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An Atheist’s Defense of the Iranian Revolution

June 22, 2009

I know this might come as a surprise, but I’m not religion’s biggest fan.

I don’t mean to build “religion” into some monolithic straw man here, but for the purposes of examining theocratic governments, it’s hard not to draw broad conclusions across a range of orthodoxies whose individual tenets may bear little resemblance to one another.  Catholic Medieval Europe, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Imperial Japan – the history of nations ruled by those to claim to be “God’s Inner Circle” is a depressingly familiar narrative of repression, war, and/or genocide.

And so as much as I stand behind the Iranian protestors, I find myself fighting an instinctual cringe now and again as I read the updates coming in.  One need only to listen Mousavi’s recent speeches, his constant references to upholding the values of 1979 Islamic Revolution, or hear the crowds chanting “Allah O Ackbar” to know that a successful revolution here does not mean the (usually) secular, classical-liberal democracy we’re used to in the West.  An Iran under Mousavi would still be subject to a council of ayatollahs (though likely less so, given the level of corruption apparent in their ranks in the aftermath of the “election”).

But, what we’re seeing in Iran is the rejection of the idea that an Islamic government is necessarily an Islamic dictatorship.  Certain tenets of an Islamic government may be abhorrent to people like me who reject religion outright and who believe that any mixture of religion and government, Islamic or otherwise, is a volatile and unsound compound.  But you know what? 

I’m not an Iranian.

And that means I don’t get a say.  And that’s something Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz et. al. didn’t understand, and still don’t.

At the heart of democracy is not liberty or freedom or any of those words we build monuments to in our national capitals.  At the heart of democracy is the idea of self-determination – that a group of people, gathered together in a social contract for mutual betterment, have the right to draw up for themselves the terms of that contract.  And what we’re seeing, for the first time in the modern history of the Middle East, is a people rise up to demand democracy on their own terms.  We are seeing millions of human beings making a collective decision independent of the will of autocrats or the threats of foreign guns.  If they are successful – and I hope that they are – we in the West might not like all of the aspects of this new Iranian Republic.  And that’s OK.  We won’t have to agree with Iran – but we will have to respect them. 

And a working relationship with a Islamic republic based on mutual respect?  That would be historic – not to mention possibly al Qaeda’s worst nightmare.

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