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This chapter serves as an introduction to the problem of invisible but evident liberal practices in modern Iran. It explains how hidden liberalism poses a challenge to prevailing historical and normative accounts of liberalism in Iranian studies and in political theory, and offers a conceptual framework for a more capacious understanding of modern liberalism in non-Western settings. This chapter also introduces the main themes of the book and lays out its central questions and claims with reference to the relevant scholarly literature.
This chapter proposes that the thought-practice of hidden liberalism is chiefly necessitated by a set of binary grievances against “Westernism” – i.e. reformist temptations brought on by Western modernity (e.g. materialism, secularism, individualism, capitalism, etc., which many of its detractors regarded liberalism as being complicit in. In light of the troubling history of Western “liberal imperialism” in the domestic and regional politics of Iran, there is a long tradition of anti-liberal thought that faults liberalism as not sufficiently emancipatory in the face of imperial exploitation, or adequately protective of traditional values indigenous to Iranian society. This chapter surveys the range of opinions and schools of thought within this anti-liberal cohort in parallel to the background political developments that either precipitated or were caused by such views. It concludes by examining the relationship between this persistent anti-liberalism and the advent of the Islamic Republic.
This chapter presents a historical outline of six key aspects of liberal political thought in Iran. Using a familiar schematic from mainstream histories of liberal thought, these are grouped into two broad categories of “liberal antipathies” (anti-traditionalism, anti-absolutism, and anti-imperialism) and “liberal prescriptions” (liberal nationalism, constitutionalism, and pluralism). These aspects, the chapter argues, combine to form the substantive core of much thinking and political action by Iranian liberals since the late nineteenth century. The common denominator linking these seemingly disparate elements into a coherent liberal project, the chapter shows, is an aversion to arbitrary exercises of power at the expense of individual liberty, the rule of law, and national sovereignty. Although by no means exhaustive, these aspects are introduced through the political thoughts and actions of Iranian reformers, intellectuals, politicians, journalists, and activists.
The book concludes by considering the implications of hidden liberalism for the study of liberal thought-practices in non-Western, postcolonial settings, and more generally of liberalism in general. In recent years, political theorists have begun to examine the complex relationship between liberalism and empire. These studies have ranged from meticulous genealogies of imperialist arguments in the works of Enlightenment-era thinkers, to dissections of liberal justifications and criticisms of empire during the eighteenth century, and still further to conceptualizations and classifications of liberal-imperialist thought-practices in the long nineteenth century. Overlooked in nearly all of these studies are the implications of Western imperialism for the reception and development of indigenous liberal views and practices inside postcolonial societies. I offer a critical assessment of Western political theory’s privileging of a contextually-specific model of liberalism as a universal standard for understanding, appraising, and promoting liberal thought-practices across the globe. I argue that mainstream, critical, and approaches in political thought unwittingly perpetuate this “visibility bias” as regards the study of liberalism in non-Western societies, and suggest ways of making these modes of inquiry more inclusive.
This chapter explores the implications stemming from the advent of the Islamic Republic for liberal-thought practices inside Iran. Specifically, it seeks to clarify the differences between liberal objections to all varieties of religious governance and Islamic modernist-cum-reformist efforts to reconcile monistic doctrines with pluralistic realities. The latter cohort’s appropriation of some aspects of liberal thinking – by the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI) in 1970-80 and by religious reformists after the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997 – has obscured significant substantive differences between these visions, allowing for incoherent labels such as “Islamic liberalism”. Efforts to make the Islamic Republic more democratic or to advance a pluralistic vision of political Islam, however much progressive in the context of their times and political possibilities, nonetheless are substantially different in depth and scope from liberal-constitutional principles and visions of progress championed by advocates of political liberalism around the globe and inside Iran. Curiously, these differences have largely been downplayed, if not altogether overlooked, in political studies of post-revolutionary Islamic modernism and reformist thought. This chapter examines these differences and offers an explanation for their combined impact on liberal political thought in contemporary Iranian intellectual discourses.
Compared to rival ideologies, liberalism has fared rather poorly in modern Iran. This is all the more remarkable given the essentially liberal substance of various social and political struggles – for liberal legality, individual rights and freedoms, and pluralism – in the century-long period since the demise of the Qajar dynasty and the subsequent transformation of the country into a modern nation-state. The deeply felt but largely invisible purchase of liberal political ideas in Iran challenges us to think more expansively about the trajectory of various intellectual developments since the emergence of a movement for reform and constitutionalism in the late nineteenth century. It complicates parsimonious accounts of Shi'ism, secularism, socialism, nationalism, and royalism as defining or representative ideologies of particular eras. Hidden Liberalism offers a critical examination of the reasons behind liberalism's invisible yet influential status, and its attendant ethical quandaries, in Iranian political and intellectual discourses.