Lessons from recent history for Middle Eastern nations in turmoil
On the anniversary of the first Asian constitutional revolution resulting from a movement in Iran between the years 1905-1909, it is imperative to note that this monumental triumph taught a painful lesson to the people struggling for equality and equity some 120 years after the American Constitution. That is, democracy cannot exist without a nationalist, secular government.
Unlike the American Framers, the Iranian constitutional leaders at the time were not comprised of lawyers trained in the best of universities faced with humanism, jurisprudence and religious reformations.
The Iranians, who forged a concept they barely understood, were inspired by their ancient sense of nationalism and native philosophy based on wisdom and justice. The small group of Iranians abroad at the time provided ideas, information and funds to push the general population towards advancement. But the people on the frontline, who ultimately sacrificed, were not strong enough or sufficiently informed to know that certain conditions were critical, and if not embedded early on as part of the young constitution, institutions would be difficult to change later on.
When the movement began in 1905 ending in the first constitutional grant on August 5, 1906, Iranians were in the midst of nationwide illiteracy, ignorance, extreme political and economic restraints, poor healthcare, foreign encroachment and social injustices.
In general, the incompetent Qajar monarchs (1785-1925) did not care about the conditions of the country or the welfare of the people. They were clueless or indifferent to the major changes that were taking place in Europe. They plunged the country into great debt to pay for their extravagance, and gave away outrageous concessions mostly to the British and Russians at the expense of the majority of Iranians, given that a middle class was non-existent. They also lost major territories by advancing terrible foreign policies egged on by the ignorant clergymen.
It is fair to say that one of the main reasons Iran found itself in such a predicament at the time is because since the 7th century invasion of the Arab Muslims only a few dynasties in the subsequent 1200 plus years were actually secular nationalists, and most were of non-Iranian decent.
Even though some of these dynasties became “Persianized” and supported revival of the Persian arts, they were more concerned with advancement of Islam in either Sunni or Shiite form than anything else. And when forward-thinking men rose above this whirlpool of backwardness such as Prime Ministers Ghaem Magham Farahani (1779-1835) and Amir Kabir (1807-1852), they were terminated. The Qajar environment of the Constitutional Revolution era was no different.
So by early 1906, popular uprisings supported by the merchant class and some of the clergymen, who were always struggling with the monarchy for power, demanded a constitution to lower the king’s power, minimize the courtiers’ fringe benefits, restore domestic economic power, reduce influence of foreign powers, etc. All sounds good, right?
Well, there was a catch! Many of the leaders of the constitutional movement were pushing for one based on Sharia laws. After several years of grass-roots efforts and having to shed blood fighting anti-constitutional government and foreign forces, the people succeeded at getting the constitution reinstated in 1909, but an Islamic version.
The constitution ended up giving a group of five clergymen the power to veto proposals by the Parliament if they did not follow Islamic laws. Islam could not be brought under question and any publication against it would be banned. This was the only way the majority of the clergy would continue supporting the movement.
But as destiny would have it, a new nationalist and secular dynasty took power from the lethargic and useless Qajars. The Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) tried to put aside the religious parts of the constitution it had inherited as much as possible, and forged modernization and progress in full force despite opposition. Under the Pahlavis, the subsequent 1963 referendum to the defective 1906 Constitution granting women voting rights and banning feudalism infuriated the clergy.
Unfortunately, many Iranians, who studied abroad in Western secular nations during the 1950-1970s, were either ignorant of the provisions in European and American constitutions, or disregarded them to suit personal ideological beliefs. That is, many of the new generation of educated Iranian political activists and intellectuals were not secular nationalists. They were attracted to Marxism, Islamism or a warped mixture rather than Iranianism.
In 1979, these political activists supported and encouraged an Islamic Republic resulting in the overthrow of a secular regime replaced by a supersonic Islamic Constitution and a “Representative of God on Earth” as head of the new government. The legacy of this damaging political mentality can still be seen in some Iranians in exile whom shockingly while living in secular free nations ignore the pre-Islamic Republic social advancements in Iran. This lack of common sense is particularly incomprehensible when verbalized by some Iranian women.
So what is the biggest lesson of the 20th century for Iran and its Middle Eastern neighbors in turmoil? Look at the constitution; look at the leadership; look at the bottom line. If political activists are encouraging the masses in supporting a government or leaders, who put an ideology above national interests, then there will be no democracy. And once an institution is formed, it will be difficult to change it.
So demand a secular, nationalist leadership and constitution! Stand by those, who believe in checks and balances to control power, as well as civil rights protection for all citizens including minorities.
Sheda Vasseghi is on the Board of Azadegan Foundation, and is a regular contributor to Freepressers.com and WorldTribune.com on Iran’s affairs. Join The Official Site of Sheda Vasseghi on Facebook.