The Ayatollahs' Democracy: A Look at Iran's Inner Workings

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Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd attempted to demystify some of the West's preconceived notions about Iran in his 2008 book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. His new book, The Ayatollahs' Democracy, delves into the workings of the country's politics. Its insights may startle Americans who think of Iran purely as a fundamentalist Islamic state fronted by the demagogic firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Majd spoke to TIME about his work, what an Islamic democracy looks like and why we should all look beyond the labels.

How would you define what an Islamic democracy is?
The definition of an Islamic democracy is very different if you ask [different Iranian clergy members]. In my opinion, it's a democracy which takes precedence over religious law. But Iran is still a religious society. That doesn't mean people want people to be stoned for adultery. It doesn't mean people want people's hand to be chopped off for stealing. It just means they have Islam as a guide. Though that, unfortunately, in some cases, means certain things that are not comfortable for Americans. For example, gay rights do not exist under Islam.

You hemmed and hawed about the book's title after the brutal crackdown that followed Iran's 2009 elections. Why did you decide to keep it?
When I first thought about the book, I certainly did believe Iran was on the path to democracy, and being in Iran for the campaign season, it seemed even closer to democracy than even I had imagined. It became obvious that this was something fleeting and illusory, but I felt like [the elections] were actually very good for Iran and the future of its democracy because they really did end up showing where the regime has gone wrong and where Islamic democracy has gone wrong — particularly because so many clerics came out against what happened, both in the election itself and in the aftermath.

So, in a way, the titles of both books hinge on the idea of there being debate among the country's religious leaders?
What I was trying to get across with the first title is that Iran is not this monolithic political system, it's not homogenous in its thinking. It's not North Korea, it's not Cuba, it's not an absolute dictatorship. The ayatullahs do have a tremendous amount of power, but they do disagree with each other. This book is much more about the political culture of Iran. For people who are interested, I certainly think that in times of conflict, when we're told that we have an enemy, it is important for us to understand who that enemy is — and if it is, indeed, an enemy. If we don't understand what the political culture is, then we will ultimately make the wrong decisions, and that can affect American citizens.

Do you get a feeling for how much Americans understand that Iran is, politically and culturally, at odds with much of the Sunni Arab world?
I don't think Americans, by and large, understand that at all. The differences dawned on Americans, probably even the American Administration, after the invasion of Iraq, so that's a relatively recent understanding. Shias and Sunnis hate each other, and it's a hatred that goes back centuries. Certainly the way the media presents Iran, it just seems like it's a fundamentalist Muslim state.

You liken Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Can you elaborate on their similarities?
The connection is that they like to be these blowhards who tap into a certain kind of dissatisfaction among their supporters. It's very cynical in my mind. It's a politician's move. [People like Beck and Palin] are fundamentalists when it comes to religion — as is Ahmadinejad. None of them are in the clergy — and neither is Ahmadinejad. And Ahmadinejad, you have to take what he says with a grain of salt, and I think one has to take what Sarah Palin says with a grain of salt, or Rush Limbaugh or any of those people. The kind of incendiary rhetoric that all of these people employ is calculated, and we have to bear that in mind.

At a recent event, you said that Ahmadinejad was trying to engage the U.S. "in his own wacky way" by challenging Obama to a debate in August. What does that mean?
I think President Ahmadinejad would very much like to see a normalization of relations, if not an alliance, with America. Very few Iranians want to see this heightened conflict between America and Iran, which has been going on for 30 years. It's affected the economy. It's affected people's lives. It's not comfortable. And Ahmadinejad recognizes that, but he would like to be the person who can be the hero and say, "I was able to talk to the United States without giving in." The hard-liner accusation has always been that reformers would give up too much in order to have relations. So his [position] is, "I want to engage, but as equals, not as a subservient power."

You often speak for the feelings of Iranians. Being well-connected in Iran and growing up abroad, do you encounter resentment for explaining how they feel?
I've gotten some resentment, but the vast majority of feedback I've gotten has been very positive. I do get criticism from [those in] the Iranian diaspora who are active in trying to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Those people hate me. But I'm a writer. I'm not an activist. I just try to observe, to see what's really going on in Iran. I try to see and talk to as many people as I can. Despite that, I never claim to be able to say, with absolute certainty, "This is what the Iranian people want."

What's the one thought you hope Americans take away from the book?
Iran is not as simple as we imagine it to be. The Iran-American equation is not as simple as we imagine it to be. In this age of instant-gratification media, sound bites, headlines, of being just inundated with information on a subject that is important, like Iran, it's important for Americans to understand that it's not exactly what we imagine it to be. Let's consider a different view, outside of the sound bites, outside of the hyperbole. Who are these Iranians? What is it that they want? What is it that they're trying to accomplish? If you can take something away from my book, it's that it's complicated.