Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi's Revolution and Its Discontents: Political Thought and Reform in Iran takes us on an intellectual tour of post-Islamism and Islamic left thought in Iran. The early 1990s were hugely significant for global politics with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the First Gulf War. The decade transformed the way that western societies thought about political order as a direct response to these events. Not only had liberal democracy emerged as the triumphant cause, but it had also encouraged an anti-ideological approach to politics. The Soviet Union was held up as a prime example of how disastrous a state-imposed, top-down ideology could be.
Sadeghi-Boroujerdi argues that Iran was not immune from such a debate and a group of liberal Islamist intellectuals began to re-examine the Islamic Republic through this lens. Many of these intellectuals would go on to form the reformist camp in Iranian politics with President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) being the first Iranian leader to come out of this group. While the movement is broad, a number of characteristics can be attributed to reformist thought including anti-clericalism, a suspicion of state authority, an emphasis on inward piety, an expansion of rights and expressions, limiting state interventions in public and economic life, a move away from "ideology" towards technocratic governance and, for some, the "Protestantisation" of Shia Islam.
The author opens with the example of Professor Seyyed Hashem Aqajari, a reformist intellectual and former member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who gave a famous lecture on his issues with the Islamic Republic. During a talk on Ali Shari'ati and his project of Islamic Protestantism, Dr Aqajari was scathing about the state: "Despite some 100 years having elapsed since the publication of the Qajar-era diplomat and author Mirza Yusef Khan Mostashar al-Dowleh's Yek Kalameh (1870), and post-revolutionary reformist politicians' regular demands calling for 'the rule of law', 'law has still not come to rule'… whatever its author's [al-Dowleh's] original intentions, it had come to signify the struggle for the rule of law and the constraint of arbitrary power."
To accuse the Islamic Republic of giving way to the unconstrained and arbitrary power of a handful of clergymen is a common theme in reformist thought. Aqajari, though, went further, writes Sadeghi-Boroujerdi: "For Aqajari, 'Islamic Protestantism' and 'Islamic humanism' went hand in hand and ultimately entailed the clergy's obsolescence. He attributed to [Martin] Luther the credo that every man can act as his own priest." This claim led to Aqajari to be imprisoned for his activism.
Focusing on the role that intellectuals and philosophers played in formatting the reformist movement, this book looks at key thinkers such as Abdolkarim Sorush and others who helped to define the movement. Unlike the revolutionary generation of 1979 who took up works by thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, the reformists looked to anti-Communists like Raymond Aron and Karl Popper, as well as old liberal favourites such as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, to articulate their vision of what Iran ought to be. As Sadeghi-Boroujerdi points out, many of the reformers were scarred believers, having served on the frontline of the 1979 revolution and in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war; the Islamic Republic was in their veins.
However, like many other revolutionaries from other times and places, they not only grew disillusioned with the Islamic Republic, but also became suspicious of grand utopian projects in general. Anti-ideology polemics became common in, for example, Sorush's work, as Sadeghi-Boroujerdi notes, not least "Ideology justifies and serves power". According to the author, "Ironically citing Marx, Sorush avers that ideology serves the function of providing legitimacy to the ruling power and assuages contradictions at the objective level of society and subjective level of the consciousness of individuals." While outlining Sorush's other criticisms of ideology, the book also points out the contradictions within these claims.
The reformist movement is one of the most important and yet neglected aspects of Iranian politics. Revolution and Its Discontents… with its summaries of reformist thought is a refreshing and welcome addition to the studies on modern Iran. More discussion about the general public's perception and reception of such ideas, as well as about the non-Islamic left in Iran, is much needed. Although Sadeghi-Boroujerdi does not, I think, deal with these adequately, he does offer a formidable insight into the Islamic left. Many overseas observers are unaware of the domestic discourses in Iran and this book provides access to the complex reaction of Iranian thinkers to neo-liberalism, the collapse of the Soviet Union and attempts to reform the system. Further studies might result, providing even more insight into contemporary Iranian politics. For that reason alone, I recommend this book.