Political Islam: The Case of Iran

By Masood, Adila | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2000 | Go to article overview
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Political Islam: The Case of Iran

Masood, Adila, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Eric Rouleau, former French ambassador to Turkey and Tunisia who was also Le Monde's Middle East correspondent for six years, spoke March 1 on "Political Islam" at the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine (CPAP) in Washington, DC. He described the latest landslide victory of the reformers in the Iranian elections as "a watershed in the country and a turning point." Having traveled and studied extensively in Iran, Ambassador Rouleau said it is creating a "new kind of Islam" in response to popular demand for reform of the government and society, and the establishment of democratic rule.

Among remarkable aspects of the elections were the impressive turnout of over 80 percent of eligible voters and the fact that 60 percent of the seats were won by reformers in the first round of voting, even before the second round of run-off elections. This continues the trend of the three major elections in the past three years, in all of which reformers received solid backing.

Ambassador Rouleau also pointed out that voters shunned the middle ground, casting most of their votes either for clear-cut reformers or conservatives. He said he believes that in Iran a trend is developing in which "Islam should adapt to the people, not the people adapt to Islam." Adhering to this principle was the very essence of the reformers' campaign.

"In their own indirect way the reformers were challenging the [existing] theocratic regimes," Rouleau said. Although everything that the reformers stood for was "secular," it was not expressed in secular terms. And unlike the general theme of most political campaigns in Iran, the reformers steadily avoided using the word Islam, as demonstrated by the campaign for a seat in the Majlis by Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the president's brother, who called for "freedom, equality and spirituality," with no direct mention of "Islam."

Rouleau said four key factors have given rise to this grassroots reform movement. First, a new generation in Iran, which grew up influenced more by the Internet and satellite television than by the revolution, now accounts for more than 70 percent of the voting public.

Second, the establishment of free schooling by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini raised the literacy rate to 85 percent, as compared to 40 percent under the shah.

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