The Oxymoron of ‘Illiberal Democracy’

August 14, 2004

The term “illiberal democracy,” advanced by some as an acceptable model for future change in many parts of the Middle East, is, in truth, an oxymoron. Real functioning democracies can never be illiberal. Nor can they be at peace with the rest of the world, a fact that makes their appearance quite problematic for many of their neighbors and for the world at large.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a case in point. The Iranian “mullocracy” has for a long time been cited as a good example of an illiberal democracy, in that various competing factions seem to have reconciled themselves to the concept of a peaceful transfer of power through a process of “free” elections.

However, based as it is on a particularistic interpretation of Shiite Islam, but also a sense of Iranian-Persian nationalism, the system has shown itself to be quite incompatible, albeit to varying degrees, with the aspirations of several important segments of Iranian society. These include indigenous liberal elements who were active in pre-revolution times, as well as religious and ethnic minorities.

The prevalence of open-minded elements within the ranks of the ruling elite itself and continuing advances in information and communications technologies acted as obstacles preventing the stifling of Iranian society. Consequently, a more liberal current was always present beneath the surface of post-revolution Iranian society, waiting for an opportunity to reemerge. When that finally took place beginning in the mid-1990s, a crackdown by conservative elements soon followed.

The success of the Iranian conservatives in stifling all reform efforts came as a clear indication of the inability of an illiberal regime to accommodate any of the aspirations of its lingering or emerging liberal constituencies, especially those who embrace secular values. The fact that neither religious nor ethnic minorities have fared any better under the current system came as further evidence of the flaws of Iranian democracy. As a result, less than 15 percent of the population is eligible to vote, and the turnout for the last parliamentary elections fell to below 35 percent.

As an illiberal democracy, the Islamic Republic poses a serious challenge to another cherished notion, namely that democracies tend to seek a peaceful resolutions to their conflicts with the outside world. The revolutionary zeal of the fledgling Islamic state after 1979 contributed in no small way to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran in 1980, even if we cannot deny that the man’s personal ambitions also played a major role in this.

As Iran’s revolutionary zeal wore off and the regime found itself entangled in a bloody war with Iraq that, at times, threatened its very survival, its messianic tendencies were redirected inward. This resulted in a heightened sense of threat perception vis-a-vis the outside world, a fact complicated by the continuing appeal of modern values to the country’s youth.

The militarization and mobilization of Iranian society during the war with Iraq served as a check against the growth of liberal currents and allowed the more conservative and radical elements to maintain their control over the state. However, once the war was over the emphasis on militarization could not be sustained for very long and needed to be taken to another level, namely toward the development of a national defense strategy that imposed less of a burden on Iranian society. This was the logic behind the Iranian drive for building stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and, today, its advancing on a nuclear path.

This missionary-messianic facet of the illiberal institution that is the Iranian regime also suggests that, once Iran has achieved a nuclear military capacity and starts to feel more secure in its borders, the temptation for imposing regional hegemony of sorts will not lag too far behind.

This is, indeed, the only legacy that could be expected from the expansion of illiberal states. Neither democracy nor peace is likely to be the end product of such systems. Free elections are only one aspect of democracy; liberal values are another. Without solid commitment to both, no state is worthy of the democratic label, and no state will manage to live at peace with itself or the world.