Interview with Michel Walzer on the “Woman, Life, Liberty” Movement in Iran

by Shirin D. Daghighian — 1October2022

About Michael Walzer:
Michael Walzer is an American philosopher and political theorist. He is a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey. Walzer has been defending liberal democracy with an emphasis on justice since his youth and participation in the American civil rights movement. His articles “The Obligation to Disobey” and “Liberalism, and the Art of Separation” have had many readers among Iranians. In an interview with Kharmagas philosophical magazine in 2015, he had this message for young people who love philosophy in Iran: “Don’t stop arguing about philosophy and don’t stop loving such arguments!” In the interview below, he shared his thoughts about the ongoing “Women, Life, Liberty” movement in Iran.

■ Shirindokht Daghighian: Professor Walzer, have you been following the recent developments in Iran in the aftermath of the killing of Mahsa Amini, a young woman by the compulsory Hijab police? Your thoughts?

Prof. Michael Walzer: Yes, my friends. I have been following the protests in Iran, amazed, and breathless, at the courage of the women (I hope some men too) demonstrating for freedom and gender equality in the streets of so many cities.

■ Up to this moment 71 protesters from all walks of life have been killed by gunshots of Iran’s security forces on the streets of Iran. Thousands have been detained including a vast group of women’s rights defenders, political activists, university students, and sports celebrities who can be subject to torture in Iran’s notorious prison system or can be charged with national security charges that receive the death penalty in Iran. How would you define the rights of the Iranian people to legitimate defiance and defense in this situation?

We call regimes that arrest, imprison, beat, torture, and kill critics and opponents tyrannical, brutally tyrannical. Men and women everywhere have the right to question their rulers, to petition for change, to speak out, to assemble and organize, to demonstrate peacefully, and to disobey civilly. We are by nature social and political creatures, and it is these rights that make social life and politics, I mean a decent social life and politics, possible.

■ Considering a forty two- year history of oppression against women in Iran and discriminatory laws against them, what do you think about the central slogan of the recent movement: Woman, Life, Liberty?

I only wish that this slogan, shouted in Iran, was met with echoing shouts across the world. The oppression of Iranian women is, of course, their own oppression, connected to their own history, endorsed at this moment by a fanatical version of their own religion, but women everywhere can understand, readily enough, what this oppression feels like, and so they can join the defense of Life and Liberty. And smart men can also understand.

■ A few days ago during the protests in Shiraz University male students were chanting: Woman, Life, Liberty? Then, female ones were chanting: Men, Homeland, Economic Development. Some took this as a sign of harmony and solidarity between women and men in Iran. Some others are against the second slogan added later (Men, Homeland, Economic Development) arguing that is a far-right agenda to divert the central slogan toward patriarchal hegemony. Your thoughts.

Without being there at Shiraz University, and talking to the students, I don’t think I can grasp the meaning of the second slogan. Perhaps it is a call for solidarity across genders. My own feeling, from far away, is that the first slogan is enough, is exactly right for this moment.

■ Considering the rich experience of American society in involvement with the feminist movement, its victories, and failures, do you have any advice for the people of Iran?

In American history, feminist militants, even in the worst moments of male prejudice and dominance, never had to fear torture and death. So American feminists (I have a book coming out in a few months where I describe myself as a liberal feminist) have to be very careful about what we say to the people of Iran. We must express solidarity; we must find ways to give our solidarity political expression, but it is Iranian women (men too) who must decide what risks they are prepared to take at this moment and in the future, too.

■ In your 2015 publication, “The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions”, you discussed the emergence of strong counter-secular tendencies in post-liberation societies of Algeria, India, and Israel in reaction to the radical secularist approaches of their political forefathers. Three different religions, but roughly the same timetable: two or three decades after the secular state was established, a militant, modernist, ideological religious movement challenged its secularism. At this time the Islamic Revolution of Iran has lost more than %80 of its initial supporters as a result of replacing the secular code of law with fanatic rules of a politicized version of religion, creating a totalitarian system of social and political oppression, religious discrimination, gender discrimination, harsh oppression against LGBT community, poverty, government corruption, and so on. It seems that the upcoming collapse of the Islamic regime in Iran can be a good subject for a second volume to your book, The Paradox of Liberation. Do you have any plan to elaborate on the dynamics of such a reverse turn as well?

I haven’t planned to write about a reverse turn, but I would be happy to have an occasion to do that — to describe (and celebrate) the defeat of religious zealotry, not only in Iran but in many other places too. If that happens, when that happens, I am sure that women will be in the forefront of the struggle everywhere. And, if I live long enough, I will find a way to write about the “paradox of zealotry” — that it generates its own downfall.

■ In your article on “Civil Disobedience” back in the 1970’s you argued that engagement among the civil society plays an important role in social movements. How would you apply this principle to the current civil disobedience which is developing fast through different segments of Iranian society?

Civil disobedience, as practiced by Gandhi’s followers in India or black Americans (and a few whites, too) in the 1960s, requires commitment and courage of a kind less common that we wish it was. But it is an effective politics for men and women fighting for national liberation or for freedom and equality. Iranians in the streets are already giving the world a new example of the necessary commitment and courage.

■ Your message for the younger population of Iran who are fighting for democracy and liberty in Iran?

Prof. Michael Walzer: What can I say? God bless you. Or, better for the moment, all of us who love freedom and democracy — we bless you and hope for your success

September 9, 2022

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