Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 29, No.6

November 18, 2004


Reformers must learn how to win Iranian hearts and minds

Bana Qabbani and Aram Nerguizian

Apathy is the greatest impediment to achieving democracy in Iran, said several scholars at a recent conference.

“Apathy is the primary political ally of the [authoritarian] regime,” said Rex Brynen, political science professor and chair of the Middle East studies program at McGill. “People engage in economic activities and get on with their lives, but they fail to engage in politics in any meaningful way.”

Democratic reform and political participation were the central themes of the conference, held on Nov. 5 under the title Democratization in the Middle East: Lessons From and For Iran.

Kaveh Ehsani, a researcher at the University of Illinois, Chicago, is a member of the editorial board of Middle East Report and Goftogu, a leading intellectual journal in Iran.

He said the only way secular and religious reformers can regain popular trust is through a deeper understanding of how power is organized and exercised. “We have to start thinking about democratizing civil society itself.”

He said the reform movement that arose after the 1997 presidential elections empowered the Iranian people. It put the reformers in the forefront of debates about the role of “political Islam” and introducing a new democratic discourse that stressed the rule of law and accountability. However, the reformers were defeated in the spring elections of 2004.

Ali Rezaei, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Calgary, talked about the reformers’ poor strategy and lack of organization at the grassroots level. He believed that the reformists demoralized Iranians in the short term because they couldn’t relate to ordinary people’s concerns. “When security and bread are the main issues, democracy is not.”

According to Brynen, both scholars had presented aspects of Iran’s political situation, but in the broader context of the Middle East, “we find very little evidence of a fundamental political cultural antipathy or incompatibility with democratic politics.” Despite repression, reformist views and democratic discourse were becoming more apparent.

Yale University professor Stathis Kalyvas talked about the role played by the international community in fostering democratization in the Middle East. He said making human rights the primary issue is the only practical alternative to addressing political reform in the region.

The conference, part of the Peace and Conflict Resolution Series, was organized by political science professor Arang Keshavarzian, and drew an audience of about 160.

Asked whether Iran could be a democracy in 10 years, Keshavarzian was cautious. “It is fairly reasonable to expect that Iran’s political system approximating a democracy, but not a consolidated one.”

The next event in the Peace and Conflict Resolution series is “The History of the Holocaust in Norway,” bypsychologist Berit Reisel, tonight at 4:15 in room H-415. More details at