Civil Society and Politics in Iran

This article analyzes the state-society relations in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It begins by pointing out the importance of civil society in Iran where a plethora of groups, associations, and organizations have been able to operate outside the immediate domain of the state. A major problem confronting civil society has been the increasing power of the state, its autonomy, and its attempt to control civil society. This process began in the nineteenth century with the Qajar dynasty's attempts at military modernization in response to the defeats on the war front. Modernization soon spread to other areas and resulted in perceptively increasing the power of the Iranian state over its citizens. With the emergence of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925, centralization of state power continued and was aided considerably by the establishment of a standing national army based on universal male conscription. During the last phase of the Pahlavi dynasty, with its increased dependence on oil revenues, state power and its autonomy from civil society reached a new height.

With the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, and in spite of some initial signals to the contrary, the process of domination of state over social, economic, and political affairs of the country continued unabated. The theocratic vision of the Islamic Republic has added an important new dimension to the state's role by defining citizenship (and civility) in essentially rigid religious terms. This has resulted in a strong communitarian view with clear notions of inclusion and exclusion of subjects in the polity. It has also led to justifications and rationalizations for intermittent abuses of individual rights. Two groups in particular have suffered the most in this process-- religious minorities and women.

Even with state imposed political and cultural restrictions, many semi-autonomous groups, associations, and organizations have been able to function outside immediate state control. Most important among these are some of the multi-faceted foundations, guilds, Islamic committees, and professional associations that have provided their members some degree of autonomy from the state. Although their collective importance remains to be seen, they may well become the harbingers of an emerging civil society in Iran.

Farhad Kazemi
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