During this Sunday's talk at Stanford University, Akbar Ganji devoted a lot of time pointing out the differences between his views and those of his ideological rival Saiid Hajjarian. The audience, some of whom hadn’t even heard of Hajjarian, perhaps wondered at this premature electioneering. Highlighting this impression of candidacy was Ganji’s clean shaven face. It seems he now knows his revolutionary stubble was too Islamic fundamentalist, so he has adopted a less religious public image. Ganji’s gradual transformation from dissident intellectual to politician is a positive development for Iran as a nation. With his proven track record of courage, sacrifice and shrewd politicking Ganji may turn out to be Iran’s first charismatic force for democracy since Mohammad Mossadegh.
He almost said so himself. It is not true, Ganji declared, that the age of heroes is behind us. He insisted that even enlightened democratic movements need role models of courage and leadership. Looking around at Iran’s political landscape there is no one else Ganji could possibly nominate to this hero role but himself. With his death defying 56 day hunger strike, Ganji stood toe to toe with the most powerful elements of the Islamic regime and delivered them a huge moral defeat.
Unlike Mossadegh, however, Ganji is methodical in his approach to politics. His thinking incorporates many lessons from history, and he seems to have digested voluminous amounts of historical facts and social theories to help him avoid mistakes. Also, he seems less intransigent than Mossadegh. Several times during his Stanford talk Ganji mentioned the term “bedeh bestoon,” give and take. Unfortunately Ganji’s English interpreter, the distinguished Dr. Abbas Milani, chose to translate this term as “bickering,” which implies a trivial or impetuous arguing. This interpretation does not give credit to Ganji’s subtle bargaining mind, something Mossadegh could have used more of in his dealings with the British. Ganji seems aware that the power of Iran’s Islamic regime is not a castle in the air; there is a social basis for this power that must be respected as a reality and bargained with.
For the forces of democracy to be able to bargain from a position of strength, first they must demonstrate their political power. Here, Ganji advocates civil disobedience, openly ignoring and deliberately violating unjust laws. He calculates that the regime will then attempt to exact a price on this disobedience. The higher the price we are willing to pay, the more power we can buy. Simply put, Ganji’s recommended strategy for democracy in Iran is to purchase power with courage.
Will the strategy succeed? Judging from Ganji’s statements I don’t think he is so sure himself. He pointed out that tens of centuries of despotic rule in Iran must in some way reflect the mentality of the Iranian masses. Though he relies heavily on political science and social philosophy as tools of analysis, Ganji gave us no data as to why he thinks this mentality may have changed. Here’s where Mossadegh has the edge over Ganji. Mossadegh believed in his ability to inspire his followers, Ganji merely believes in the lessons of history as laid out by Western thinkers. To become the new Mossadegh, Ganji must complete one more step in his transition from intellectual to politician. He must reverse engineer the ideas of his Western mentors Karl Popper, Jurgen Habermas, etc, into a uniquely Iranian format, then begin speaking his mind in the creative and inspiring slang of the Iranian political ethos.