A Thermidor of "Islamic Yuppies"? Conflict and Compromise in Iran's Politics

Article excerpt

Muhammad Khatami's election as president of Iran in May 1997 marked two important turning points in the Islamic Revolution: it inaugurated the overdue Thermidor of the Iranian Revolution by turning the politics of revolutionary Iran into politics as usual, with its own peculiar conflict and compromise; and it marked the emergence of a new generation in the Islamic movement in Iran who are here referred to as "Islamic Yuppies. " This article examines these two trends in context. It examines the encounter of modernity and tradition within Iran's Revolution, and maps various voices within the Islamic movement in Iran and their contribution to the complicated politics of post-revolutionary Iran.

There was a fundamental choice that day on 23 May 1997 when 83 percent of eligible Iranian voters went to the polls and elected the seventh president of Iran. A fault line was exposed. While there are many ways of defining Islam, and it is very difficult to generalize about the main features of the various Islamic movements, it seems that in the front line of Iranian politics, two differing approaches compete: that of Islamists and that of what we may refer to as "Islamic Yuppies." Whereas the former approach arises from an alliance of the traditional oligarchy and the revolting masses of the "downtrodden" class, the latter hails from the tradition of "Islamic reformism," and the middle class. The Islamists came out of the ideological politics of the 1960s, while the "yuppies" now emerge from the era of globalization at play in Iran and in the wider world of Islam. The election also may have marked the overdue "Thermidor" of the Iranian Revolution by turning the politics of revolutionary Iran into politics as usual in Iran, with its own peculiar conflict and compromise, like the Thermidorian reaction in the French Revolution.

The winner, Muhammad Khatami, a philosophy graduate and a cleric, obtained 70 percent of the votes. He won as the spokesperson of various groups and factions seeking normalcy, moderation, and republicanism, defeating the Speaker of the parliament, `Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, also a philosophy graduate and a cleric, who became the voice of the Islamist coalition during the election. This competition is best understood within the context of an Islamic pluralism, which has evolved within the history of the Islamic movement in Iran. This pluralism gave rise to political factions after the Revolution and particularly after the dissolution of the umbrella organization, the Islamic Republic Party, on 1 June 1987. The revision of the constitution in 1989 delineated the parameters of this pluralism. Only those who accept the principle of the "Guardianship of the Jurisconsult" (Velayat-e Faqih) are permitted to participate in the political process. For example, Ibrahim Yazdi, the leader of the Freedom Movement of Iran, refused to accept this condition in the last presidential election, thus guaranteeing his own disqualification. The powerful Council of Guardians, responsible for enforcement of this rule, disqualified not only Yazdi, but also 223 other candidates from participating in the 1997 presidential election.

There are four recognizable active factions in the politics of Iran today, divided between these two trends. All profess an Islamic identity and display "practical commitment" (eltezam-e 'amali) to the principles of the constitution. They are the Traditional Right (Rast-e Sonnati), the Modern Right (Rast-e Modern), the Left (Chap) and the Radical Right (Rast-e Efrati).' The first and the fourth groups form the Islamist coalition, while the second and third comprise the "Islamic Yuppies."2 Each is composed of smaller groups, publishes its own newspapers, and is supported by a host of prominent politicians and religious leaders. In the Iranian context, from right to left this spectrum extends from free market economics, social traditionalism, cultural conservatism, and religious juridicalism all the way to welfare-state economics, social modernism, cultural pluralism, and religious liberalism. …