An unlikely suspect was fingered at the recent show trials of Iranian dissidents: Max Weber, whose ideas on rational authority were blamed for fomenting a “velvet revolution” against the Islamic Republic. “Theories of the human sciences contain ideological weapons that can be converted into strategies and tactics and mustered against the country’s official ideology,” Saeed Hajjarian, a leading strategist in the Iranian reform movement, explained in his forced confession.
A political scientist by training, Hajjarian “admitted” that Weber’s notion of patrimonial government wasn’t applicable to Iran. The theory, Hajjarian declared, is relevant only in countries where “people are treated as subjects and deprived of all citizenship rights,” which is “completely incompatible with and unrelated to current conditions in Iran.”
The authorities in Iran actually went through significant amounts of work, apparently, to coerce a confession denouncing–it really makes one giggle–Max Freaking Weber. I would say that the situation is Kafkaesque, but in the event that some hardline mullah in Iran reads this, it would probably lead to state-sponsored denunciations of poor Kafka.
Of course, Weber is not alone in being on the Islamic regime’s enemies list:
. . . Other social theorists, like Jürgen Habermas, John Keane, Talcott Parsons, Richard Rorty, and unspecified feminists and poststructuralists have also been accused of “threatening national security and shaking the pillars of economic development.”
What links this group of scholars, it appears, is their belief that an independent civil society, beyond the reach of the state, is necessary for the development of democracy and human rights. This view is particularly pronounced in Habermas’s concept of the public sphere: free spaces for the exchange of ideas among autonomous institutions and individuals. Where the public sphere is weak, society is vulnerable to domination by the state—a concern that Habermas borrowed from Weber.
In 2002, Habermas toured Tehran at the invitation of some of his admirers in the reform movement. (In his opening statement, the show-trial prosecutor actually invoked Habermas’s brief visit as evidence of a plot to secularize Iran.) While generally approving of Habermas’s ideas, many social scientists in Iran have criticized him for relying solely on Western historical experience as the basis for the development of the public sphere. Habermas received an earful during his travels from young Iranian intellectuals who offered an Islamic interpretation of the public sphere. Must a society rid itself of religiosity, as Habermas suggests, in order to develop a “rational” public discourse? Are Western notions of religious tolerance unique to Christianity? Can traditional Islamic institutions, such as study circles and charitable foundations, contribute to the formation of a robust public sphere?
Notwithstanding such disagreements, Habermas’s theories are very popular among educated Iranians, many of whom object to the state’s intrusion into their private lives. Habermas’s lectures in Tehran drew overflowing audiences—possibly the largest crowds that he has ever addressed—and his ideas are at the heart of Iranian political discourse. Former President Mohammad Khatami and his allies made the promotion of civil society one of the centerpieces of the reform movement. His administration, which came to power in 1997, handed out newspaper permits to any publisher who wanted one, in the hope of creating a free press—a strategy that worked until the hard-line judiciary managed to arrest, ban, or exile most of the country’s independent publishers and journalists. Khatami’s administration allowed Internet cafes to proliferate, as well as private dial-up access to the Internet; today Iranians are among the world’s most prolific bloggers.
This is the kind of thing that has the Islamic regime up in arms. To be sure, as Richard Weaver famously pointed out, ideas have consequences, but the regime’s paranoia in the face of ideas and scintillating thought is more than a little notable.
I have to admit that I got a good laugh out of this story. Then I recalled that because of the regime’s paranoia, millions of Iranians are deprived of enjoying the life of the mind that we in the West take for granted.