Velvet Revolution in Iran?

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 9, Issue 1, December 2006

Martin Beck Matuštík1

November 17, 2006, marked seventeen years since the Czech Civic Forum and the Slovak Public against Violence choreographed the demise of one of the last Soviet-orbit regimes. In kind, there are three anniversaries coming up in 2007—the centennial of Jan Patočka’s birth; thirty years since his death; and the thirtieth anniversary of “Charta 77.” That bold Czechoslovak Manifesto for human rights issued in January 1977 by Václav Havel, Jan Patočka, and Jiří Hájek, Charta 77 paved the way to the events of the “Velvet Revolution” of November 17, 1989. Patočka’s birth and his Socratic death (in March 1977, he suffered brain hemorrhaging during his interrogation at the hands of the Czech secret service and was left untreated at the police station) will be commemorated in Prague April 22-28, 2007.2

“A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism,” famously wrote Marx in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. “A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent’,” said Václav Havel in 1978 in “The Power of the Powerless.” Jacques Derrida prophesied in his 1994 Specters of Marx about “a spectrology of Marx” that continues to haunt us even after the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989.

Indeed, the specter of “velvet revolution” continues to haunt, perhaps nowhere so much as in the Islamic Republic of Iran of today.


Not unlike the Czech philosopher-dissident Patočka, the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo is an intellectual in deep trouble with the ruling regime. And just like Havel in pre-1989 Czechoslovakia, Jahanbegloo has become part of a democratic, nonviolent movement of the Iranian powerless. On April 27, 2006, the Iranian philosopher was detained at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport, and shortly after was accused of actively preparing to take part in a “velvet revolution” in Iran. This polyglot thinker did his Ph.D. at the Sorbonne while Western Marxism was demanding the impossible, but elected to write his doctoral dissertation on Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent change, Satyagraha. Jahanbegloo continued to espouse nonviolence after returning from the West to his homeland. The question of violence looms large in Iran, whose regime was born of the convulsions of 1979. The Iranian Revolution contained several currents of thought—it included Marxist anti-imperialists and Third-Worldists as well as liberal-democratic nationalists and feminists. Yet in the end it was overtaken by the anti-modernist Islamists, and so became a conservative-clerical revolution rather than a democratic one. On one of his many trips to India, Jahanbegloo met with the Dalai Lama, who in turn has made frequent visits to Prague to meet with Havel since 1989. All such links reinforce suspicion among Iran’s clerical rulers that “the velvet revolution” is at hand.

Rasool Nafisi has suggested that the main reason for Jahanbegloo’s arrest was his research project for the German Marshall Fund in which he compared the Iran’s democratic dissidents with their East-Central European predecessors.3 This line of comparative inquiry analyzed the balance of political power between Iranian civil society and the governing clerical regime. While Jahanbegloo sat in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, eminent international figures—among them Havel and Habermas—sent an open letter to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad protesting the philosopher’s detention. The Iranian minister of the interior, Hojjatoleslam Qolamhoseyn Mosheni Eyhe’I, said in a July interview that Jahanbegloo was arrested on suspicion that he had been assisting the United States to provoke “a velvet revolution in Iran,” an activity that, according to him, seems to be the main business of the United States these days. Of course, nonviolence has not exactly been the modus operandi of U.S. foreign policy strategy: that the empire should be accused of fomenting nonviolence is rich in paradox.

Meanwhile, the reaction of Tehran’s clerical regime to this Iranian dissident was as if taken out of the (secular) Soviet cookbook. The state-run press, Kayhan and Resalat, and the student agency, Isna, proclaimed the good news of Ramin’s video “confession” in which he uttered mea culpa for his sins: he was to be used by foreign agents (the CIA and Mossad) in order to act against the regime that was once called by the head of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, “the most divine and heavenly” in the world. The confession was at first observed by the Revolutionary Cultural Committee, whose members are appointed by Iran’s supreme religious leader (today Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, before him the inventor of the clerical regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei), and whose task it is to supervise the ideological correctness of all cultural and educational programs in the land. Just as during the Soviet-era witch hunts on domestic spies and Zionists, or during the Joseph McCarthy-era witch hunts of Communists in every closet, so also in Iran today, Ramin Jahanbegloo is far from alone in being compelled to “confess” to appease the regime. Such confessions have been prepared for televised public propaganda.4 Just as in the Soviet bloc, so also in Iran are assassinations and torture gradually being replaced by “softer” methods of psychological and economic repression. The Iranian regime now uses more varied threats to keep would-be dissidents in line: threats of financial reprisals, loss of home or medical care, forced exile, or repeated arrest. When Jahanbegloo was released on August 30, 2006, he was given a valid passport, but he had to place as bail both his house and the house of his mother as a guarantee that he would not speak about the tortured origin of his confession or otherwise against the regime.


Who’s afraid of the “velvet revolution”? Fearful are those who don’t understand civil society or non-governmental initiatives. Such fears nowadays strike Central East Europe itself, where one of the most vocal and persistent critics of Charta 77 and of the entire era of Central-East European dissent and today’s NGOs is Havel’s nemesis, the current Czech President, Václav Klaus. His and similar revisionist voices of the dissident history and of the role that civil society played in 1989 arise as if taken from another cookbook—that of the Great Leader, by which I mean not the Soviet cult of personality but the Supreme Iranian cleric. If Timothy Garton Ash is correct that Supreme Leader Ayatollah “Khomenei was both the Lenin and the Stalin of Iran’s Islamic revolution,”5 then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is the one who tries to suppress and normalize all mounting dissent against it.

Klaus would like his cronies to believe that the dissidents were a bunch of elitist losers; that the Actually Existing socialist regimes collapsed of their own overweight; and that unfettered pro-market forces played the main role in the overthrow of Communism and should play the leading role in post-Communist societies. Dissidents, with the exception of Havel and, at the beginning, of the Polish Solidarity leaders, were effectively pushed aside after 1989. The market entrepreneurs and party technocrats took over. Klaus heard Lenin’s question loud and clear when he worked at the top Prague Communist think-tank, the Prognostic Institute: What is to be done? He formed the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) soon after 1989, which proved more effective than the dissident Civic Forum that facilitated the velvet transfer of power, and Klaus thus took power.

Yet can both Central-East European revisionists and the Iranian clerics be right about dissidents and civil society? When unlearned lessons of history repeat themselves, they return as farce. Enter the first farce: the clerical regime fears that it will suffer a recurrence of something that Klaus claims never happened. Then comes the second farce: the conservative religionists in Iran and the conservative market ideologues of Central-Eastern Europe—like the Communist apparatchiks before them—agitate against civil society. Klaus, who likes to portray himself as a student of American democracy and of Margaret Thatcher, invented and introduced derogatory anglicized neologisms into Czech political discourse, such as “NGOism” and “humanrightism,” so as to poke fun at the civil and non-governmental initiatives in his country that Toqueville once identified as the heart of American democracy.

Here comes the third farce: the reactionary Islamist regime recruits former agents who spied on anti-Communist dissidents but were left unemployed by the fall of the Berlin Wall; they collaborate on figuring out how to prevent democratic dissent from turning into “velvet revolution.”6


The specter of nonviolent democratic Islam is haunting the suicide bombers and religious zealots of every stripe. The fear of democratic civil society among Islamist fundamentalists grips the Middle East, fueled by the realization that the Iranian dissidents have outgrown both the ultra-left and the religious right—the two forces responsible for the anti-democratic subversion of the 1979 revolution’s emancipatory promise. It is possible that this might only apply to Iran, and that the situation in other Islamic countries is more complex, especially regarding the relationship between Islamism, civil society, and democracy; yet crucial for my point is that the Iranian dissidents, within the framework of Islam, now embrace nonviolent change and what Karl Popper and George Soros call the open society. Iranian dissent has become, like the Central-East European and Soviet underground before it, the laboratory for imagining another possibility, a future world that would wed the most spiritual resources of religious life with the most advanced forms of democratic and economically just institutions. This is the fear that the Prague Spring of 1968 shares with the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and both share with the current global situation: the pro-democracy yet deeply religiously inflected dissent in Iran is underscored by its radical nonviolence and opposition to all religious terror, whether by a totalitarian state or by religious fanatics. Yet it is likewise opposed to the notion of a permanent war on terror, which is perceptively unmasked by proponents of nonviolent change as the Jacobin variant of all aggressive wars and modern revolutions.

Any violent foreign intervention in Iran would mean the end of the democratic movement. Even Condoleezza Rice’s offer of $75 million to support the opposition forces in Iran threatened, in this situation, the kiss of death (and was dead on arrival—the dissidents don’t want a dime). The Islamist regime fears the velvet of dissidents as much as they fear the mystical dance of the Sufis, whose prayer gathering was attacked by a state-sponsored gang in February 2006. Both the Iranian dissidents and the Sufis embody dangerous ideas that another world is possible. Just as Søren Kierkegaard in 19th-century Denmark protested from within Christianity that in Christendom there were hardly any Christians left (the uneven length of Kierkegaard’s pants was then the only Danish religious caricature), so today the devout Muslim dissidents ask where are the Muslims in Islamdom? Their voices, along with those of secular critical modernists, Jahanbegloo chief among them, have been sorely missing from the entire equation! Should suicide bombers and authoritarian clerical regimes be confused with Islam, any more than our post-Christendom Christianity or democracy with what Noam Chomsky calls military humanism?

Saturated by the suffering at the hands of the Islamic Republic, the democracy movement in Iran has been tested by its own incredibly accelerated modernity. The result is the post-Jacobin realization that it is impossible to impose democracy and freedom by force. Religious dissent in Iran is to Islam today what Kierkegaard was to Christianity in Denmark. The major world conflicts are not, as Samuel Huntington claims, among world civilizations or between the secular and religious worlds, but rather between religious-political fundamentalisms and open societies. This conflict exists today as much within as among civilizations, including within developed Western societies. The global question before us is this: shall we learn to share public and open space in which, as the Mayans in Chiapas say, “many worlds could coexist”? Afraid of a “velvet revolution” are those who do not want to live in an open space of many secular and sacred worlds.


“Reading philosophy in Iran is like reading Patočka and Husserl in Prague in the late 1970s,” Jahanbegloo said in an interview with Danny Postel in Logos.7 This entirely astonishing comparison resounded with even greater truth during the presidency of Iran’s reformist Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). Just as the Central-East European dissidents during the 1970 and ’80s gathered in apartments to hold underground seminars with philosophers visiting from the West, so too Jahanbegloo has organized international conferences and interfaith debates, publishing books and essays, and attracting a great number of thinkers to Tehran, among them Richard Rorty, Agnes Heller, Adam Michnik, Ashis Nandy, Antonio Negri, Michael Ignatieff, and the late Paul Ricoeur. Ramin has published more than twenty books; numerous articles on tradition and modernity, nonviolence, and studies of Kant, Machiavelli, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Tagore; and books of conversation with Isaiah Berlin, George Steiner, and Nandy. Some of Ramin’s seminars on Kant and Hegel were attended by more than four thousand students.

Having awakened intellectually in Prague during the totalitarian period of the early 1970s, I feel a certain envy about the intellectual hunger and omnivorous literacy of Iran’s youth: they remind me of my own famished soul thirsting for conversation and books during the post-1968 normalization of my native Czechoslovakia. The new regime of President Ahmadinejad—he has famously denied the Holocaust (he organized an exhibit of Holocaust caricatures in Tehran, which virtually no Iranians attended) and cracked down on intellectuals and journalists—has effectively ended those reformist hopes. Iran today is somewhat comparable to the Czechoslovak normalization after the Soviet invasion, with the birth of Charta 77 in 1977 and the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Postel’s interview with Ramin was conducted via email in the weeks before his April 2006 arrest.8 When I wrote Postnational Identity (Guilford Press, 1993) and placed together in the subtitle the names of Havel, Habermas, and Kierkegaard, who could have imagined that in today’s Iran Havel and Habermas would jointly become intellectual stars? What do Habermas and Havel bring to the Iranian pro-democracy movement? I put this question to the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji during a dialogue between him and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum at the University of Chicago in September 2006.

Ganji is perhaps the best known Iranian dissident and journalist. He was sentenced to six years in prison for writing a series of articles exposing the roles of high-level Iranian officials in committing political murders of intellectuals and writers. On May 11, 2005, Ganji began a hunger strike from his cell in Evin prison, both against the conditions of his imprisonment and for his unconditional release. That fast lasted an incredibly long time: double the full length of Ramadan (and with no food consumed either before or after sundown). Upon his release from prison, Ganji traveled through Europe and the United States in the fall of 2006. He fully expects to return to prison directly from the airport upon returning to Tehran. Ganji was fasting during his dialogue with Nussbaum, as it was the first week of Ramadan and he is a deeply devout Muslim. At dinner we continued our conversation about Havel and Habermas.

Havel and Charta 77—both now under assault in their place of origin by those in power who have no dissident credentials—are for the Iranian dissidents symbols of nonviolent democratic change. The clerical regime has not yet managed to become thoroughly totalitarian and, as with Charta 77, the pro-democracy movement gathers many different strata of the society, including former Marxists and leftists, secular liberals, religious believers, Muslim feminists, and many students. Habermas represents for the young generation perhaps the most attractive model of open, deliberative, and communicative democracy. He was treated as a rock star during his visit in Tehran in 2002. The Masarykean-humanist Havel and the left-liberal Habermas have thus become two axes of the Iranian democratic vision integrated into what, after Kierkegaard, I would call an existentially transformed Islamic religiosity suited to open society.

My all-too-idyllic comparison neglects three glaring anomalies, though I am prepared to mount a small defense of each one. First, Heidegger, who, along with Husserl and Patočka, inspired the Czech dissidents (including Havel himself), enjoys popularity in Iran today among conservative clerics. (Yet the Czechoslovak Communist regime could stomach neither Husserl, nor Heidegger, nor Patočka, who was also hated by the Nazis, nor the Jewish thinker Emmanuel Lévinas, who was read by Czech dissidents along with Heidegger.) Second, Habermas supported the first Persian Gulf War and the NATO bombing of Serbia. (Yet with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Habermas articulated a highly forceful critique of Bush and U.S. foreign policy more generally.) Third, Havel, unlike Habermas, supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (Yet Havel also warned the United States in an ironic comment to a NATO conference in Prague that the allies could easily end up as hated as the Soviets with their brotherly invasion of Czechoslovakia.)

Indeed, there is a fourth anomaly: Ganji, sometimes called the Havel of Iran, was as a teen a fervent Iranian revolutionary who helped to form the Revolutionary Guards, which were to protect Iran during its war with Iraq but which turned into an instrument of repression at home, a fixture of the Islamic Republic’s domestic security apparatus.

In an interview,9 Ganji voiced the view that “revolution cannot create democracy.” The anti-Shah revolution was not hijacked by the clerics, he said, just as the Bolshevik revolution was not stolen by Stalin, as Trotsky had claimed. “We began revolution, in order to create a paradise, but we created hell.” An unjust regime can be changed only by civil disobedience, nonviolently, he holds. Invasion cannot export or impose democracy. The American Revolution avoided the Jacobin variant of the French revolutionary model of founding. Enter a political holy trinity: Jefferson, Habermas, and Havel. In today’s Iran, the struggle is about not religious orthodoxy but power. Ganji thinks that many clerics in power, like the late Communist nomenclatura, no longer “believe” in anything but their own power, producing what Max Weber called a “sultanist” regime. This is one more reason why relations between civil society and the established powers in present-day Iran are comparable to those of the 1980s Soviet bloc. Ganji has always worried about the fascist reading of religion and wrote about clerical fascism twenty years ago. For his reporting on Iran’s then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani and the murders of dissidents, he earned a six-year prison sentence. He expects a third sentencing upon his return home.

At our dinner in Chicago, our table debated the Iranian nuclear program. Ganji worried about the Libyan model: the United States and the European Union would compromise with the authoritarian Iranian regime, trading assurances of the preservation of the regime for the end or control of the nuclear program. One could also call it the Soviet post-Yalta model, or perhaps the Saudi cheap-oil model. Paradoxically, from an entirely different barrel, the question of the nonviolent transfer of power from the Communists to the dissidents and the preservation of certain sinister post-Communist elements after 1989 will haunt the legacy of the Velvet Revolution for many years, precisely for its non-ultra, nonviolent, or “orange” handling of the deposed regime. That revolution, some say, was no revolution—it lacked the Jacobin or Bolshevik edge and neither executed its enemies nor ate its own children; it only pushed aside the majority of dissidents, whose story today it wishes to revise. Not only do fascist regimes desire to destroy civil society—a fact the Iranian dissidents are keenly aware of—no authoritarian politician or party can tolerate private citizen initiatives. Ganji, who declined an invitation from the White House, has on his current trip met with Habermas and with Havel during a fall conference in Geneva. He has also met with Chomsky, Rorty, David Held, Mary Kaldor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Anthony Dworkin, and Nancy Fraser.

Ganji was a bit surprised when I told him that a great number of former dissidents and student participants in the events of November 1989 think that something has been robbed from the Czecho-Slovak Velvet Revolution. But if Ganji is right that we are creators of our futures in the way we act in the present, then, I proposed to him, he should ask Havel how the story of Charta 77 ended: what happened to East European civil society and the dissidents, whether ushered overnight into political power or again rendered powerless? Ask Havel, I said: given the Central-East European experience, what should Iranian dissidents be thinking about today? We might learn whether or not Havel and Ganji did discuss this topic when a new chapter, about which one dreams Iranian “velvet” dreams, is written.10


1 Martin Beck Matuštík is a Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University. He is the author of Postnational Identity: Critical Theory and Existential Philosophy in Habermas, Kierkegaard, and Havel (1993); Specters of Liberation: Great Refusals in the New World Order (1998); and Jürgen Habermas: A Philosophical-Political Profile (2001); and co-editor with Merold Westphal of Kierkegaard in Post/Modernity (1995). He is currently working on a book titled The Scarcity of Hope: Postsecular Meditations on Radical Evil . This article first appeared in Logos, a quarterly journal of modern culture, society, and politics,, and is reprinted by permission of the author and Logos.

2 While a first-year student at Charles University, at age nineteen, I signed Charta 77. I became a political refugee in August of that same year.

3 Rasool Nafisi, “Ramin Jahanbegloo: a repressive release,” openDemocracy, September 1, 2006,; and Nafisi, “The Meaning of Ramin Jahanbegloo’s Arrest,” openDemocracy, May 16, 2006,

4 See Ervand Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran (University of California Press, 1999).

5 Timothy Garton Ash, “Soldiers of the Hidden Imam,” The New York Review of Books, November 3, 2005.

6 Cf. Timothy Garton Ash, “Cedar revolution,” The Guardian, March 3, 2005; Ash and Timothy Snyder, “The Orange Revolution,” The New York Review of Books, April 28, 2005.

7 Danny Postel, “Ideas Whose Time Has Come: A Conversation with Iranian Philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo,” Logos 5.2, spring/summer 2006,

8 The interview now appears as well in Postel’s book Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2006).

9 “Islam and Democracy: Conversation with Akbar Ganji,” August 10, 2006,

10 This essay is published simultaneously in Czech, “Sametov á demokracie v Iránu? ” Literární noviny, Prague, November 13, 2006, On a related topic, see Matuštík, “Sametová demokracie a jiné změny režimů,” Literární noviny, November 15, 2004, and, in English, “From ‘Velvet Revolution’ to ‘Velvet Jihad’?” openDemocracy, November 18, 2004, I am thankful to Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi for helpful editorial comments.