Islam, Modernization, and Democratization:
The Case of Iran
Shireen T. Hunter
Within the context of modernization and democratization, Iran occupies a special place among Muslim countries. The following factors account for this situation. First, Iran has achieved a certain degree of modernization without, however, actualizing its potential and while still suffering from many ills afflicting developing countries. Second, Iran had a popular constitutional revolution in 1905–6 and has since intermittently experienced parliamentary politics, though it has been highly flawed. Third, Iran has had a strong socialist intellectual and political tradition dating back to the late nineteenth century without ever having gone through a revolution and never having been ruled by a socialist government. Fourth, Iran has had an Islamic revolution and has tried to create an Islamic republic by combining elements of a Shari'a-based polity and society with concepts of republicanism and popular sovereignty. Fifth, since the early 1990s Iran has been undergoing profound cultural and intellectual changes reflected in a broad-based and spirited debate that encompasses issues such as Iran's national identity and its underpinnings, Iran's future political system, and the role of religion in politics, civil society, and democratization. An important aspect of this debate has been the emergence of a reformist and liberal Islamic discourse involving both clerical and lay figures.
Iran has not yet resolved the contradictions inherent in its dualistic form of government—Islamic and republican. Similarly, differences between the conservatives and the more reform-minded and liberal elements within its leadership and polity still remain, and it is not yet clear when and how these contradictions will be resolved.
Yet, irrespective of its outcome, Iran's experience has relevance and implications for other Muslim countries. Iran's history of modernization and efforts at democratization are also instructive as examples of the enabling or hindering con