Everything I Needed to Know About Islamic Democracy I Learned by the Third Grade
Nearly 40 million Iranians will vote for president on May 19, their participation understood by many outside observers to be a mobilization of bad faith, an “as if” politics in which the authorities pretend to provide competitive elections and the public votes as if there were a meaningful choice between candidates. At best, citizens will cast their ballots in abeyance, a stop gap to keep the truly awful out of office in anticipation of the day that the system itself comes to an end.
Such skepticism has not prevented Iran's version of democracy from producing its fair share of surprises, including a come from behind victory by Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential election. No less surprising was the subsequent resurgence of the Iranian reform movement culminating in major gains in last year’s legislative elections, only a handful of years after the violent suppression of the Green Movement. Despite the best efforts of the Guardian Council to tilt the political playing field in favor of the president’s hardline opposition, Iran’s conservatives remain divided and appear to be headed for another hapless showing at the polls.
These electoral outcomes become less of a surprise, however, if, rather than rejecting Iranian elections as theater or stage-managed farce, we consider the possibility that democracy in Iran constitutes a sincere endeavor undertaken by moral actors. Thus, the voluntary participation of millions in annual elections, among the highest rates in the world, is done in earnest, as an ethical choice and civil action against an unpopular state.
That they are empowered to do so by that same state is the headline, the lede missing from the coverage leading into this May's presidential election. Central to the IRI's ideology is an animating belief in Islamic democracy not as a mere version of or alternative to western democracy, but the thing itself, democracy as it ought to be. Islamic democracy offers humanity the only viable and virtuous path leading to political and social fulfillment. Elections are an expression of that virtue.
The state affirms this virtue for its youngest audiences in its schools and textbook materials, as it has done so since the earliest days of the Islamic Republic. The expectation that children will someday participate in elections as an extension of their religious belief and as a form of worship constitutes one of the few consistent storylines in a curriculum subject to the constant tumult of “fundamental change.”
Formal instruction in Islamic democracy starts as early as the first grade, where young pupils learn that the sacrifices of those who died during the revolutionary struggle against the Shah were consecrated at the ballot box, beginning with the referendum to make Iran an Islamic republic, and then by every subsequent election for office. Voting becomes ritual in the liturgy of the republic, in which each ballot cast represents an act of communion, leading to the rebirth and salvation of the nezam, or system.
Training in the actual mechanisms of democratic practice centers on the third grade primer lesson, “Class Representative,” which made its first appearance during the 1979-1980 school year and would remain unchanged for more than two decades. The unit opens with a group of students at Ibn Sina Elementary preparing to cast their monthly ballot for representative. After going over the procedure for voting (two names written on a piece of paper, the top vote-getters named to the position), the teacher asks his students to reprise the virtues that a leader must possess.
Without hesitation come the replies, a call and response led by the teacher in which all the answers are already known in advance. Ali says that the representative must be just and honest. Hassan answers that a good representative is a studious and serious student. Saeid declares that a leader must be resourceful and well qualified. Mohammad notes that the representative has to be patient and tolerant.
The lesson presents a straightforward and untroubled view of democracy, one in which voters are eager to participate in a process that, by necessity, leads to the election of a just and moral leader. Revisions made to the curriculum in the early 2000s introduced a more ominous and open-ended message to “Class Representative.” This new version imagines a scenario in which it becomes possible for an elected official to behave badly, and against whom the children must strive in order to reclaim their rights within the classroom.
Malice appears in the figure of Amin. Newly elected, he arrives early to school on his first day on the job, well before his teacher and classmates. Drawing a line down the center of the blackboard, he divides the class into two categories: "Good" and "Bad." With the classroom still empty, Amin writes the name of Hassan under the "Bad" column.
He does so out of spite, petty retribution for Hassan’s refusal to loan his drinking cup to Amin the day before, even though Hassan had been in the right—Amin had forgotten to bring his cup and the rules prohibit sharing.
Understandably, Hassan becomes upset when he sees his name on the chalkboard: "I haven't misbehaved!" Unwilling to admit the true reason for Hassan's demerit, Amin justifies his actions by accusing Hassan of turning the pages of his textbook too loudly, therefore breaking the concentration of the other students.
In short order, Amin unleashes a torrent of sanctions on the remainder of the class, using a variety of arbitrary excuses to fill the "Bad" column with names, including that of Saeid, whose crime was to crawl under his desk in order to pick up a fallen pencil. When Saeid demands that Amin explain himself, Amin responds by placing three more marks by Saeid’s name. Demoralized and frightened into silence, the students sit motionless until their teacher arrives, at which point the children break into a chorus of protest.
Their cries mark a crucial development in the curriculum. Whereas the earlier version of "Class Representative" suggested that democracy and virtue necessarily overlap, the current iteration of the lesson instructs its readers that it is acceptable to question and protest authority unjustly practiced. It is only when direct protests of Amin fell on deaf ears, the children sought relief by appealing to an even higher authority, their teacher.
The only grownup in the room, the teacher quietly defuses the situation, and convinces a chastened Amin to seek forgiveness from his peers. Recognizing the teachable moment before him, the teacher engages in a process of consultation with his students. He breaks them up into groups of three and, reversing the pedagogy of the earlier lesson, encourages his students list on their own the virtues expected of the class representative. Working together, they reach a consensus that although the class representative is responsible for maintaining discipline and order in the classroom, a good representative must above all be just (adel) and honest (amin), driving the point home by drawing on the well-worn but effective device of the corny joke: "Thanks be to God that we have in our class an Amin."
Does a curriculum shape society or does it merely anticipate and reflect changes already underway? Recent events in Iran point to the surprising and sometimes fraught relationship of textbook lessons to the world outside of the classroom. Just as Amin's classmates had turned to their teacher for help, there was a sincere hope among many Iranians, particularly following the debacle of the 2009 elections, that the country’s appointed guardians in the leadership would intercede to correct Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a public official who, not unlike the fictional character Amin, had shown a marked capacity for dishonest and vengeful behavior towards his political opponents, behavior that was, according to the standards of the Islamic Republic, unbecoming of a democratic and Muslim leader.
Such relief, it turned out, was not forthcoming, at least not immediately, a reminder that quite unlike the rarefied world of children's textbook stories, in the real word the “grownups” are prone to disappoint. The experience of a disputed presidential election and its aftermath proved to be a teachable moment like no other, leading many ordinary Iranians to question the historical disposition to be subjects in search of a sponsor, a concept already anticipated in the Green Movement strategy of "each citizen, a headquarters." Since 2009, rather than retreating from the public sphere, these citizens have doubled down on the vote as an ethical action as well as a way to hold the state accountable for its professed religious values.
The lessons found in “Class Representative,” with their emphasis on proper moral behavior in a democracy and the obligation of citizens to protest when elected officials, as well the unelected, fall short anticipate such an outcome. We often think of textbook stories as being immediate and consequential when it comes to political and social outcomes, particularly in an openly ideological school system. The case of Iran suggests that we might be better served if we take the materials found in national curricula to be a starting point for analysis, as the repositories of recognizable if not fully shared moral guidelines by which a society may perhaps someday surpass its own best intentions.
A version of this essay first appeared in Lobelog on May 3, 2017.