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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 19:04 GMT 20:04 UK
Theocracy vs democracy
Iranian election posters
Iranians relish their democratic rights despite the setbacks to reform
BBC Iran analyst Baqer Moin considers efforts in Iran to settle a major historical debate among Muslims - can a modern, democratic system be devised for an Islamic republic?

Many attempts have been made in the past 100 years to reform age-old Islamic traditions, and to answer many questions posed by Muslims as a result of their contacts with the modern, or Western world.

Muslim thinkers overwhelmed by the Western technological and intellectual might have reacted in different ways.

Some have opted for resisting the West by using Western political tools, such as the media and political parties, without adopting political modernity.

President Mohammad Khatami
Khatami: Trying to make the political institutions more accountable
They have been calling for the formation of an Islamic rule, a theocracy, based more on obedience and allegiance and less on democracy. These people seek to preserve what they regard as the true Islam.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are Muslim intellectuals and thinkers who see no alternative but to understand the Western mind and the ways in which the West went through its religious, intellectual and political reforms.

They are looking for the best approach to peacefully modernise Islamic thinking.

Rule of God or rights of citizens

It was the input of these two groups which formulated the Iranian constitution in 1979 and agreed on the term "Islamic Republic".

The constitution has many contradictions on what constitute the rule of God and rights of citizens.

This constitution gives unparalleled power to the supreme leader, who is seen by the conservatives as God's representative on earth and, therefore, above all branches of power - the judiciary, the presidency and the parliament.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Khamenei's interventions have undermined elected institutions
Yet he is appointed by a group of some 90 clerics who are directly elected by the people. The supreme leader in theory can be sacked; but in practice he is not seen to be answerable to anybody.

In this constitution, there is also room for the president, who is elected every four years and is technically the head of the state.

Undermining the elected

But in this complex situation, the president is often undermined by non-elected bodies.

Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has intervened on behalf of the theocratic conservative forces on many occasions, in the process seriously undermining the country's elected institutions.

On one occasion he instructed the parliament to stop debating a press reform bill. This move was seen as a signal to the electorate that their votes count for little.

Election rally
The demands of the electorate for change are undiminished
Despite all this, the enthusiasm shown in Iran for elections, indicates the desire of Iranians to change the theocratic supremacy.

On the eve of his second term election campaign, President Mohammad Khatami openly expressed his unhappiness with the way in which conservative forces have been hiding under the banner of Islam to avoid criticism and accountability.

Reformist survive

Mr Khatami went further by suggesting relations between the supreme leader and other institutions should be regulated and a mechanism should be found to avoid periodic interventions into the affairs of the state.

The conservative theocratic forces in Iran have been successful in harassing, undermining, arresting and imprisoning those who want democracy, accountable government and an open society.

The conservatives have done all this at the expense of the very Islam they represent and, they say, they want to protect.

Even the conservatives admit that people's respect for official Islam has dwindled drastically.

The reformists have yet to formulate a cohesive strategy on how to reform Islam and bring about a democratic state.

However, their very survival in the past few difficult years, despite the disappointment shown by their supporters seeking quick results, have set the agenda in which the conservative are forced to pay lip service to democratic principles and present themselves to the electorate.

The theocratic forces have been making headlines by their assault on the reform movement, yet they have failed to set a long-term agenda for their own survival if containing the reformists is their only aim.

Muslims everywhere are watching Iran's experiment with Islamic democracy with keen interest.

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01 Jun 01 | Middle East
Iran election: People and policies
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