor on the industrial revolution; he says nothing about Western art and music. He is drawn to Western political philosophy, fascinated not by Copernicus or Newton, or by Michelangelo or Bach, but by St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli and Hobbes, Voltaire and Locke. These men have provided Western civilization with the kind of political ideas that he believes are lacking in Islamic thought. Rich in its conceptions of theology, jurisprudence, mysticism, and the arts, he writes, Islamic civilization was deficient in its conceptions of government and principles for the management of society. It would be more precise to say that Islam has had little to say about the approaches to government and society that Khatami finds of strong interest in Western political philosophy.

As an account of Western political thought, From the World of the City to the City of the World will be familiar to readers of college textbooks on the subject, but what Khatami chooses to highlight is instructive. Khatami describes the struggle in the early modern period between the Church and new forces in European society. The Church wants to maintain a monopoly on thought and claims authority to define truth and falsehood. It is allied to feudal power and represents the status quo. Increasingly, it is out of touch with the aspirations and needs of a changing world. Against it stand the rising merchant classes, the religious reformers, the advocates of social reform and greater social justice, and the bearers of new ideas-champions of reason who want to free human thought from the shackles of tradition and outmoded ideas. It is not fanciful to imagine that Khatami, here, sees a reflection of the condition of the Islamic clerical establishment in his own time.

  1. 1

    For example, see “Letter from an Iranian Prisoner,” The New York Review, April 10, 1997.

  2. 2

    See Maroufi’s sympathetic profile of Khatami published in Der Spiegel, July 28, 1997.

  3. 3

    Hope and Challenge: The Iranian President Speaks provides a translation into English of two essays from Fear of the Wave, two lectures, one of which is Khatami’s thoughtful inaugural address before the Iranian parliament in August 1997, and brief quotations from Khatami on such subjects as governance, social justice, women, foreign policy, and civil society. I would have preferred a selection that better reflects the development of Khatami’s ideas over time. The earlier essays that appear here make Khatami appear more strident, more given to the idea of a clash between Islam and the West, than the Khatami for whom voters turned out last year. Snippets of quotations are no substitute for full essays. Nevertheless, this is a start; and the translator provides a clear and readable text.

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