Since late December, protestors across Iran have been inveighing against a range of privations, from the price of eggs to unpaid back wages. Women took off their head-scarfs and waived them as an expression of dissent. And although the demonstrations are at a lull right now, we should expect them to flare up again.
Elsewhere I’ve argued that Iranians don’t want Western-style democracy—but neither do they want to live under an oppressive regime. Often, that binary choice is the only one we as a superpower present to the world. The political systems of societies have varied over time, and we can frustrate and impede nations by making it seem like these are the only alternatives. Historically, peoples have found ways to have meaningful and prosperous lives, enjoying some fruits of liberty outside of Enlightenment-inspired liberal democracies.
So what can we reasonably expect liberty to look like in Iran, and possibly other areas in the Middle East? What is the road to liberty at this stage of Iran’s political history? First let us consider the current state of things there, especially with respect to human rights.
According to the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, under Iran’s penal code, the proselytization of Muslims is punishable by death, as is insulting the Prophet Muhammad, as is an offense called “enmity against God.” Muslims are not permitted to renounce or change their religion. The Iranian constitution recognizes Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians but not the Bahá’ís or other minority religious groups. People can be arrested for “insulting Islam.” The government harasses, interrogates, and regularly incarcerates members of minority groups, including Sunni Muslims. At the level of what we might call soft persecution (this happened to our family in Iraq as well), higher education and employment opportunities are interfered with and sometimes outright denied to members of religious minorities. Social discrimination toward anyone who is not a Shia Muslim is an everyday occurrence.
It is also common knowledge in the West that women in Iran experience discrimination, most fundamentally in the fact that men and women are unequal before the law. Women face a skewed legal system when it comes to the weight given to their testimony in court, and their rights within marriage, divorce, child custody, travel, and inheritance. Then there are the rules—some areas of the nation being more restrictive than others—on what a woman can wear in public, and the barring of women from earning certain university degrees.
In light of this situation, what would we expect a modest step toward liberty to look like?
The first step, properly understood, would be acknowledging the truth of a given situation: The government of Iran rejects the truth of human dignity by harassing its citizens, trampling on their human rights, and demeaning women and minorities. After all, it is the truth that sets an individual and society free from tyranny—whether it be enslavement to one’s own appetites or the appetites and whims of others.
Suppression of truth allows for a degenerated view of the human person to become the norm. Once that happens, it’s easier for the rulers to mistreat the ruled, as well as for the ruled to mistreat each other. As Vaclav Havel said in The Power of the Powerless (1979):
In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie.
The people in Iran are currently living within the lie perpetuated by their clerics and their government; what we’re seeing with these demonstrations are people who are no longer willing to live within the lie. When Iran’s rulers decide to look on their people with compassion, and see them as people—as their people, deserving basic rights and fundamental freedoms, only then can the movement toward liberty progress.
As Havel put it, “the attempt at political reform was not the cause of society’s reawakening, but rather the final outcome of that reawakening.” Thus the goal of these demonstrations should be to make it impossible for the regime to deny the humanity of Iranians, and their needs.
The most grievous aspect of the situation in Iran, and the Middle East as a region, is that there are wonderful people living there who have untapped potential. The land is rich and beautiful, full of latent possibilities. But the road to a modest modernization initiative that could open up these countries in a way that would not compromise their religious beliefs and Muslim identity, is only through the path of the dignity of the human person.
George Weigel’s 1992 book The Final Revolution described Pope John Paul II’s role in triggering, in Poland, a “revolution of conscience—a revolution of the human spirit.” Citing the words of the Polish dissident Adam Michnik, that “People who begin by storming Bastilles end up building their own,” Weigel explains how Poland gained its freedom from communism and how the Warsaw Pact dissolved without the violence seen in other such monumental political changes.
In just this way, the Middle East needs a revolution of conscience. Only a moral revolution can bring lasting and well-rooted liberty. Given the bloodiness of the wars in the Middle East, what the West and we in America should be encouraging is not exploitation of the Iranian regime (which is what Bret Stephens suggested recently in the New York Times), nor the might of the mob to overthrow their government, but rather moral power.
What is moral power? Here is Weigel again, from his latest book Lessons in Hope:
The power of moral argument and moral witness to bend the course of events in a more humane direction, through the work of individuals (and not only Catholics) who are persuaded by those arguments and moved by that witness.
Strong men overthrowing reigning strong men has been tried and found wanting. The road to liberty in Iran, and throughout the Middle East, is through the moral power contained in the truth that the human person, made in the Imago Dei, is inherently noble by virtue of being human and cannot be ill-treated with impunity. This truth has toppled empires. There is no reason to think that it cannot find soil in which to grow in the Middle East.