Thought Archive

Monday, February 11, 2008

Compare the two

In our discussions on the subject of governance I have touched upon the Iranian regime being the most obvious example of divinely guided theocratic regime and its adherence values of democracy (the rule of the people) of whatever definition. All parties - except a rabid anti-Iranian fringe - agree that Iranian civic society is more developed, more open and also less religious and more nationalistic than other neighbours; this is after all a country where even inward looking (if still millenarian in parts) Shia culture serves as a cornerstone of a national identity. All of it is quite a difference to Iran’s pro-western Arabic neighbours ( and we will not discuss reasons for which these countries have not developed such a system).

But what – given that the Western standards are not applicable to the Middle East - is a benchmark we can measure Iran’s performance after the Islamic Revolution. How can we judge whether it has delivered to peoples needs and is therefore in need of praise and not of scorn. It is difficult to judge. We can, however try to comparatively analyze two systems of governance operating in Iran and in Turkey - remnants of empires sharing a tumultuous recent past, and see whether these also had led to a better economic governance.

Both countries operate in such regimes where, in essence, democracy is only a controlled exercise. In Iran, no part of democracy can operate outside a theocratic frame of reference. The parliament and president exercise power in all other aspects, but their potential moves to liberalize regime or change the frame of reference will be cut short by self appointed bodies.

In Iran all the laws are divinely approved in the sense that they are vetted by a council of religious leaders, exercising ijtihad or Qu’ranic interpretation. (It may not appear to be so to the rabid Taleban supporter, but the law of the land proclaims that aspects of life in Iran are Sharia-controlled). Therefore, In the Western context Iran is not liberal and not a democracy.

In Turkey situation is – or at least was - broadly similar. It is a country where no part of people’s democracy is defined by religion. Religious institutions in Turkey (so called vakfs) are in the service and pay of the secular State. The Kemalist State in Turkey is represented by the Army (first and foremost), the judiciary, the police and other bureaucracy. These organs used to exercise control over Turkish democracy, and pronounced judgments which were most of the time against the will of the people. Therefore, in the Western context again, Turkey was liberal – as it allowed its people rights in their Western sense of the word – but not a democracy. Situation appears to have changed now, mainly because Turkey has moved towards joining Europe and introduced sweeping reforms, undermining the power of the secular state. Thus Kemalists, who started the process in 1960s, now have became most vocal opponents of Turkey’s EU drive. Both of these two systems in Turkey and in Iran had not been created by outside colonial European and American forces, were not shaped by outside pressure and therefore had a legitimacy that allowed them to perate in the country.

But what have two systems delivered towards the prosperity of two equally strongly religious nations? And on this account my opinion is unequivocal.

Iranian revolution introduced sweeping reforms in education and allowed many of the poor - including many women - to receive education unavailable to them during Shah’s rule. Result now that the “mullah” regime unwittingly created an upwardly mobile middle class, and many educated young looking for jobs. They however, have nowhere to go, for moribund state sector has not delivered on the most basic promise of the jobs. While Iranian industries are diversified and strong, they are match for Turkish ones and Iranian potential remains sadly unfulfilled, while its leaders engage in yet another futile duel with the West and Israel.

Of course many of these economic woes of Iran are due to sanctions and limitations put on Iranian businesses by Americans. However, most of the economic mismanagement is self-inflicted. Mullahs and ayatollahs participate in many businesses, their basij militiamen buddies monopolize industries and choke other competition with punitive taxes, engaging in spheres of life that go far beyond spiritual. Their economic doctrine is simple– the one that leads to oh so unislamic prosperity, sometimes ostentatious display of wealth. What is this behaviour but not a corruption of the mind? As Persian mystic Nizami said – “I will fly far from the palace of the ruler, for not tainted with money I will be”. Not so our religious ministers in Iran.


Turkey is sophisticated modern economy with a strong service and financial sector that is – in its make – essentially Western oriented. It is the only Middle Eastern country that does not rely on the natural resources for its economy and is still successful. The success of its diversified economy is due to the right fiscal and business friendly policies of the recent government – Islamic oriented one, but build on the background of many an institutions build by a state free from limits put on economy by an essentially unqualified class of leeches, sucking wealth off the nation (like in Iran).

There is – despite the hype – no restriction in place to pressure people’s beliefs, for there are more functioning mosques in Istanbul than in the whole of Europe. Most Turks are practicing and religious Muslims willingly living in secular state. The last atavism of the militant secular era – ban on hijabs in state schools - has been removed this year. Now it is all in the hands of the Army and the Turkish Nation together, to determine which path they are willing to plod in the future and if principles of Ataturk still hold.

As for Iran, if it wants to remain a stable country it should abandon the self-defeating rhetoric and start building a prosperous future for its people, the future they deserve and the future they elect governments to deliver.

4 comments:

Riri said...

I must admit that I find it hard to believe Iran is democratic, judging from the way it is usually portrayed by the media (which I conceed might not be the most accurate portrayal).

NoolaBeulah said...

Very good piece, Nazim. Really interesting and incisive.

Your criterion seems to me both Western and universal - How does it satisfy the people's needs? If you leave aside the rhetoric of democracy (and it is mostly rhetoric), then that question is what you are left with. Not how good they are, or how close to God, or communism, or American, or whatever, but does the state do the job?

Agree entirely as well with the phrase "futile duel with the West and Israel". For so long, this has been the escape clause for exploitative, oppressive regimes whose only excuse for existence has been their 'struggle' against the West or against the 'Zionist entity'.

I am curious about these sentences: "There is – despite the hype – no restriction in place to pressure people’s beliefs, for there are more functioning mosques in Istanbul than in the whole of Europe." I don't quite get the point. Of course there are more mosques in Turkey than in Europe! The problem with Turkey is that there aren't so many churches or synagogues.

Hazar Nesimi said...

Awkwardly put expression that religious muslims in Turkey have the all the freedoms they would want in a secular state. Everything else is Wahhabi propaganda. Synagogues - more than enough actually for the number of worshippers, but for Christians there are problems - mainly to do with Greek Orthodox community restrictions. These are in place no doubt and should be relaxed. But there is not a single mosque in Greece, by the way.

As for Iran - clergy and bazaar now form a class that defines the elite. They mismanagaged the coutnry for last 15 years

NoolaBeulah said...

I see. You have counter-arguments, or propaganda in mind that I have no idea of - Wahhabi ones, for instance. Point made.