Iran's Islamic Rule Under Fire -- by Revolutionaries

A number of activists say rulers are distant from the people. They call for pluralism.

AFTER 16 years of strict Islamic rule, a growing number of Iranians are clamoring for a voice in their government.

The clamor, ironically, comes from some original revolutionaries. Abbas Abdi, one of the three students who planned the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, says, ''The Islamic revolution has failed to change the political structure of the country.''

He finds the political gulf between the people and the government to be as wide as during the prerevolutionary days of the US-backed shah.

''We need an independent, civil society to bury the gap, and this cannot be achieved without the formation and legalization of political parties,'' Mr. Abdi adds.

Abdi's new camapaign for political reform is widely shared among many religious reformists, secular activists, liberals, and even some supporters of President Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Following the Iranian revolution, Marxist, leftist, and some liberal parties thrived in Iran. But between 1981 and 1983, a showdown between them and the state resulted in a ban on political parties and the imprisonment, death, or exile of tens of thousands of activists.

Will for reform?

But the question many Iranians ask: Is the government ready to legalize political parties, which are allowed under Iran's Constitution?

''The mood in Iran is one of reform,'' says Mahmoud Sareiolghalam, professor of international relations at Tehran University.

Many academics and officials who support President Rafsanjani say privately that he is attempting to open up the system and legalize political parties. But he and his supporters do not publicly call for the legalization of political parties -- probably for fear of provoking the conservative Islamic clerics, who dominate the government and the parliament.

Instead, Rafsanjani's more liberal supporters advocate the formation of popular organizations, a form of civil society with checks and balances and some form of representation for all the people.

Tehran Mayor Gholam Hossein Karbaschi is currently publishing a newspaper, Hamshahri (citizen), which is dedicated to raising people's awareness of such organizations.

But Hamshahri's editor in chief, Mohammed Aterian, publicly contradicts the notions of his own newspaper. ''Political parties in Iran exist, there are many associations registered at the interior ministry,'' Mr. Aterian says.

''Where are these parties, what kind of parties are they?'' asks Ibrahim Yazdi, the newly appointed leader of a peaceful opposition group, the Iranian Liberation Movement. ''People joke about these claims of the ministry of interior, that they are parties for ghosts, not for the people.''

At Tehran University, which was a beehive for political parties after the revolution, many students express support for the legalization of political parties, including opposition parties. But some also say they are against secular leftist groups.

''There should be political parties, but they should adhere to the framework of Islam,'' says Adel Kashawarz, a political science graduate student at Tehran University.

''The society's traditions do not accept Marxist or other parties that attack Islam,'' he adds.

Iranian analysts say the views of Mr. Kashawarz, and many like him, partly reflect the Islamic clergy's successful indoctrination that non-Muslim political parties have no place in Iranian society.

But secular thinkers and writers argue that Iran's Islamic traditions and sensitivities also may be a factor that could bring about change.

''Only a movement that is based on Islamic thinking can lead change in Iran today,'' says Murad Saggafi, editor in chief of the Koft-O-Gu (dialogue), a secular quarterly published in Tehran.

Islam and pluralism

Secular activists who believe in an evolutionary transition are pinning hopes on a new Islamist reformist movement. The ideologue of the new movement, Abdul Karim Soroush, preaches that Islam is compatible with democracy and pluralism. (See Soroush profile, left.)

Dr. Soroush's followers promote his views through Keyan, (essence), a cultural Tehran quarterly that argues that Islam does not and should not contradict modernization.

''We admit it is still largely an intellectual exercise, but we believe that initiating such a debate, raising questions and new ideas will bring about genuine changes,'' says Mahmoud Shams, an editor at Keyan.

Analysts believe that cultural newspapers, such as Koft-O-Gu and Keyan, have become catalysts that could transform into political parties, if the parties are legalized and the intellectual trends succeed in attracting popular support.

Secularists and Islamists who believe in opening up the system argue that it will be based on a wide cooperation between advocates of pluralism inside and outside the establishment.

Abdi, for example, represents the Islamic leftists, a group that is being pushed out by the conservative clerics. Consequently, Salam newspaper, published by Hijatollislam Khoneiha, the cleric who led the militant student takeover of the United States Embassy, has become an outspoken critic of government repression.

Salam has become a major outlet for frustrated Iranians who attack, through published letters to the editor, the government political and economic policies.

''In today's Iran if you are trying to oppose the regime politically ... you can do that, but if the state believes that a group or some people are trying to take up arms ... if even there is suspicion of that ... it takes severe action against them,'' another political scientist at one of Tehran's universities says.

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