The Iranian Studies Unit (ISU) of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies hosted Mojtaba Mahdavi, Professor of Political Science and the ECMC Chair in Islamic Studies at the University of Alberta, to present a lecture titled “Iran, 42 Years On: Is a Post-Islamist Democracy Possible?” on 29 June 2021. The lecture was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Director of the ISU and Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Looking back at the history of Iran since the Constitutional Revolution, 1905-1906, Mahdavi stated that Iran has a long history of striving for democracy, and it has been a pioneer of progressive social and political changes in the region. Under the leadership of Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iran’s then democratically elected Prime Minister, the country was also a pioneer of the anti-colonial movement, as well as the nationalist and parliamentary democratic movements in the 1950s. According to Mahdavi, Iran experienced a brief period of liberal democracy, which came to an abrupt end with the overthrow of Mosaddegh by the US Central Intelligence Agency and the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. In the 1977-79 period, Iran was a forerunner of “anti-despotic revolutionary discourse” with components of Islam and anti-monarchy. The revolution was an anti-despotic revolt in the name of God, with the core themes of “freedom, social justice, independence, republicanism, and a broad conceptualization of Islam.” However, post-revolutionary politics, particularly Islamism, altered the scene and sabotaged the revolutionary goals.

Most importantly, in 2009, Iran was the first country in the region to see a massive “post-Islamist” social movement, which predated the Arab Spring. “Iran produced and introduced the idea of civic ‘post-Islamist’ discourse into the region and the manifestation of this discourse gradually started after the Iran-Iraq war [1980-1988].” Mahdavi further argued that this is due to a societal level “epistemic paradigm shift” to counter the Islamist discourse.

To explain the concept of post-Islamism, Mahdavi based his argument on sociologist Asef Bayat's interpretation of the term, claiming that post-Islamism does not imply post-Islam. “Post-Islamism is a discourse and an intellectual project, but at the same time a condition, social or political, that challenges Islamism.” Islamism as a concept suggests that Islamic state and divine rule are a solution in the post-colonial context, and it undermines the role of citizens, political rights, and citizenship. “As a reductionist discourse, it reduces the hybrid and multiple identities of the Muslim [individual] into an abstract definition of Islam.”

Therefore, post-Islamism as an intellectual movement responds to Islamism by questioning its core premise. “It is a dialogical discourse that goes beyond the false dichotomies of faith and freedom, religion and reason/rights, and synthesizes all of those elements at the same time.” It is critical of the religious state and state-sponsored religion, and it argues for the separation of religious institutions and the state while also acknowledging civil Islam and Muslim individuals’ numerous and hybrid social identities. Most crucially, Iran is a post-Islamist society, according to Mahdavi, because Islamism as a discourse is exhausted and has lost its mobilization capabilities, and it is intellectually in crisis owing to its internal contradictions. As a result, the Iranian civil society calls for a “secular, urfi, and civil” democracy that does not exclude religion from the public sphere. However, Mahdavi argued that Iran’s post-Islamist movement is in crisis, particularly in the post-2009 era.

Mahdavi used “dialectics of structure and agency,” to examine how the interaction of the three factors of the “state” structure, the “socio-economic” structure, and the “global power” structure have reinforced structural obstacles to democratization. Mahdavi claims that the state in post-revolutionary Iran is hybrid; a mixture of “authoritarianism, totalitarianism and semi-democracy; a ‘deep state’ which combines elements of clerical oligarchy and security apparatus; and a coalition of state-sponsored mullah-merchant-military.” Mahdavi further stated that the Iranian state is not a traditional theocracy as sharia has been used to protect the state’s interests. He also mentioned factional politics, rentierism, and neoliberalism in his remarks on the nature of the state in Iran.

In some cases, the state’s hybrid and complex nature provided limited space for democratization, while in others it was a major impediment. The second structural barrier to democratization is uneven economic development, which is exacerbated by the interaction of systemic corruption and economic sanctions. “Uneven economic development is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it could challenge sustainable democracy, and, on the other hand, it could bring more coalitions of other social forces to intensify democracy.” Lastly, the role of global politics has hampered Iran’s democracy, since war, military threat, and economic sanctions have resulted in the securitization of the public sphere and consolidation of the “deep state” oligarchy.

Mahdavi then explained the crises of agential factors by the “leadership” skill, the “organizational” capacity, and the “intellectual discourse” of pro-democracy forces. Regarding the first factor, he observed that there has been a crisis of leadership in the reform movement and elitism has been a major challenge. Civil society needs to be restored for democratization to be successful, Mahdavi said: “Surrounded by structures of state, uneven economic development and global politics, the leadership of the movement needs less elitism and more mobilization.” Organizationally, the same problem persists, as there is no group that represents “the excluded majority,” which includes both the traditional and new middle-class poor. Lastly, on the role of intellectual discourse, Mahdavi asserted that, while the Islamist discourse is in crisis, the reformist discourse is beset by conceptual and strategic ambiguities, as well as internal conflicts.

Mahdavi concluded his lecture by emphasizing that in order to materialize post-Islamist discourse, a civil society approach is required. It is critical to highlight democratic social justice to challenge uneven economic development as a fundamental barrier to democratization and empowering the middle-class poor. According to Mahdavi, abstract ideas are not powerful enough unless they are combined with material forces. “Progressive ideas are defeated by a reactionary populist rhetoric when the latter is blessed by strong leadership and organization.” Mahdavi added an optimistic note about Iran’s future democratic prospects, claiming that “post-Islamism is already a social condition, and an epistemic paradigm shift has occurred as a result of the vibrant civil society and social movement.”