Recently, I ran in MRZine an excerpt from the latest World Public Opinion poll ("Public Opinion in Iran: With Comparisons to American Public Opinion," 7 April 2008) about Iranians' perceptions of their government: "What Do Iranians Think of Their Own Government?" (12 April 2008).
The poll results, which showed a high level of popular support for the government as well as Iranians' desire to make it more democratic, are very much contested by a number of Iranians on the far Left, for whom Iran is a republic of fear whose citizens cannot possibly reveal their true opinions frankly to any pollster. Iranian far leftists would rather believe: "A silent majority exists in Iran and beneath that silence lies a deep hatred for this regime" (Mohammad Alireza, "Are You Prepared for Some Truth?" Iranian.com, 15 March 2008).
Now, capitalism, based on ineradicable contradiction between capital and labor, cannot but breed latent discontent with exploitation and other oppressions that it creates or aggravates, not just in Iran but in all countries, including ones run by socialists. That, however, doesn't mean that such latent discontent is everywhere always close to the surface, about to erupt into an articulate mass opposition to the regime in power but for political repression.
Under all but revolutionary circumstances,1 discontent doesn't easily crystalize into a feeling as clear, simple, and powerful as "hatred." Rather, popular consciousness is very much complex. If Iranian leftists take a close look at the complexity of popular consciousness, rather than thinking without evidence that most Iranians, albeit silently, already stand where they stand, they can find in it much they can work with.
One of the notable findings of the aforementioned World Public Opinion poll, contradictory as it may seem from a typical leftist point of view, is that Iranians are largely in favor of both sharia (Islamic law) and gender equality (see pp. 24 and 26, excerpted below). The findings suggest that a majority of Iranians interpret Islamic law in a way that is promising for a Left that is not Islamophobic: as a populist ideological weapon against capitalist excesses rather than as a means to rigidly curtail personal freedom -- except in such areas as drinking, gambling, and prostitution, the latter two of which most socialists generally do not favor -- and severely punish social transgressions. Far from a basis to discriminate against women, Islamic law as it is interpreted by most Iranians, men as well as women, may very well be a standard of judgment according to which the government is not doing enough to promote gender equality.
The word sharia brings to the minds of typical Westerners only gender discrimination that exists in the dominant interpretations of it in the area of family law. Hence sensational sharia controversies in such nations as Britain and Canada, on the grounds that sharia is incompatible with liberalism. As a matter of fact, though, historically, liberalism has accommodated sharia, for instance in the name of inter-communal equality, by allowing religious minorities to put sharia into practice in the aspects of social existence such as family law where sharia presents no threat to its material and cultural underpinnings, for example in India, which is nowadays promoted by the empire as a model of Third-World liberal democracy.
If modern religions in many nations often seem more obsessed with sex than social and economic justice (to the chagrin of religious leftists and to the schadenfreude of many secular liberals and leftists), even though many of the texts regarded as sacred by them have much more to say about the latter than the former, that is because capitalist modernity allows religion to flourish only as a guardian of personal morality, abdicating its claim to be a principle that governs a whole way of life, just as it tends to reduce Marxism from a social movement aiming at communist society to a research method in academia.
Sharia ideologically challenges liberalism and materially limits capitalism only if it becomes a principle of Islamic republican liberty and virtue, as it did in justifying sweeping nationalization of private means of production in the early days of Iran's Islamic Revolution (the nationalization that went much further than Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution has gone and is likely to go -- we live in different times2).
Since then the Islamic Republic has become less and less Islamic, both for better and worse: it has gradually moved away from Islamic republican liberty and virtue, slowly liberalizing culture and society and re-privatizing the means of production, especially since the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Iranian leftists, in Iran as well as in the diaspora, have yet to figure out a coherent response to this Janus-faced tendency of the neoliberal stage of capitalism, which brings social and cultural liberalization in part as a byproduct of economic liberalization, not just as a response to pressures, inside and outside the state, from below. Listening carefully to what ordinary Iranians have to say about Islam, I submit, is the first step in creating an alternative that is conscious of the limits of both populism and liberalism and potentially capable of overcoming them.
1 The intertwined energy and food crises that are rapidly developing on the global scale have the potential to create uprisings that can topple all manner of governments in the Third World, across the ideological spectrum, especially of countries that neither produce oil nor have sought to develop agriculture. See, for instance, Sateh Noureddine, "Food Crises" (As-Safir, 8 April 2008). Inflation in Iran today is a relatively mild symptom of this global malaise. Iran's Islamo-Leninists learned a lesson from what the neglect of agriculture did to the Shah's regime: Iran, once a food exporter, became a food importer under the Shah, and higher world food prices in the 1970s, due to higher energy prices and poor Soviet harvests, aggravated people's discontent (cf. Robert K. Schaeffer, Understanding Globalization: The Social Consequences of Political, Economic, and Environmental Change, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, p. 258); and they have taken care to develop it as much as they can in an oil state: "Follow-up of the Implementation of the World Food Summit Plan of Action, National Report: Islamic Republic of Iran" (7 May 2006). Iran has achieved self-sufficiency in wheat -- just in time for the world food crisis -- and can now even export surplus, for instance to Egypt: Will Hadfield, "Grain Exports in Iran Set to Double with State Support" (14 March 2008). Whether that, combined with high oil prices, suffices for regime stability remains to be seen.
2 Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval write in "The Venezuelan Economy in the Chávez Years": "As can be seen in Table 1, the private sector has grown faster than the public sector over the last 8 years, and therefore the private sector is a bigger share of the economy in 2007 than it was before President Chávez took office" (July 2007, p. 6). In contrast, one neoliberal critic of Iran put it disapprovingly: "Semi-official estimates put the private-sector share of the national economy at between 15 to 20 percent. This made the Islamic state a mixed capitalist-socialist economy predominantly under clerical control" (Akbar Karbassian, "Islamic Revolution and the Management of the Iranian Economy," Social Research, Summer 2000). That is the aspect of Iran's Islamic Revolution that not only the empire but also Iran's own ruling class, committed to re-privatization of nationalized means of production, has been seeking to undo.
What Do Iranians Think of Sharia and Women's Rights?
Large majorities of Iranians endorse the principle that women should have equal rights with men and that over the course of their own lifetimes, women have gained greater rights. A large majority says that the government should act to prevent discrimination against women. A modest majority also supports the United Nations working to further women’s rights.
Three out of four Iranians say it is important for "women to have full equality of rights compared to men," with 44 percent saying this is very important. Very few (8%) said this was "not very important" or "not important at all."
Most Iranians believe that the government has a responsibility to counteract discrimination against women. Asked, "Do you think the government should make an effort to prevent discrimination against women, or that the government should not be involved in this kind of thing?" 70 percent said government should make such an effort, and only 18 percent said government should not be involved.
Those who said that government should make an effort to prevent discrimination against women were then asked, "Do you think the government is doing enough to prevent discrimination…or do you think it should do more?" The larger number (36% of the full sample) said the government should be doing more than it is, while a quarter (of the full sample) thought the government is doing enough.
A modest majority supports the United Nations working to further women's rights -- even when given a counterargument implying that this could be intrusive for Iran. Asked whether "the UN should make efforts to further the rights of women, or do you think this is improper interference in a country’s internal affairs?" Fifty-two percent supported the UN taking such a role, while 36 percent saw it as a form of interference.
Interestingly, differences between men and women on these questions were quite modest. The number of men and women saying that that women should have full equality were statistically the same, though the percentage saying this is very important was higher among women (51%) than men (38%). While men and women are largely the same in perceiving that women have gained greater equality, 46 percent of men as compared to 33 percent of women thought women have gained much greater equality. Thirty-nine percent of women and 33 percent of men thought the government should make greater efforts against discrimination. There was no meaningful difference between men and women in their support for the United Nations playing a role to further women’s rights.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Only a small minority wants to reduce the role of Shari'a in the way Iran is governed, but only one in three favor increasing its role. Only one in three favor punishing an Iranian who converts from Islam to another religion. The highest priorities in the application of Shari’a are preventing usury and providing welfare to the poor. Applying severe physical punishments is a low priority, but still endorsed by half.
When asked whether "Shari'a should play a larger role, a smaller role, or about the same role as it plays today" in the way Iran is governed, only 14 percent wanted Shari’a to play a smaller role. However, only a third wanted it to play a larger role (34%). Nearly half preferred to hold the status quo on Shari’a (45%).
Only one in three Iranians favor punishing an Iranian Muslim who converts to another religion. Asked, "Do you think that the government should or should not punish an Iranian citizen who converts from Islam to a non-Muslim religion?" 32 percent said the government should, while 50 percent said it should not.
Respondents who said, in the question discussed above, that Shari'a should play either the same or a larger role in Iranian governance -- 79 percent of the whole sample -- were presented six aspects of the application of Shari'a' and asked for each, “how important is [this] for the government to do?"
The highest priorities in the application of Shari’a are preventing usury and providing welfare to the poor. A 51 percent majority (of the full sample) called "preventing usury" very important, and another 16 percent said it was somewhat important. Nearly as many (48%) said "providing welfare to the poor" was very important, and another 20 percent said it was somewhat important. Forty-six percent also said "making education and healthcare available to all" was very important in applying Shari'a (somewhat: 22%).
Anti-vice aspects of Shari’a also received high ratings. Highest was "punishing those who consume alcoholic beverages in public" (45% very important, 22% somewhat), followed by "policing moral behavior such as gambling and prostitution" (43% very important, 22% somewhat).
The lowest priority was assigned to "applying severe physical punishments to people convicted of certain crimes." Only 22 percent called this very important (28% somewhat important). Overall, though, severe physical punishments were still endorsed by half.
This article is an excerpt (pp. 24 and 26) from "Public Opinion in Iran: With Comparisons to American Public Opinion," a WorldPublicOpinion.org Poll conducted in partnership with Search for Common Ground and Knowledge Networks, 7 April 2008. "The poll of Iranians was conducted with a randomly selected sample of 710 Iranian adults, from rural as well as urban areas, January 13-February 9, 2008. The margin of error is +/-3.8 percent. Interviews were conducted in every province of Iran. Professional Iranian interviewers conducted face-to-face interviews in Iranian homes. Within each community, randomly selected for sampling, households were chosen according to international survey methods that are standard for face-to-face interviewing. In some cases, a respondent did not want to be interviewed because the interviewer was of the opposite sex. Interviewers then offered to either reschedule the interview for a time when the male head of household would be present, or to have an interviewer of the same sex visit. The poll questionnaire was developed in consultation with experts on Iran as well as the Iranian polling firm. In addition to the poll, focus groups were conducted in Tehran with representative samples of Iranians" ("Public Opinion in Iran," pp. 3-4). The questionnaire and methodology is available at <worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/apr08/Iran_Apr08_quaire.pdf>. See, also, "Iranians Oppose Producing Nuclear Weapons, Saying It Is Contrary to Islam: But Most Insist on Iran Producing Nuclear Fuel," WorldPublicOpinion.org, 7 April 2008; "Iranians Favor Direct Talks with US on Shared Issues, Mutual Access for Journalists, More Trade," WorldPublicOpinion.org, 7 April 2008; Jim Lobe, "Iranian Public Sees Reduced U.S. Threat," Inter Press Service, 7 April 2008.