Western media coverage of Islam and the “Middle East” regularly dismisses any possibility of meaningful participatory politics outside the frame of western liberal democracy. When the West faces a challenge such as that posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or al-Qaeda before that, most western elites fall back on the notion that the only long-term solution is the (externally supported) consolidation of secular politics in the Muslim world.
But, even if one assumes that liberal democracy truly exists, it is, historically, a uniquely western phenomenon which has never gained real traction in Muslim societies. Like other people, Muslims want a say in shaping the political life of their societies. But they want the frame for participatory politics to be authentic – meaning, for most Muslims, grounded in Islam, not in alien notions of “separating religion and state”. So far, only one political order in the Middle East is enjoying appreciable success in providing participatory Islamist governance to its people – the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The West cannot bring itself to admit this. Looking at the coverage of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s successful prostate surgery in the western media, one cannot help but smile at the often twisted loathing directed towards him and the political order he leads. The BBC, which is usually a bit more sophisticated than other western outlets in attempting to conceal its animosity, reporting on the surgery stated that his personal life is kept “a secret topic in Iran”; only the “critical situation in Iran and the region” forced him to be more open and announce the news of his operation. In another report, the BBC implied that Ayatollah Khamenei is unpopular and that Iranians were critical about the high level of care provided to him in the hospital.
The fact that Ayatollah Khamenei was operated on in a public hospital and that an earlier operation in 1991 on his gall bladder was also publicly announced, is inconsistent with the BBC narrative. Likewise, the sheer number of people who have turned up (and continue to turn up) at his public appearances during his quarter-century as leader casts doubt that he and the Islamic Republic are anywhere near as unpopular as the BBC indicates. That the Ayatollah’s wife, four sons, and two daughters are not celebrities, high ranking politicians, or involved in business may make his personal life seem a bit uneventful, but that does not make it a “secret topic”, just different from western norms.
Endless western attempts to destabilise the Iranian political model have ended in failure – and today … the Islamic Republic is now leading the region’s struggle against extremism and emerging global powers increasingly recognise this.
Western mythology notwithstanding, the reality is that, despite decades of irrational western hostility and violence, the Islamic Republic has indeed evolved into the region’s “island of stability”. Ironically, this phrase was first used in a toast in Tehran by the former US President Jimmy Carter to describe a very different sort of Iran: Iran, Carter said in 1978, “because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”
A year later the shah fled the country, amid a popular revolution in which a key slogan was “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic.”
In recent years, other political figures in West Asia and North Africa considered “great leaders” in western eyes have met similar fates. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once praised Tunisian dictator Zein El Abidine Ben Ali for the “progress” he had made in advancing prospects for Tunisia’s youth. At the height of the January 2011 protests in Cairo, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as “immensely courageous and a force for good”.
Popular demands for change have already brought down much of the Middle East’s older order, but there are few signs of anything more than a provisional, shaky stability. Making matters worse, when client regimes began failing or showing serious instability, oil-rich monarchies, with western coordination and support, funded rebel groups in Libya and Syria, violating international law and dragging the Middle East towards further decline and collapse.
Of course, state-funded militancy is not a new phenomenon. In the 1980s the United States cooperated with the Saudi and Pakistani governments to promote, train, and arm the mujahedeen “freedom fighters” to fight the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. During and after this struggle, a number of countries invested heavily in religious schools and other outlets across the Muslim world, spending billions of dollars each year to export an extremist ideology.
As a result – and with the West’s silent approval – this extremism has grown into a powerful force that casts its shadow upon many parts of the world. After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was supported by almost all regional states except Iran, funding from a number of these countries again flowed to extremist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda – this time in Iraq, to undermine the new Iraqi political order.
Events in Yemen, Bahrain, and Egypt underline that the remnants of the old order cannot last much longer. However, what is currently on offer in the Arab world has so far brought neither great optimism nor social cohesion. In Egypt, regardless of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the July 2013 coup, the fact remains that the Muslim Brotherhood failed to develop a model of participatory politics capable of accommodating public needs in accordance with indigenous values.
The Brotherhood’s historic failure has helped fuel the rise of a takfiri (apostate) governance model. This model has evolved from al-Qaeda to groups like al-Nusra Front, the Islamic Front in Syria, and ultimately the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The evolution reflects the ideology’s utilisation by western and regional countries for strategic purposes in countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Today, not only has ISIL turned into a global terrorist threat; it has become an existential threat to countries that have traditionally advocated its underlying ideology and are now a part of a new US-led coalition.
The single force that has blocked this emerging threat from imposing its hegemony from Damascus to Baghdad – perhaps even from Beirut to Riyadh – is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Endless western attempts to destabilise the Iranian political model have ended in failure – and today, as a result of illegal western support for extremists in Syria and continued violation of its sovereignty, the Islamic Republic is now leading the region’s struggle against extremism and emerging global powers increasingly recognise this.
After Ayatollah Khamenei’s surgery was announced, life in Iran continued normally – not merely because the public was assured their leader was in excellent health, but also because an elected constitutional body, the Assembly of Experts, which is charged with electing the country’s highest authority, had already shown its effectiveness years ago by quickly and successfully choosing Ayatollah Khamenei to succeed Imam Khomeini as leader.
Western media outlets and human rights organisations would serve themselves better by toning down their unrelenting caricature of Iran, and by engaging in some self-reflection concerning their Syria narrative. If they did, the West might even manage to get some better policies.
Seyed Mohammad Marandi is professor of North American Studies and dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran.