It has been a season of anniversaries. Twenty years ago, political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history—the triumph of Western liberalism over Marxism as the dominant paradigm for organizing societies. Thirty years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini deplaned from exile to Iran, welcomed by millions after the Shah had effectively been deposed.
Now it seems that both Fukuyama and the Iranian revolution are coming to a head. Recent post-election events in Iran are eerily reminiscent of the last gasps of communism, as mostly peaceful protesters have taken to the streets against farcical democracy and the iron hand of totalitarianism.
Do the events in Iran support Fukuyama’s claim? Are we witnessing the demise of the Iranian Islamist Republic to the inevitable victory of democracy, at the end of history? Or are the Twittering, English-speaking classes pursuing a failed movement with little mass appeal?
Fukuyama wrote the essay The End of History? as the Iron Curtain fell in Europe. Many accept his claim that democracy has triumphed. But his proclamation that history has stopped—the end of greater ideological struggles or large-scale conflict—is difficult to swallow. Since 1989, we have witnessed the Rwandan genocide, the repression of a Saffron Revolution in Myanmar, and the looming threat of irreversible global climate change.
That is the fundamental shortcoming with Fukuyama’s thesis: How can we call these cracks minor, nothing but hiccups in a “post-historical” world? History—for better or worse—continues to flourish.
The election-related events in Iran come on the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, perhaps the single strongest counter-example to Fukuyama’s claim: a popular religious—and regressive—revolution. The Iranian revolution, uniquely, was backward-looking, longing for a glorious Islamic civilization of the past. Other successful mass revolutions in recent memory have been about—no matter how flawed—a utopian future.
To be sure, the Iranian revolution could also be called a hijacked movement: Religious zealots turned on the secular liberals, who in many ways spearheaded the beginnings of the movement. There have also been other backward-looking “revolutions” recently, such as the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s, but these were enforced from the topdown, and can hardly be called popular.
Unfortunately, the present situation in Iran may have the signs of a failed revolution, undermining Fukuyama’s claim that there is no resonant ideological alternative to Western democracy. It is unclear to what extent protesters have broad popular support—the smart-phone- wielding, urban dwellers who have gotten much media play are only a small subsection of society. They may be perceived as freedom fighters in the West, but it seems unlikely that they will succeed in meaningful reform within Iran.
Ultimately, in the long term, political Islamic does not have viable prospects. Even if the protests are quelled in Iran, the previously held belief that the Iranian experiment could be exported throughout West Asia or parts of Asia has been discredited. Democracy, as Fukuyama argued, will triumph in the long run.
Yet, the recent events in Iran force us to ask: Has history indeed ended? Fukuyama called problems with Western liberalism—such as environmental troubles or religious strife—minor issues. But the theocratic underpinnings of Iran’s repressive regime, which is violently suppressing freedom, can hardly be called just minor.
It is difficult to refute Fukuyama’s claims that there is no viable long-term ideological alternative to Western democracy—even in theocracy. But recent events in Iran undermine his stance on a post-historical world. The current pro-democracy protests in Iran are a significant event in world history. And, while news reportage is tight as the Iranian regime’s shroud is all-encompassing, the Iranian people, it would seem, yearn for true democracy.
Jonathan Sidhu is an assistant views editor, Mint. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org