Mehrdad Darvishpour is a well-known Iranian activist who began his political activities as a teenager speaking out against the Pahlavi regime and then against its successor, the Islamic Republic. At age 20, he was one of Iran’s youngest political analysts, writing about fundamentalist Islam as the main threat to democracy and freedom in the country. Prior to immigrating to Sweden in 1984, Dr. Darvishpour spent a year in Kurdistan, assisting in the Kurdish struggle for human rights. He received his Ph. D. in Sociology in Sweden and, in addition to his academic career, has been actively engaged in fighting for women’s rights, equality, free speech, and peace. In this interview, Dr. Darvishpour discusses the various options before those inside and outside Iran to affect positive change in the country.
Fazel Hosseini: Let us begin with an issue that has been central to the discussions of political and social activists: the techniques of applying pressure on the ruling regime in Iran to effect positive change. In your opinion, what kinds of pressures are “legitimate” versus “illegitimate”?
Mehrdad Darvishpour: I believe the following tools are most effective in forcing the Islamic Republic to abandon its current policies: unyielding diplomatic and political pressure and “smart” sanctions to force Iran to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council; consistently prioritizing human rights in Iran in the relationship between the Islamic Republic and foreign governments and the international community; the development of a policy to pressure, disengage with, and prosecute the leaders of the Islamic Republic; broad international support for the democratic struggles of Iranians and independent opposition forces; and legitimate pressure on the Iranian regime to retreat from its current anti-democratic policies.
I am against a military invasion of Iran and broad-based economic sanctions which, as in the case of Iraq, would inflict serious losses and damage onto civilians. I am also completely against placing an American puppet, such as Ahmad Chalabi, in power. This would be an inappropriate and illegitimate solution to the problem. It is the unalienable right of the Iranian people to determine their own fate and, at the same time, have the support of the international community. I also oppose any compromise with the Islamic regime that sacrifices the issue of human rights and leads to the further consolidation of the regime’s power.
Ignoring the Islamic Republic’s crucial role in creating the present crisis and its unwillingness to combine peace efforts with democracy can sabotage prospects for peace. Iran’s main problem is not nuclear energy but the existence of a fundamentalist government that threatens the world. While I reject both military invasion of Iran and the consolidation of the current regime, I am convinced that further increase of internal and international political pressure is the best way to resolve the present crisis and establish democracy and human rights in Iran. We have to do all we can to realize this third alternative. Allow me to express my position more clearly. This third alternative has nothing to do with the idealistic war of some opposition groups which, despite their conflicts with the Islamic Republic, make the struggle against hidden or visible imperialism their political priority – thus aligned themselves with the regime in practice. Confronted with militarism and Islamic fundamentalism, we should seek a third alternative which aims to establish democracy and human rights in Iran. We should not side with the Islamic Republic’s government against the escalation of international political pressure.
How serious is the danger of an American invasion of Iran? Do you think it is probable that Ahmadinejad will prompt the United States into attacking Iran as an instrument by which to mobilize popular support for himself?
Ahmadinejad as well as Khamenei and other leaders of the Islamic Republic are, step-by-step, paving the way for the realization of the dream of the neoconservatives in Bush’s administration. In my articles since February 2000, I have spoken about the danger of increasing militarism and Islamic fundamentalism in the region. I have warned that this could eventually lead to military invasion of Iran by the United States and further weaken the position of forces supporting democracy. I have hoped, and still hope, that I was wrong in my predictions, but all evidence points to the real danger of a military invasion. It is therefore absurd to presume that the situation is “normal,” because Islamic fundamentalism has been provoking a military invasion by its threats to make the world unsafe. Iran’s refusal to accept the U.N. Security Council resolution and its persistence in continuing its nuclear ambitions – as well as its underestimation of the impatience of the United States and Israel with a nuclear Iran and their power to prevent it – dramatically reduce the possibility of finding a peaceful solution to this crisis. The current policies of the Islamic Republic’s leaders have so far only increased the war-mongering of those who seek war and have been plotting for years to change the map of the Middle East by force. A strong Iran under the leadership of Islamic fundamentalists is their biggest nightmare. They have not learned anything from history. Despite the fact that we live in a postcolonial era, they claim they can modernize the Middle East by a return to the military solutions of the past. What they fail to realize is that the sum of their efforts has only intensified the crisis, anarchy, and fundamentalism in the region.
Thus, as the possibility of a political solution to Iran’s nuclear crisis fades, the danger of a military invasion becomes more pronounced. Under such circumstances, and despite the repeated denials of the Bush Administration, what miracle can prevent a military attack by the United States? This option is even more terrifying because the United States has been outspoken about “all possible options” being on the table after the passing of the Security Council deadline for Iran. But if these measures fail to compel the Islamic Republic to retreat, a military solution will find more supporters, at least inside the Bush administration, as the only viable solution.
The failure of America’s military policies in Iraq has given the Islamic Republic’s leaders the optimistic, but deadly, conviction that the United States will inevitably accept a nuclear Iran to avoid the dangers and costs of another military invasion. It is ironic that the government, which has consolidated its power through despotic repression, has forgotten that, a politically weak government can only be restored by military victory.
The increased isolation of Iran and the broad sanctions imposed on it is a result of the following: the Islamic Republic’s refusal to conform to the resolution of the United Nations; Iran’s interference with the internal affairs of the region’s countries; its threats to destroy Israel; and its indifference to the danger of war. Most importantly, these actions will give the United States the excuse it needs to launch a full scale military invasion in Iran. Every day brings us closer to war with the U.S. In order to prevent a catastrophic war, the international community especially the U.S. should engage politically, the Islamic Republic should backtrack from its positions, and supporters of peace inside Iran should assume an active role. The Islamic fundamentalists, who are not concerned with the fate of the Iranian nation, are preparing themselves to turn the whole region into another Iraq. While there is still time, the Iranian people and the international community should avoid war by pressuring the Islamic Republic to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations by suspending its uranium enrichment program.
One thing that perplexes me is why the opposition forces inside Iran are silent on this issue. We are witnessing that anti-war groups in the United States, whether within the broader context of society or in the Congress and Senate, are trying to thwart war-mongering policies. This indicates that they understand the gravity of the situation perfectly. On the other hand, the critics inside Iran of the Islamic Republic’s reckless policies seem more or less stagnant. Do they imagine that all this is psychological warfare? Perhaps they think time has run out anyway so any action would be in vain. Or worse, maybe they think a military invasion is the only way to end the existing problems in Iran! But all these are incorrect assumptions; the ultimate solution to the nuclear crisis and prevention of war is the establishment of democracy and human rights in Iran. In the name of national interest, the first step is to mobilize the whole society against the regime’s reactionary policies that have taken Iran to the verge of disaster.
We talked about politics. Your academic field is women’s studies. Let us combine these two subjects. In your view, what is the connection between political and gender conservatism?
Ample historical examples confirm that fundamentalists and conservatives of any faith –Islamic, Christian, or Jewish – support extreme patriarchies and have been the greatest enemies to women. As such, these groups, in their quest for support and votes, whether in the United States, Israel, Iran or other Middle Eastern countries, have declared blatant or covert war on women and their rights. Are not Christian fundamentalists and conservatives in the U.S. actively demanding restrictions on the rights of women, including their right to choose? Have we not witnessed the pain and suffering of women whenever Islamic fundamentalists have come to power in Iran, Algeria, Egypt, and Afghanistan? Basically, misogyny is part of the official ideology of political conservatism, especially religious fundamentalism. This ideology restricts women in the spheres of family, society and politics.
What role does the issue of gender play in fundamentalist politics?
The relationship between power and gender is a sociologically known one. Exerting power over women in society has been at the root of controlling the individual and imposing the totalitarian ideology and system. In their defense of pre-modern values, fundamentalists have placed particular emphasis on traditional female roles while promoting animosity toward modern women.
After their victory in 1979, the first step of the Islamic fundamentalists was making women wear veils and headscarves. In this way, they displayed their hostility towards modernity and belligerence against the West, as they gauged the extent of their power by the extent of the constraints they imposed on women. If you wish to measure how successful fundamentalism is in Egypt, you can simply compare the number of women who wear veils and scarves today with the numbers that did so in the past. We can also gauge the influence of Christian and Jewish fundamentalism in the United States and Israel respectively by evaluating the situation of women in these countries and the extent to which their rights have been neglected. In general, the extent of a society’s freedom can be measured in terms of the freedom it accords to women. Thus, the condition of women can reflect the structure of political power in society.
If Islamic fundamentalism in Iran has tried to show its teeth by marginalizing women, women have resisted these pre-modern values and rebuffed the regime’s encroachments on their lives. In this way, they present the main challenge to the Islamic system. In a world where Islamic fundamentalists with their blind terrorism and neoconservatives with their war-mongering bravura demonstrate the most brutal aspects of an authoritarian patriarchy, women as the main force of the peace movement guard pacifism and promote the role of peace in preserving human life and dignity. As I have mentioned many times before, women are the harbingers of transition and the agents of its deepening.
What do you think about Islamic feminism and its supporters? Do you think this movement can help to bring about progress? And how do you assess its future in general?
I was among those who, from the very beginning, warned against this movement. In an article that I presented at a conference of the Iranian Women’s Studies Foundation in Seattle in 1996 during the heyday of this movement in Iran, I criticized it severely, arguing that it reflected cultural relativism and challenged secular feminism.
The participation of Iranian women in the struggle for social justice has never been unified; this is especially true of the 1979 Revolution. If it was the educated, urban, middle-class, modern and secular women of our society who took part in the fight for democracy and justice since the Constitutional Revolution, another group of Iranian women served as soldiers of Islam in the social and political arena, particularly after the Revolution, by fervently upholding traditional and fundamentalist values.
Islamic feminism reflects a political Islamic identity. In fact, it has emerged in Iran as a kind of feminism that is endorsed and prescribed by the government. That is why Islamic feminists considered the preservation of “the essence of Islam” as their priority and, while rejecting outright any call for equality between men and women, argued that the demands of women should correspond to this “essence.” How progressive can they be by clinging to such paradigms? Of course, Islamic feminism has nothing to do with feminist Muslims. The former has transformed religion into a kind of political tool. That is why, rather than advancing the feminist movement, it is really a means of propaganda for the Islamic regime and its misogynic policies. For this group, religious beliefs are the only criteria by which the consciousness of women can be measured. Thus, while dialogue and cooperation between secular and Muslim feminists are possible, the only topic up for discussion with ideological Islamic feminists is the role of religion in the “emancipation” or enslavement of women. To turn one’s faith or lack of faith into the source of women’s rights is primarily an academic argument. The claim that if someone considers herself or himself a Muslim, he or she cannot be a feminist is theoretically incorrect and politically dangerous. But, with the growth of secular movements in Iran, Islamic feminism has lost its momentum. Besides, the language of feminist Muslims has also become more secular.
The establishment of a religious government in Iran has led to the spread of a backward-looking ideology, putting pressure on women. But in a society where the conflict between tradition and modernity has never been so acute, women – especially the educated, urban, middle-class women who have been the main target of the most severe oppression by tradition, religion, and the state – are assuming a more decisive role in the transition to modernity. The process of globalization has also dramatically increased the expectations of these women, a factor that has greatly heightened their political and social role. Within this framework, the claim that women should be nurtured by their own native culture rings hollow. Many of these women have correctly realized that Islamic fundamentalism is the main obstacle to their demands for equality. The question is what will be the best way to overcome this obstacle?
I, in my own right, view internal and international support for women’s movements and other social groups and the endeavor to initiate a “velvet revolution” a thousand times more preferable to military invasion as a means of dismantling Islamic fundamentalism and paving the way for transition to democracy, secularism, and the equality of women and men. I strongly oppose war because, as history has shown, it will only stifle democratic movements, including the women’s movement, and delay the establishment of a just and free political system.