Civil society and democracy in Japan, Iran, Iraq and beyond.

Author:Falsafi, Shiva


This Article addresses the mystery of why some countries appear to become democracies seamlessly while others face insurmountable obstacles. While acknowledging the importance of civil society to democratization at the time of transition, this Article argues that broad historical civil society movements, even if devoid of immediate political impact, also facilitate the passage to democracy at a later date.

This Article takes a comparative look at the constitutional, labor, and women's movements in Japan, Iraq, and Iran, from the nineteenth century to the present. It demonstrates that the resilience of Japanese civil society from 1868 onward secured the country's successful transition to democracy after World War II, while Iraq's history of weak civic activism makes it harder for Iraqis today to embrace democratic tenets. The Article also proposes that the potency of past civil society movements in Iran mirrors Japan's experience much more closely than Iraq's, suggesting that, despite weak representative institutions, Iran is ripe for transition to democratic government under the stewardship of domestic civic forces.

TABLE OF CONTENTS I. INTRODUCTION II. HISTORICAL CIVIL SOCIETY A. Constitutionalism 1. Constitutionalism in Japan 2. Constitutionalism in Iran 3. Constitutionalism in Iraq B. Labor 1. Labor in Japan 2. Labor in Iran 3. Labor in Iraq C. Women's Movements 1. Women's Movement in Japan 2. Women's Movement in Iran 3. Women's Movement: Iraq III. BACK TO THE FUTURE--HISTORICAL REFLEXES RESURRECTED A. Post World War H Japan 1. Labor Movement 2. Women's Movement B. Post-Reza Shah Iran 1. Labor Movement 2. Women's Movement C. Post Invasion Iraq 1. Labor Movement 2. Women's Movement IV. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

This article addresses the question of why some countries appear to become democracies seamlessly while others face insurmountable obstacles. Many scholars today agree that democratizing requires more than just a pact among a nation's elite and suggest that strong political institutions seem to emerge only on the back of systematic agitation by civil society. (1) While acknowledging the importance of civil society to democratization at the time of transition, this Article argues that broad historical civil society movements, even if devoid of immediate political impact, may facilitate the passage to democracy at a later date. Moreover, the exposure of illiberal societies to sustained civic discourse over a period of time may help later reform movements--whose intellectual tenets at first appear foreign--to be viewed as culturally authentic and the continuation of an indigenous national agenda.

As part of the process of deciphering social movements in a country, this Article will consider what kind of civil society activity may best spark democratization. In particular, it will differentiate between civil movements for democracy, characterized by an inward focus and desire to alter the domestic political landscape, and nationalist waves, distinguished by their outward focus and the aim of expelling any colonial presence, which this Article proposes cannot serve as a precedent for democratic reform.

The Article will illustrate this thesis and offer some concrete applications by comparing the history of civil society in Japan, Iraq, and Iran. Part II will discuss the vibrant Japanese civil society of the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1925) periods; the few, far more anemic, Iraqi civic expressions prior to the 1958 Revolution; and the dynamic civil activism during the popular Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911. Part III will consider the role certain civil society actors played when the opportunity for democratic reform emerged in each of these countries: at the end of World War II in Japan, in 2003 in Iraq, and after the abdication of Reza Shah (the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty) in 1941 in Iran. This Article will argue that the strengths or weaknesses of past civil society movements help account for Japan's successful embrace of democratic rule at the end of World War II, Iraq's ongoing violent rejection of many aspects of representative governance, and Iran's continuing, but as yet unsuccessful, reach for democratic reform.

Although Japan was autocratically ruled by a military junta before World War II, the formidable civil society movements of the Meiji and Taisho periods allowed the country to endorse the U.S.-imposed democratic constitutional regime as the continuation of past national steps toward democracy. In contrast, from 1932 to 1958, Iraq's stunted civil society was eclipsed by the state, and any activism that did exist focused largely on battling British colonialism rather than on fighting for internal political reform. This has deprived Iraq of a past legacy for the indigenous pursuit of democracy, making it harder for Iraqis to adopt democratic tenets. The case of Iran is more akin to Meiji and Taisho, Japan, than to Iraq. Iran's legacy of dynamic constitutional movements and potent, albeit episodic, civil society activism, which was on full display throughout the protests against the 2009 presidential election results, may allow Iran to choose democracy as an authentic national aspiration.

While this Article does not venture into a detailed discussion of civil society, (2) it addresses the usual array of voluntary associations and social movements. (3) Within this broad definition, this Article follows Habermas' lead and considers social movements to be the most effective civil society actors with a "dual orientation" because they influence both the political system and, at the same time, revitalize and enlarge civil society. (4) Because social movements reach across a broad range of issues and political perspectives, this Article limits its scope to the constitutional, labor, and women's movements during the historical periods described above in Japan, Iran, and Iraq, respectively. (5)

Prior to invading Iraq in 2003, the Bush Administration repeatedly alluded to American success in democratizing Japan. (6) While it is hard to speculate how a better understanding of these historic differences would have colored foreign policy in Washington in 2003 on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, with attention now increasingly turning to Iran, it is crucial to decipher civil society's role in spearheading reform in that country. This Article also attempts to disarm the argument that Islamic societies cannot sustain constitutional democracies and proposes that Iran is ripe for transition to democratic governance.

Part II is organized thematically under the headings constitutionalism, labor, and women's movement. Part A compares the role of civil society in Japan's efforts to adopt a constitution with the events surrounding the Iranian Constitutional Revolution and the lack of civil society challenges posed to the state under the monarchy in Iraq. Parts B and C examine whether labor and women in each country strengthened civil society and deepened the democratic process by challenging the state for greater rights during these momentous periods. Part III is organized geographically by country and considers the role of labor and women's movements in safeguarding already established constitutional regimes. It begins by considering the role labor and women's movements played in preserving democratic reforms in Japan after World War II in the face of staunch elite opposition. This Part then reviews how organized labor and women fought for political change in Iran after Reza Shah's abdication in 1941. Finally, it addresses why women's groups and labor organizations have failed to mobilize in significant numbers to fight for greater civil, social, and economic rights in Iraq.


    1. Constitutionalism

      1. Constitutionalism in Japan

        The overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of the emperor Meiji in 1867-1868 by a few mid-level insurgent samurai heralded the dawn of the modern era in Japan, commonly referred to as the Meiji Restoration. (7) A spirit of reform infused the new regime, and it sought to industrialize Japan, centralize its political and economic structure, and strengthen its military base. (8) Most importantly, these men, who looked to the West for their political and economic models, were interested in instituting a form of constitutional government, perhaps not to honor the natural rights of their citizenry but because they viewed constitutionalism as one of the core backbones of Western strength. (9)

        The topics of how the new rulers should govern and what should constitute the boundaries of popular participation were widely debated throughout Japanese society at the dawn of the Meiji period. (10) The debate quickly grew into a "formidable democratic movement," commonly referred to as the Freedom and Popular Rights Movement (FPRM). (11) Between 1879 and 1881, activists in the FPRM, ranging from farmers to samurai (including many women), formed over two hundred political organizations, as well as national parties, (12) and submitted to the Meiji leadership over a quarter of a million signatures for the establishment of a constitutional parliamentary government. (13) Unlike the prevailing Western perception of Japan during this period as a country under the sway of a powerful elite and the emperor, much of the evidence from that time, which consists of drafts of proposed constitutions by FPRM groups, (14) clearly demonstrates that Japanese citizens intensely debated the role of the emperor and were seriously interested in curtailing his power under a parliament-centric model, while dramatically increasing the powers and rights of the ordinary Japanese citizen. (15)

        Deeply suspicious of the risks of social anarchy inherent in democracy, (16) this unprecedented grassroots popular mobilization alarmed the Meiji oligarchs, driving them to attempt to suppress the movement. On April 5, 1880, the oligarchs outlawed public...

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