Monday, June 22, 2009

False Hope for Iran

There seems to be a hazy optimism that the "pro-democracy" protests in Iran imply a shift in the Iranian public's attitude toward the tyranny of their government. On the surface, this seems plausible. There seems to be real anger over the rigged election. Also, the brave individuals who are taking to the streets are openly opposing their government's intimidation. (The "Supreme Leader" has vowed bloodshed for those who continue to protest.) But there is little reason to be sanguine about the turmoil in Iran. They are not protesting against the real enemy: theocracy.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the candidate who may have actually won the election, is far from being a threat to the status quo of the Iranian government. He and the three other presidential candidates (including Ahmadinejad) were selected, were given permission, by the "Supreme Leader" to run for office. It is highly unlikely that Ali Khamenei would have selected a revolutionary from the hundreds of hopefuls who were running for the presidency. Further, the office Mousavi was seeking is, as Time journalist Joel Stein recently noted, akin to the governorship of an American state. The real power lies with the Ayatollah, and the clerics who sit on the Guardian Council.

A recent article by Michael Lind, in Salon, argues the point almost no one is making--"there can be no freedom without secular government."

The larger issue is the question of what comes first: separation of church and state, or democracy. America's Founders had no doubts on that score. Democracy requires citizens who are free from "superstition" and "priestcraft," to use 18th-century language. Americans have usually believed that religion can play a constructive role in a democratic republic by encouraging moral behavior. But in the traditional American view, theocratic democracy is nothing more than majoritarian tyranny, whether the clerics have a formal role in the state or merely tell the voters how to vote. And even secular democracy is not a goal in itself. It is merely a means to an end: the protection of natural rights.

The idea of universal, basic natural human rights is incompatible with theocracy in any form.

This is an especially good paragraph:

A government, in short, is a limited-purpose, secular, worldly agency, not a divine institution. It is more like a property-owners association than like a church. There would be no point in a property-owners association that sought to do its limited, straightforward business according to the precepts of Catholic natural law, or Baptist theology, or Orthodox Judaism. Likewise, from the natural rights liberal perspective the very idea of a Christian state or an Islamic republic seems absurd, like a Buddhist municipal water utility district.

Real freedom will elude Iran as long as the people continue to fight for the limited scope of a theocrat's idea of "democracy," and not for the complete separation of church and state.