Ebrahim Raisi was inaugurated on August 5 as the new President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Raisi, a cleric, will succeed Hassan Rouhani, who also had a religious background. In contrast, Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was an engineer by profession.
At first glance, there are not many reasons to think that Iranian political and social life has moved towards secularism. In fact, many would assume the opposite.
However, Mahmoud Pargoo and Shahram Akbarzadeh – both researchers at the Alfred Deakin Institute of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia – challenge this view in their recently published work, “Presidential Elections in Iran: Islamic Idealism since the Revolution.” The book defends the novel thesis that Iranian society has gone through a process of secularization in the last 30 years, which represents a significative shift from the first revolutionary decade.
In this sense, the title of Pargoo and Akbarzadeh’s work might be somewhat misleading. Presidential elections in Iran are not the object of study per se in the research endeavor of the authors. Instead, the book discusses the electoral discourses surrounding these presidential elections to map broader changes in religiosity. Although the focus is on elite discussions, the analysis is informed by the belief that these discourses mirror “the secularization of Iranian social imaginaries and life worlds.” [i]
The book discusses the electoral discourses surrounding these presidential elections to map broader changes in religiosity.
Pargoo and Akbarzadeh mainly concern themselves with the discursive dimension of secularization and pay very limited attention to the policy sphere. In this sense, those who seek to understand the ebbs and flows of religious policies in Iran might be disappointed by the book.
The book’s contribution is rather more abstract, and central to it is the authors’ understanding of the term “secularization.” Drawing on the work of two prominent scholars of the topic – Steve Bruce and Charles Taylor – Pargoo and Akbarzadeh do not approach secularization as the absence of religion or the decline in the prevalence of religious beliefs and practices. Instead, for the authors, secularization signifies “a change in the content, meaning or interpretation of those beliefs and practices.” [ii]
Pargoo and Akbarzadeh chronologically examine the presence of former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary religiosity in the speeches and debates of the candidates that preceded every presidential election in Iran. The revolutionary religiosity of Khomeini is seen as being based on three main pillars: obedience to the Supreme Leader, jihad and martyrdom, and ascetic ethics. The progressive abandonment of these three tenets is identified by the authors as the core of the Iranian secularization process.
The electoral contests for the highest elected office in the Iranian polity represent a magnificent opportunity for the study of secularization in Iranian society. Election campaigns embody “what is appealing and attractive for voters,” the authors argue. [iii] It could also be added that their uninterrupted occurrence at regular intervals of four years, since the 1981 election of Ali Khamenei as President, simplifies the across-time comparison presented in the book.
At the same time, Pargoo and Akbarzadeh clarify the limitations of using presidential elections to capture the general changes in the content and interpretation of religion in Iranian society. The Guardian Council, with its virtually discretionary power to vet candidates for the office of president, profoundly narrows the range of voices that can be heard in the lead up to presidential elections.
The Council reached a new level of interference in the political life of the country during the June 2021 Iranian presidential election, when it disqualified figures such as Ali Larijani and Eshaq Jahangiri, the former speaker of the Parliament and Rouhani’s first Vice-President, respectively—whose views apparently were not to their liking.
Pargoo and Akbarzadeh identify a major decrease in the popularity of Khomeini’s revolutionary religiosity in the early 1990s.
Pargoo and Akbarzadeh identify a major decrease in the popularity of Khomeini’s revolutionary religiosity in the early 1990s. One of the main reasons for the shift was the death of Khomeini in 1989 and his replacement as Supreme Leader by Ali Khamenei, someone who could not compete with the charisma of the founder of the Islamic Republic.
Moreover, the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the post-war economic reconstruction that ensued led to significant social changes. Hence, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s successful campaign for the presidency in 1993 paid particular attention to economic growth and prosperity. Four years later, the move away from Khomeini’s revolutionary religiosity consolidated with the election of Mohammad Khatami. The authors define the reformist President’s religiosity as “worldly, civilized and modern,” based on “courtesy and equality, rather than jihad, martyrdom and poverty.” [iv]
A fundamental argument in Pargoo and Akbarzadeh’s work is that the progressive secularization that can be observed in the Iranian presidential elections is by no means restricted to the moderate/reformist camp. In their view, conservatives also seem to have realized – particularly after Khatami’s re-election – that revolutionary religiosity might become an electoral burden if pressed too hard, because of its limited appeal. Ahmadinejad escaped this problematic by sponsoring a populist message that spoke directly to the poorest sectors of Iranian society and granted him two consecutive electoral victories.
The penultimate chapter of the book is titled “Consolidation of Secularity.” It covers Rouhani’s presidency, which represented not only a confirmation of secularist tendencies, in both reformist and conservative camps, but also how conservative campaigns challenging Rouhani “shifted dramatically towards non-revolutionary and non-ideological discourses.” [v]
A major issue that is left undiscussed in the book is the relative importance of determining the dominant discursive frameworks when compared to the actual implementation of significant policy changes. The authors present a convincing case on how the reformists have shaped the prevailing election speeches and debates in the last three decades. They further contend that the conservatives’ embrace of these broad structures jeopardizes their distinction from the reformists as a political platform. The risk for the reformists appears to be even larger, however.
It may be argued that the conservatives have only conceded a pyrrhic victory to the reformists in the informal dimension. In so doing, they seem to have emptied of meaning some of the reformists’ core concepts, with the additional security of having the backing of Iranian non-elected institutions to thwart significative change.
In conclusion, in “Presidential Elections in Iran,” Pargoo and Akbarzadeh present an original and counter-intuitive argument that is built on solid foundations and helps to better understand Iranian factional politics. Thus, their work will surely generate new and relevant debates on the social and political changes experienced by Iran since the Islamic Revolution.
[i] Pargoo, Mahmoud, and Shahram Akbarzadeh. Presidential Elections in Iran: Islamic Idealism since the Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021: p. 5.
[ii] Ibid., p. 20
[iii] Ibid., p. 46
[iv] Ibid., p. 87
[v] Ibid., p. 158