Akbar Ganji Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Islam and Democracy: Conversation with Akbar Ganji, Iranian Journalist and Human Rights Activist; August 10, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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The Nature of Revolutions

Welcome to Berkeley. Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Tehran.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

They were a poor and very religious family and played a significant role in my future.

You joined the Revolutionary Guards early in your life?

Yes, that's true.

How were you affected by the Iranian Revolution?

We started a revolution to overthrow a despotic regime to create better conditions, but these better conditions never came about. One despotic kingdom replaced another despotic kingdom.

Was this inevitable?

Yes.

Why was it inevitable?

Because revolutions cannot make democracies.

What role does religion play in this? Can you have a democracy and a religious state?

We do not have a religious democracy or a non-religious democracy, although we have different interpretations of religion. We have fascist interpretations and totalitarian interpretations, and we also have democratic interpretations. What happened to Iran after the revolution was a totalitarian interpretation of Islam. In opposition to that, we offer a democratic interpretation of Islam, and we resist that [totalitarian interpretation].

What explains this hijacking of the revolution? [Should] we understand this in terms of social forces or in terms of the abuse of power?

In my opinion, the revolution was not hijacked by anybody. Trotsky was the theoretician of this theory. He wrote the book called The Revolution that was Betrayed. He thought Stalin had betrayed the Russian Revolution. The appearance of Stalin in the October Revolution was very natural. The nature of revolution is that it creates a reign of fear -- a cycle of fear. It's been repeated in every revolution.

But how do you then overturn a corrupt system, for example, the system that the Shah put in place, without revolution?

If a regime closes all avenues of resistance and opposition there will be no other way except revolution. No one can plan for a revolution. A revolution in such conditions occurs naturally. When we speak of revolutions we speak of classical revolutions in the classical term. Classical revolutions want to change the economic, social, and political structure of the society. Such a thing is impossible and it's immoral, meaning that you can never achieve such a goal, but you will create a regime of fear. But you can change a regime in a non-revolutionary way. First, we don't want to change the whole thing but we just want to bring democracy, great freedom, through democratic means, through peaceful means, through civil disobedience.

You are suggesting what happened in Iran followed a universal pattern in the history of nations.

Yes. The French Revolution became the pattern for all other revolutions, and unfortunately, the French Revolution was not a good pattern. You see that even in France it took them until the Fifth Republic in the twentieth century that they managed to consolidate a democracy.

The American Revolution was the only exception. It was a foundation for freedom. It was because of the difference between the conditions of the two revolutions. The widespread poverty in France never existed in the United States; rather, it was more egalitarian. Nature had provided everything for almost everyone in America. The "divine government" that ruled France did not exist in the United States. Therefore the revolution in France was anti-church, and at the same time was trying to resolve the issue of poverty. In the United States the issue of the revolution was only about freedom. The model that was used in China, in Russia, in Cuba, and in Iran was the French model, and it was a bad model.

Next page: Religion and the State

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