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Populism, terrorism, and the crisis in western democracies: an interview with Iran’s former president

Abolhassan Banisadr, Iran's first post-revolutionary president, discusses neo-liberalism, the crisis in western democracies, and the relationship between Islamic terrorism and the rise of far-right politics.

Supporters in red "Make America Great Again" hats at a rally held by Donald J. Trump on April 6, 2016. Picture by Monica Jorge/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reservedAbolhassan Banisadr was Iran’s first post-revolutionary president before being overthrown by a coup in 1981. Here, in an interview with Mahmood Delkhasteh, Banisadr discusses the relationship between Islamic terrorism and the rise of far-right politics in the west. He argues that the political and economic models of both the left and right have failed, creating a vacuum filled by populism. A new discourse, rooted in freedom, independence, and human development, is needed to overcome this crisis.

Mahmoud Delkhasteh: We are observing the rise of anti-democratic and authoritarian far-right movements in Europe, which are shaking the foundations of the European Union. The weakening economic and political power of the U.S. has also enabled Donald Trump to become president of the country on a promise to ‘Make America Great Again.’ What is your analysis of this multi-layered crisis in the west?

Abolhassan Banisadr: We see a defensiveness within the USA and the west as a whole. This is evident in the rapid increase in anti-immigration movements, Islamophobia, and the use of fear in domestic politics, including as government policy. Even in France, with its universal and cosmopolitan culture, the conservative’s presidential candidate Francois Fillon is opposed to multi-culturalism. Previously, in violation of the principle of Laïcité and democratic norms and values, the government, with public support, banned all forms of religious expression in schools and other places. A recent survey showed that many French people think that there are 20 million Muslims in France and that by 2020, Muslims will become the majority – yet their number is less than a quarter of this. Even in Slovakia, home to only a few thousand Muslims, people are up in arms. One political leader there argued that kebab is a sign of Islamization which has to be resisted. This might sound funny, but it shows the level of defensiveness in the west.

MD: But it seems that the current fear is not of Islam itself, but of terrorism, which uses Islamic discourses to justify and promote itself.

AB: This is not completely true. Increasing numbers of right and ultra-right-wing thinkers and politicians have invoked Orientalist discourses and openly argue that Islam is an essentially violent, barbaric, stagnant and repressive religion. While we need a clear definition of terrorism, I can say that it has nothing to do with any specific religion or belief system.

For example, after World War Two, terrorists used different secular or religious discourses: nationalist, Marxist, Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic. Any form of terrorism is a direct result of relations of domination. It is domination which produces terrorism, and as long as such relations exist we will never see a terror-free world. The reason Islam is now used as a discourse of terror is that Asia is superseding the west in producing wealth and capital. This has put the west in a defensive mode, as it sees the continued domination of Middle Eastern oil as the most important defense against Asian power.

The west thus systematically interferes in Middle Eastern countries by trying to topple “unfriendly” regimes and replacing them with “friendly” ones. But this devastating interference, which inflicts misery on the people of the region, creates resistance which manifests in the form of terrorism. While many terrorist organizations like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda and Isis were initially created and supported by western powers, they recruited and found semi-independent life from a deep resentment and anger against what the west has done, and is doing, in the Middle East.

Relations of domination within the Islamic world are not new. However, because western powers are weakening, we see a strategic shift towards such domination. Especially after World War Two, and even before that, the west was in a position of global strength and exercised its hegemony in the region by installing and supporting centralized regimes to crush centrifugal social movements. This was the period of the so-called “modernist dictators” who sought international legitimacy by forcing their countries into the era of modernity. Throughout the region, these “enlightened despots” controlled vast oil reserves.

However, as the west lost power it changed its strategy. Since the occupation of Iraq, western countries began supporting centrifugal movements along ethnic and religious lines within Middle Eastern countries, under the banners of democratisation, self-government and human rights. This new strategy allows it to control the mosaic of small countries in the region. When borders can be drawn between neighbours with blood and animosity defining their relations, it is easier for the much-weakened western powers to control them.

MD: Why do western powers need to produce and reproduce relations of domination in the Middle East in order to maintain the status quo within their own societies? Is there a relationship between the accumulation of wealth in the west, and war and instability in the Middle East?

Western democracies thus have a fundamental problem: they are based on a system of domination.

AB: In the 17th century, the Treaty of the Peace of Westphalia recognized the sovereignty of European states. However, these states were allowed to do whatever they wanted to others in the rest of the world. Scientific progress, industrialization and capitalism put Europe in a dominant position and the era of systematic colonisation and exploitation began. The western democracies that emerged within this context were based on domination, the only exception being the US in the early stages of its foundation.

Western democracies thus have a fundamental problem: they are based on a system of domination. In order to become liberated from this de-humanising relation, they need fundamental economic and social changes. However, in the existing capitalist socio-economic system, mass consumption supersedes mass production, destroying societies’ dynamic forces and reversed historical trends of productive economics. This new situation made western countries wealthy, but most of them are in debt, mostly to Asia.

In order to make such a seismic change in social structure, people need a guiding principle that can point away from domination towards independence and freedom, in which people are neither dominator nor dominated, and towards thinking that embraces rights.

The absence of such discourse has left a vacuum which is being filled by right and ultra-right movements which use populist language to deceive people, promoting ‘post-truth’ knowledge and proposing easy solutions to complicated problems. Through a process of ‘othering’, they build high walls of hate, intolerance and suspicion, and are gaining the upper hand. That is not to say that the west does not offer discourses of independence and freedom. Philosophers like John Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell advocated for such, but as the existing structures were not compatible with their suggestions, the public as a whole did not embrace them.

MD: Historically speaking and especially after WW2, the ‘left’ was elected to implement progressive and humanist policies like the welfare state. Why is the left failing now?

AB: The dominant economic and political models of both left and right have been tested, and have failed. Neo-liberalism tried to take advantage of the crisis which gripped the welfare state, and in the form of Reaganism and Thatcherism presented itself as a forward-looking solution promising a plentiful society in which wealth created by a few would ‘trickle down’ to the rest of society.

The fatal mistake of the left was to buy into the logic of neo-liberalism by trying to become a milder version of it

But the wealth stayed up and also sucked up the wealth of the lower social strata and increased inequality and poverty. Through marketisation and the imposition of the logic of profit, even in centres of knowledge production and universities, it gradually encircled and shrunk the possibility of critical thinking, which has little or no value in market capitalism. In effect, it transferred liberalism into wild capitalism and into a totalitarian system which tries to crush freedom and humanity in search of profit. Today’s endemic economic, environmental and social crisis is telling us that neo-liberalism has failed miserably, and that it is hanging on to its only remaining source of legitimacy, the belief that ‘there is no alternative’.

The fatal mistake of the left was to buy into the logic of neo-liberalism by trying to become a milder version of it, and hence becoming part of this system which has failed. The failure of the system became the failure of the left as well. Now the left is not only paying the price for selling out, but has missed the opportunity to foresee the impending crisis and create an alternative. The left thus faces a double whammy of losing its identity and becoming a target for the anger and frustration of those whom the system has failed.

Some on the left have retained their identity to an extent, like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. In the absence of an alternative, however, even they are trying to patch up a system which has failed, for example, by re-nationalising the rail system in the UK and restoring public higher education in the US. These are good ideas but not systematic responses to multi-layered and systemic problems. The failure of the left has provided an opportunity for the ultra-right to fill this gap. Exploiting the anger and frustration of those disenfranchised by globalization, which is not about removing national borders but giving border control to multinationals/wild capitalism, the ultra-right can present itself as an anti-establishment movement, as Trump has repeatedly argued.

Today’s endemic economic, environmental and social crisis is telling us that neo-liberalism has failed miserably

MD: But Trump says he will ‘Make America Great Again.’ What’s wrong with that?

AB: Exactly this plan will make the demise of America as a superpower inevitable. The things which made America a superpower and put it in a dominant position, both domestically and internationally, have changed. For example, when the US became a superpower, Asia was nowhere to be seen. Now it is wealthier and more developed than the US. Without money from Asia, the US budget deficit will skyrocket, which will have disastrous consequences for the American economy. The first victims of this will be the blue-collar Americans who voted for Trump. He might want to rely on US military might. However, despite consuming more than half the world’s military budget and enjoying the most sophisticated weaponry, this military does not have an impressive global CV since the Vietnam War.

Even in two small and devastated countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, it still failed to achieve its goals because the people it tried to dominate were not awed by such power. As a rule, the lot of any country which looks at its past with nostalgia, and tries to revive it, will be bankruptcy and devastation. Hitler tried to recreate a golden past, as did Khomeini; the UK is already a poorer country having voted for Brexit. Trump is treading a path which has been tried many times before.

MD: How does post-truth language work and how can it be countered?

AB: In our time, one of the first people to use such language in a systematic way was Ayatollah Khomeini. Not only did he try to conceal the truth through charging his followers’ passions, but in later years he openly stated that he was not committed to anything he said and that he could change his mind and words whenever it suited him. Such language can be challenged if we can identify its characteristics.

Despite the embedded trickery in post-truth language, it can be critiqued and exposed.

One characteristic of such language is that it is disconnected from experience and cannot be tested, so its degree of truth cannot be determined. Force is thus its essence, as it can only be implemented when people obey the leader. Any planning made within this language is imperative and its validity only becomes clear after it is forcefully implemented, when damage is already done. We saw this in Nazi Germany, in Stalin’s Russia, in Iran’s current dictatorial regime and, if Trump can get away with what he wants to do, we will see it in Trump’s America.

Despite the embedded trickery in post-truth language, it can be critiqued and exposed. The conditions for this are the free flow of information and knowledge and the ability to communicate to those who are smitten with such language. Such language does not reflect reality but manipulates it, or should we say, spins it. Reality cannot be discarded to make a lie, but it must be manipulated because a ‘lie’ is nothing but an attempt to disguise reality. Here, we can see that there is a problem in the Oxford English dictionary’s definition of post-truth, as: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Objective facts are not used in objective ways. They are manipulated in order to make lies acceptable rather than less influential.

Such language makes people believe that dualism is intrinsic in intellect and life. As a result, the talent of leadership, which is intrinsic in all people, can be redefined as power in the form of authority, which is external to people. When dichotomy becomes a guiding principle, it transfers beliefs (in religions, mysticisms and ideologies) into discourses of power, and people voluntarily concede their right of leadership to representatives of power in secular and religious forms: the philosopher king, the Führer, the guru, the Imam, the lawmaker, the Church or the vanguard party, making themselves instruments of such power.

This language never denies universal values like freedom, independence or justice, but reverses their meaning. For example, ultra-right groups may talk about fraternity among equals and turn it into a value. Subsequently, however, they will use values of fraternity and equality to argue against fairness and justice. We see this use of language in Trump’s discourse, which has identified some people who cannot be equal to others in American society and promised to throw them out of the country.

We can also see it in the language of the right and ultra-right in France, which gives its own meaning to French identity and accuses those whose identity stands outside this definition of being problematic. The Iranian regime has also systematically divided Iranians into those who are ‘one of us’ (khodi) and those ‘who are not one of us’ (geyre khodi). As a result, the majority of society suffers from forms of discrimination which constantly put them through a process of ‘othering’.

Another characteristic of such language is that it conveys that individuals are incapable of doing things and that only power can get things done. This is why they keep talking with nostalgia about ‘authority’ and wishing to bring it back. This language aims to divert people’s attention from the fact that power is the ‘problem maker’ which has made their lives difficult. It prevents people from seeing that it is power which increases consumption over production, and that the consumption of destructive and harmful production is the cause of their hardship.

The capitalist system, in order to continue, needs people to consume more than they produce. Through presenting power as the problem-solver, this language prevents people from seeing that the only way to solve their problems is through understanding their rights, exercising their rights, and making connections with others and with nature by doing so. A final characteristic is that such language systematically uses syllogistic logic to prevent the reasonable interpretation of reality by using familiar words but changing their meaning.

MD: Can you explain how this logic is used in the current crisis?

Governments tell their people that these ‘others’ have become terrorists because they hate ‘us’ and ‘our’ way of living

AB: The fountain head of the current crisis is capitalism, which has created a closed circuit of domination in which the dominant class does everything to preserve its position. It has successfully tried to deflect attention from the real problem-maker, which is the relation of domination itself, and presents its victims, the dispossessed who become migrants, as the cause of the problem, or de-contexualizes the by-product of this relation as terrorism.

In the first case, for example, Mexican immigrants are presented as the cause of socio-economic problems for blue-collar white American workers, while in Europe, refugees are presented as “swamping” the homogeneity and identity of western countries. In order to hide the fact that such phenomena are a result of exploitative and dehumanising relations, governments tell their people that these ‘others’ have become terrorists because they hate ‘us’ and ‘our’ way of living. They are relatively successful, partly because they use syllogistic logic, and partly because there is no free flow of information and knowledge. They have created a dominant narrative and whoever questions it comes under attack. This is why hardly anyone asks why or how animosity emerges and why violence is used as a method of expressing this animosity.

MD: What do you think should be done? What is the way forward?

AB: Naomi Klein, in her book, The Shock Doctrine, explains how neoliberal capitalism creates crisis in order to decrease popular resistance to the implementation of unpopular policies. I would add that this ‘crisis’ also has another outcome, which is that as it forces people out of their comfort zone, it also creates conditions for them to ask questions about the crisis and to seek answers.

This crisis of gigantic dimensions provides us with a chance to tell the truth.

However, as the dominant left failed to talk about the structural causes of the meltdown, which is capitalism based on a relation of domination, it failed to come up with a daring alternative. People’s questions remained unanswered and the populist ultra-right, which is a core part of the establishment, presented itself as anti-establishment and championed the cause of the disenfranchised.

It did this while portraying the victims of this systemic failure as its cause. This crisis of gigantic dimensions provides us with a chance to tell the truth. Be sure, there will be so many who are ready to listen. We saw their frustration in the tsunami of youth who made an unknown leftist veteran, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party in the UK, and who championed Bernie Sanders in the US. However, as I already said, Corbyn’s ineffectiveness, particularly in Brexit, tells us that the left is in dire need of a new project and alternative. To create this, it needs to openly address the causes of the problem, and to understand ‘capital’ and ‘labour’ as a zero-sum relationship. It needs to do away with all discourses of power and develop a new ideal type which is formed, designed and understood within a discourse of independence and freedom.

To ensure its success, it also needs to develop a type of language and argument which can expose the deceptive and populist language of post-truth politics. Ironically, at a time like this, there is a real opportunity to develop an alternative economic model which serves human development and the protection of nature. This alternative discourse can shift fear into hope, and animosity into friendship, and save life and nature from destruction. It is time, as the thirteenth-century Iranian poet Hafez says, to: “[...] fill the cup with red wine. The firmaments let us shatter. And come with a new design.” 

About the authors

Abolhassan Banisadr was Iran's first post-revolutionary president. He played a major role in theorising Islam as a discourse of freedom in Iran during the 1970s. In 1980, he was elected as Iran's first president, but was overthrown by the ruling clergy in a coup in June 1981 for his opposition to their attempts to establish a religious dictatorship.

Mahmood Delkhasteh has a sociology doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is currently working on a new book based on his doctoral dissertation, Islamic Discourses of Power and Freedom in the Iranian Revolution, 1979-81. He has held lecturing positions at the American University—Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan) and Kingston University (UK). He presently works as an independent researcher, columnist and political activist.


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