Iran and the Paradox of Paradise

07/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To someone outside the Muslim world, the ideal of a pure Islamic state looks like a reactionary form of repression. The contradictions between a modern state and one based on the Quran, a divinely inspired document from the seventh century, are simply too great. The issue of theocracy comes down to that. Even though over 70% of Iranians are in favor of electing their supreme leader, a democratically chosen dictator remains a dictator, and the vexing problems of modern life will still be filtered through medieval dictates.

The most basic contradiction in this scheme has to do with power. Democracy gives power to the people, but not if they are voting to give that power away to clerics with absolute dominion over them.

Parallel to Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan attempted to create an "Islamic paradise," which to the outside world was a travesty of human rights violations and barbaric social practices. Yet to the faithful it would be ideal if every pronouncement of the Prophet served to guide everyday life down to the tiniest details. Various ayatollahs and mullahs already operate as arbiters whose pronouncements have the weight of law, or at the very least of moral authority.

The educated, Westward-looking minority in Muslim society leads a double life. In private they are free of clerical strictures and think on their own; in public they obey the rules set down by theocratic repression. What we are witnessing in the Iranian street riots is the tension inherent in a double life. Young people, reformists, and religious moderates have formed an ad hoc coalition fueled by idealism and resentment. But if the Ayatollah Khamenei should follow his previous pattern and make a few conciliatory concessions -- as he has begun to do with his call for an electoral recount -- the built-in contradiction of a democratic theocracy will remain.

Does the U.S. have any role to play in this scenario?

The consensus seems to be no. To a modern secularist, the very notion of living under a theocracy is abhorrent, and the world has been burned once through the spectacle of the Taliban's grotesque rule before they were overthrown. Modernism is an unstoppable force, however. Throughout the Arab world it's been a race to see how long it takes for the Internet and the iPod to undermine the mullahs. But modernism alone can't resolve the issues of women's rights, religious extremism, and despotism in government that are endemic in Arab states. Blinded by the ideal of heaven on earth, even moderate Muslims acquiesce to intolerable conditions. After all, the freedom not to worship, one of the most basic in the West, is a crime in the Muslim world. A steady if slow evolution is the best we can hope for; in the meantime, the prudent policy for the Western nations is to counter the worst excesses of dictatorial governments as best we can. The rest comes down to a shift in collective consciousness of the kind that seems to be happening, with ups and downs, on a global scale.

Originally published in the Washington Post