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Historian Mateo Farzaneh Explains Iran’s Brief Turn-Of-The-Century Experiment With Democracy

Mar 25, 2016

Russia and the West are sparring over oil and jockeying for position to gain an upper hand in the Middle East. That sounds like it could’ve come straight from Sunday’s edition of The New York Times, but it actually describes the dynamic more than 100 years ago.  Caught in the middle was Iran, fighting to preserve its young, fledgling democracy.

Yes, that Iran.

“Iran was actually the first country to create a parliament and to write a secular constitution – to a certain extent – in 1906,” Mateo Mohammad Farzaneh told KGOU’s World Views. He’s an assistant professor at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and the author of The Iranian Constitutional Revolution and the Clerical Leadership of Khurasani.

Iranian politician and philosopher Mohammad Kazim Khurasani.
Credit Ebrhim Najafi / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Shi’ite cleric Mohammad Khurasani supported the constitutional revolution, but Farzaneh says he definitely wasn’t a secularist. He found common ground by using the movement to make society a better place.

“One of the concepts in Shi’ite jurisprudence is that the jurist, the person who is a special leader of the community, has to have the interests of the people at heart above everything else,” Farzaneh said. “One of the ways Khurasani looked at it was, if I look at the interest of the people, in essence, I have to support a society that is law-based so everybody would be treated equally.”

Farzaneh described Khurasani as pragmatist, and thought even people outside the religious establishment should have a say in the legislative process and incorporating western values. But he was very clear about not jeopardizing Iran’s conservative social values.

The constitutional revolution took place before World War I, and the subsequent “Great Sorting Out” that haphazardly carved up the former Ottoman Empire like a jigsaw puzzle. After the Treaty of Versailles, Farzaneh says the British propped up the secular monarchy led by Reza Shah Pahlavi when Russia lost interest in the region as it dealt with its 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Read an excerpt of Farzaneh's book The Iranian Constitutional Revolution and the Clerical Leadership of Khurasani.

“They had cleaned their hands of any imperialistic practice that they used to be involved in,” Farzaneh said. “So Iran goes through the Pahlavi dynasty, and we know the story of how that ends in 1979 with the overthrowing of the last Pahlavi dynasty king, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, which brings in the theocratic regime of the Islamic Republic.”

But Farzaneh says even today, Iranians revere this brief flirtation with democracy.

“Iran is extremely flexible in undertaking new projects and trying new things to better itself,” Farzaneh said. “Ever since 1906, its challenge has been how are people going to support their representatives if the religious establishment were to come in and challenge those changes the secularists, or people that were not necessarily religious-minded, wanted to implement.”

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Mateo Mohammad Farzaneh, welcome to World Views.

MATEO MOHAMMAD FARZANEH: Thank you for having me.

CRUISE: Well, you are an expert on Iranian studies, and are Iranian yourself. And so I wanted to start today by talking a little bit about a period of time in Iranian history that you personally experienced and has a connection here to the United States. And that is this situation with Iranian diaspora after the revolution in 1979, and then in the 1980s. You were one of these diaspora, and came to California, as it were. If you can maybe explain the backdrop of that, and what compelled you to make that trip.

FARZANEH: Well, Iranians are a minority group, obviously, in the United States. They have a self-imposed sort-of diasporic experience. Many of the people that actually moved out of Iran after the revolution - they moved because of a variety of reasons. One being the feeling that they could not get to express themselves politically the way they had imagined before the revolution. And the second group are the people that actually moved out of Iran. Again, not by force, but by sheer of their own will, because of the Iran-Iraq War, and the beginning of the war on September 22, 1980. A large group of Iranian youth - men, especially - they moved after a few years of fighting voluntarily in the Iranian mobilization force, or the besiege. I was part of that group. We were dismayed by the progress Iran was not making on the war front and by the unilateral help that Saddam [Hussein] was getting from the west entirely.

CRUISE: This was an eight-year war. This was a long period of time.

FARZANEH: This was the longest war of the 20th century, actually, which is the title of a book also. It was a war that was fought between two Muslim nations. Two neighbors that had a long history. Iran and Iraq have had a long history before they became modern nation-states, as you probably know. Iran has had an extremely high level of cultural influence and political influence in Iraq going back to the time of Cyrus the Great, the great Achaemenid king, going back to the 6th century B.C. So from the Euphrates all the way to the Indus River basically was an Iranian cultural dominion, which has so far been the case even after the invention of Islam in 622 and after Iran became a Muslim society. It became part of the Islamic society, part of the great caliphate. Still, Iran was extremely powerful and influential in the political institutions and cultural institutions of Islamic societies. And that goes on still even today.

CRUISE: And so this struggle between neighbors was taken quite personally.

FARZANEH: Very much so. I'm from the southwest of Iran, from Ahvaz, and we got offended by the sheer act of violence that Saddam's army engaged in. Pretty much everyone got involved in the war, including men and women. And everybody kind of participated the best way they could. We had thousands of soup kitchens. We had thousands of women donating their rings and bangles for the army. We had old men participate. We had seamstresses - armies of seamstresses - making uniforms and repairing boots and what have you. And we had the wealthy donate their money and trucks and bulldozers and what have you. And Iran was under extremely difficult conditions at the time. So Iranians kind of saw themselves cornered, and they all responded the same way.

CRUISE: So certainly a difficult time, and you found your way to California, and have become quite successful since then, becoming a professor and teaching and writing a variety of books. And a recent publication of yours looks at revolution - not necessarily at the Iranian Revolution in the 1970s, but going back a century and looking at the Iranian constitutional revolution. If you could maybe a little bit about what that was, what the situation in Iran was, and who the important leaders were at this time.

FARZANEH: It's important for everybody to know that Iran is the first Islamic country, and the first country in the Middle East to have had a revolution, a constitutional revolution at that, in the 20th century. Which created the Middle East or the Islamic societies' first parliament or congress or constituent assembly, whatever you want to call it, that was based on a European advocates, which is very unique by itself. We know that the Ottoman Empire existed way before that for 500 years. They tried to write a constitution in 1875, but it did not come to the floor. Iran actually was the first country to create a parliament and to write a secular constitution to a certain extent in 1906. And that revolution continued until 1911. It was two years later, actually, the Ottoman Empire succeeded in creating the same parliament in Turkey, or in the Ottoman Empire, rather.

CRUISE: And who were the leaders? What were the issues that were at the fore here?

FARZANEH: Iranians throughout all of the 19th century tried to modernize in the best way they could. Some of the Iranians saw modernization simply from the perspective of creating a society that is based on western political values. And the radical modernists, if we want to call them, they thought the whole culture needs to be changed and westernized in order to progress.

CRUISE: That means secularized in some fashion.

FARZANEH: It would be secularized, which is like Europe. People in Tehran would be like people in Paris, or in London for that matter. And that was a bit too much for a society that, at the turn of the 20th century, had only 2 percent of the population that could read and write. So 98 percent of the population who are under extremely difficult conditions, both culturally and education-wise. And they were under the spell of the Shi'ite clerics. Iran is 90 percent of the Twelver Shi'ite sect. That was the case even then, although Iran has been very pluralistic and multicultural and multilingual and multiethnic. But Shi'ism has quite a bit of power, which goes back to 1501 when the Iranian dynasty called Safavid created Shi'ism as the national religion. So it was imperative that the religious establishment in Iran participate in this modernization or westernization of the political institutions. And that's what my book is about. It's about this certain ayatollah, or certain cleric or jurist, that was of Iranian descent, but had lived in Najaf in today's Iraq for the majority of his life. And he participated in the efforts and helped the modernists, the constitutionalists. He could not really see eye-to-eye totally, but he did understand the fact that Iran needed to modernize. And one way of modernization and making progress was basically by creating a parliament, by creating laws that would be the laws of the land. In essence that would put conditions on the arbitrary and happy-go-lucky government that Iran had at the moment. So everybody saw that as a way to get ahead, to put the shah or the king in his place, and the courtiers in their own place. And everybody would be accountable to law, basically.

CRUISE: And this gentleman that you mentioned is the Ayatollah Khurasani...

FARZANEH: Mullah Mohammad Khurasani. He is one of the most important figures even today in Iran. No one can get to the level or in any Shi'ite seminary, nobody can get to the level of ayatollah without passing the tests that are designed based on his ultimate textbook, which is a textbook of jurisprudence. It's a text of methodology or judicial practice, if you will. So all the ayatollahs today that are in power in Iran. Ayatollah Sistani, who is in Iraq, who is a very notable person in Iraqi politics and Iran's Iraqi society, they all have a very special place for Khurasani simply because of his book, this Sufficiency of principles.

CRUISE: Well it sounds so interesting that, as you mentioned, you had to bring in the religious component in order to get this passed, or to have this come to fruition. How did Khurasani see these two things working side-by-side? Religion and kind of a secularism or a politics and law?

FARZANEH: One thing that I mentioned in the book, and I reiterate throughout the book, is that we should look at Khurasani or people from religious backgrounds in their own framework. They are clerics. They are not secular people. So for anyone to expect them to act as seculars, or to think like seculars, that's wishful thinking. That's not going to happen, and vice versa, obviously. But there are common grounds. Common denominator where Khurasani could see that he could be helping a modern movement for the betterment of the society. One of the concepts in Shi'ite jurisprudence is that the jurist, the person who is a special leader of the community, has to have the interests of the people at heart above everything else, even above his own interests. So one of the ways Khurasani looked at it was, if I look at the interests of the people, in essence, I have to support a society that is law-based or everybody so everybody would be treated equally. Even the people that might not agree with the religious establishment as a whole, he thought they should have a voice in how laws are basically planned out and how western institutions are brought in. Which makes him an extremely pragmatic person, but one that draws the line very clearly that if Iranians want to change their political systems, that does not mean that the social values that he and his other friends or other colleagues saw themselves responsible for, those social values could not be jeopardized under any circumstances. I do have in the book tons of letters where he basically talks about, 'We're OK with this idea of bringing these ideas from the land of the infidels, meaning the west. We're perfectly OK with non-Muslims creating these things for the betterment of the society. But at the same time, we don't want their social values. We don't want them to poison the essence of the society and the essence of the market that we have in the society, which we will protect to the bitter end.

CRUISE: So having the religious and the legal, keeping them to some degree separate, but also finding a way for them to go together for the betterment of the people?

FARZANEH: Absolutely.

CRUISE: And you mentioned that this revolution, the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, was 1906-1911 thereabouts. What happened afterwards? Did the constitution, what happened to it?

FARZANEH: Well, during those short few years, actually from 1906-1908. In 1908 the parliament was bombarded, actually, by the Russian forces with the shah that had been brought in to destroy this new democratic institution, which was the parliament. So the parliament went into exile for a few months. And after coming back from the second session was a short-lived one, and that ended on Christmas Eve 1911 when Russia actually invaded Iran. Not until before the beginning of World War I in 1914, Iran did not have a working parliament. And after that, we do have World War I, in essence, which changes the formula for everybody, including Iran. And after the Versailles Treaty, in essence Iran goes through a turmoil period where the Pahlavi dynasty are going to be propped up. Reza Shah is going to be propped up by the British in order to trump the Russians. Russia by that time had a revolution, and they had cleaned their hands of any imperialistic practice that they used to be involved in. So Iran goes through the Pahlavi dynasty, and we know the story of how that ends in 1979 with the overthrowing of the last Pahlavi dynasty king, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, which brings in the theocratic regime of the Islamic Republic.

CRUISE: So history certainly threw some wrenches into the mix. But you mentioned that this is something that is revered by the Iranian people, certainly today. And we know that Iran seems to be taking a new approach to the west, at least U.S. relations with Iran seem to be changing. I think many would argue for the better. What can we learn from this period of history? From the constitution? From the people involved? That we can try to implement today, or that Iran can try to implement today that will work in this context?

FARZANEH: One thing that I think whoever listens to this program would be maybe thrilled to learn about Iran is that Iran is extremely flexible in undertaking new projects and trying new things to better itself. That's very important. And another thing for everybody out there that things Islam does not have the tools to create a democratic society, I think they're deeply mistaken. This case in my book kind of shows within the Shi'ite jurisprudence, which I examine in this book and I bring in concepts and values that are hidden, and some are implied, some are explicit in the works of Khurasani. We do have all the tools we need to have an establishment, such as a parliament, that's going to work independently from the religious establishment. But the challenge is ever since 1906, its challenge has been how are people going to support their representatives if the religious establishment were to come in to challenge those changes the secularists, or people that were not necessarily religious-minded wanted to implement. So the two lessons would be that Iran is flexible, is very friendly to political institutions. But is not necessarily OK with the changing of the social values or the family values that's included in there. Or the values of the market, which is very, very important. To the way we practice capitalism in the United States. It's unique by itself, sort of like an Adam Smith deal. Which in Iran, the religious establishment has always been involved in. It works in a different paradigm altogether.

CRUISE: Well, certainly it seems like many lessons, and those that want to learn more about this can of course of read your book, The Iranian Constitutional Revolution and the Clerical Leadership of KhurasaniThank you so much joining us today. We appreciate your time.

FARZANEH: Thank you for having me.

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