Political Participation in Iran

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ismail Salami

Political participation applies to any voluntary act to influence elections or public policy, including voting, protesting, lobbying, and many other activities.

Historically, the groups excluded from the participation current have found little chance to peacefully create a democratic arena for their presence.

Political participation is not a sheer ethical inclination, but a method for enjoying equal social opportunities and obliterating unilateral situations. Yet, political participation is not to be considered an all-sufficient proviso though it is a requisite for the achievement of social freedom and equality.

Political participation can be interpreted as “the process of empowerment” during which a neutralizing power is generated through availability of the required resources, countering a previous order and power structure. Therefore, participation is a means for increasing and redistributing opportunities for participation in political decision-makings.

There are two main types of political participation: conventional and unconventional. Voting, political debate, election campaign and formation of a party are among the prominent features of conventional participation whereas interdicting elections, political gatherings and protests, disturbed demonstrations and riots, violence, guerrilla warfare and revolution are to be defined as the subcategories of unconventional participation.

It is widely held that the republicanism reflected in the post-revolutionary Iranian Constitutional law is intrinsic to the Iranian social context. Pluralism has come to limelight on account of the tribal, religious, linguistic and ethnic pluralities in Iran. Also, different languages and dialects such as Farsi, Baluchi, Kurdish and Azeri, as well as the existence of Shi'ism and Sunnism indicate indigenous pluralism in the country.

As enshrined in paragraph 8 of article 3 of the Constitutional law, the government is duty-bound to secure the participation of the entire people in determining their political, economic, social, and cultural fate.

Article 6 also states, “In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the affairs of the country must be administered on the basis of public opinion expressed by the means of elections, including the election of the President, the representatives of the Islamic Consultative Assembly, and the members of councils, or by means of referenda in matters specified in other articles of this Constitution.”

Although pluralism is intrinsic to the Iranian society, it has not been a hindrance to unity; rather, it has consolidated the Iranian solidarity and identity. History shows that any prosperous government in Iran has been capable of embracing all the existing heterodox groups; otherwise, it has encountered a crisis whenever the political axis was riveted upon a certain social group.

By virtue of the same reason, article 12 of the Constitution states, “The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Ja'fari school [in usual al-Din and fiqh], and this principle will remain eternally immutable. Other Islamic schools, including the Hanafite, Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Zaydi, are to be accorded full respect, and their followers are free to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites.

These schools enjoy official status in matters relevant to religious education, affairs of personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance, and wills) and related litigation in courts of law. In regions of the country where Muslims following any one of these schools of fiqh constitute the majority, local regulations, within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils, are to be in accordance with the respective school of fiqh, without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.”

Also, article 13 of the Constitution states that the Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities who are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.

Despite the plurality of tribes, all heterodox groups have suffered a crisis during the critical periods. The necessity of such a unity has been long known to be the creation of an all-embracing government; however, whenever such a government has sought to limit the national identity to a part and/or to ignore the existing ethnic and regional plurality, it has suffered a crisis.

The Safavid government can be counted as one such example as depriving people of political participation. Although the Safavid government built consolidated borders for Iran, it considered only one important segment thereof, i.e. Shiite identity, because of the limitation of Iranian identity and lost a remarkable set of components of the political society through ignoring other aspects of the Iranian identity.

In the Safavid period, the government was limited to the Shiite government. So, the Sunnite Kurds who made up a large portion of the Iranian society found the federal government alien; consequently, the Ottoman government availed themselves of this opportunity to segregate a wide part of Kurdistan from Iran.

The fall of the Safavid government may be chiefly attributed to the limitation of Iranian identity. The Afghan society-apparently neglected during the Safavid period-took advantage of the Safavid King Hussein's weaknesses and launched an offensive on the Iranian capital from the eastern part with the fatwas of the Saudi Sunnite Ulama.

As opposed to the Safavids, there stood the broad-based government of Nader Shah which due to the presence of such ethnic tribes as Fars, Baluch, Kurd, Arab, etc. in his army, he managed to occupy Baghdad and Caucasus regions and maraud through India in a short time although it was considered as a military government by some. With no praise for Nader Shah's plundering and marauding, reference should only be made to his critical role in the reformation of a broad-based government; a role which caused him to be accepted as the political leader by all Iranian heterodox groups.

Fundamentally, in the traditional government of Iran which was qualified for the traditional participation, there was a King in the centre, and the tribes and their heads participated in this government; but with the advent of Reza Shah, the mentioned listing, i.e. the relatively decentralized government and traditional participation completely collapsed and the different aspects of modern government were gradually formed by suppressing the centrifugal groups in Iran.

The authoritarian government survived regardless of the Iranian pluralism until the 1979 Islamic Revolution; and temporary changes could not shake its pillars. The fifty-year reign of Pahlavi regime showed that the Iranian society could have been deeply vulnerable if its native pluralism had not been reflected in the established governments. In other words, expansion of political participation in contemporary era is deemed as a national necessity.

Fortunately, the Constitution has largely catered necessary tools for political participation. Article 19, for instance, stipulates that all people of Iran regardless of their ethnic group or tribe enjoy equal rights; color, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.

On the other hand, apart from the nationality, sex has not been considered as a privilege either. According to article 20 of the Constitution, “All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

As to the freedom of expression, article 23 provides that, “The investigation of individuals' beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”

Publications and the press have freedom of expression according to article 24. Besides the publications and press activities, the formation of parties, societies, political or professional associations, as well as religious societies, whether Islamic or pertaining to one of the recognized religious minorities, is permitted.

No one may be prevented from participating in the aforementioned groups, or be compelled to participate in them according to article 26. In addition, article 27 provides, “public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried.”

Therefore, the Islamic Republic Constitution accords special attention to the participation objectives and provides legitimate grounds for its implementation. On the other hand, in order to impede governmental violations against the active civil and political groups, the Constitution formulates some articles to guarantee the protection of these freedoms.

For example, according to article 25, “the inspection of letters and the failure to deliver them, the recording and disclosure of telephone conversations, the disclosure of telegraphic and telex communications, censorship, or the willful failure to transmit them, eavesdropping, and all forms of covert investigation are forbidden, except as provided by law”.

On the other hand, article 38 states, “All forms of torture for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information are forbidden.” According to article 39, “all affronts to the dignity and repute of persons arrested, detained, imprisoned, or banished in accordance with the law, whatever form they may take, are forbidden and liable to punishment.”

In general, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran claims that innocence is to be presumed, (article 37) and no one is to be held guilty of a charge unless his or her guilt has been established by a competent court.

Ismail Salami is the author of 'Iran Cradle of Civilization' and numerous articles on the Middle East and Asia.


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