Have you ever noticed how people express themselves about democracy and how they differ on it? This difference is more distinct among the Iranian émigrés to the point that I see it in a category by itself. Approach of the Iranian émigrés to the subject of “democracy” is different than the people who have been raised here, in the U.S. Probably many other ethnic immigrants share this characteristic difference.
Why do I say a categorical difference? Let me give you a few examples that I run into on a daily basis. Discussing a situation that in her opinion is not "just", one says in frustration, “I have yet to see a ‘real’ democracy anywhere in the world” as if she has recently returned from a heavenly democracy with that fresh taste of "real" democracy under her tongue. Another one who wants to refrain from a discourse says, “What is the use of this democracy when nobody listens and cares”, with a tone of disdain toward the practice of democracy in the U.S.
Another interpretation of democracy from one of my compatriots is, "Democracy is not limited to a vote once every four years ... It is the belief and practice in freedom, justice for all, respect for human life, respect for the rule of law and equality before it, respect for the nature and environment, the wildlife, and all that makes a modern man of conscience. Yes, a man of conscience with feelings, with a heart that aches at the sight of needless human suffering." To this friend democracy is a bucket which he throws in it everything and anything that he likes and if the real world has something missing that is in his bucket list, then there is something wrong with the democracy or it is not a "real" democracy.
All these expressions about democracy and many others like them have one thing in common, a feeling of strangeness, a distance, a separation from the democratic environment that they, holders of these opinions, are living in it. These émigrés somehow do not realize that the act of saying, whatever it is that they want to express and to say it without any inhibition, is exactly the expression of democracy and it does not have anything to do with the content of what they are saying. Obviously my compatriots are fond of their own opinions but another person might and probably will find their assertions about democracy as rubbish and both are merely exercising their democratic rights. Both opinions as a political exercise are equal and one does not occupy a higher ground by itself.
Democracy is not about the content of our feelings or thoughts. It is not a set of judgments about what is right or what is wrong. Democracy is the freedom to express and if one's feelings and thoughts are strong enough, it is the freedom to have an aspiration. Democracy is also the unhindered freedom to convince others to work toward the realization of that aspiration or aspirations. In the U.S. this ability, freedom of thought and expression, exists in its broadest form. It is part of the fabric of the society, developed and nurtured through decades and centuries. It is not a bestowed right but a conceived right that no other country in the world can match it. European countries may have a more comprehensive health care system, but they do not have a comprehensive freedom of expression as broad as it exists in the U.S. Europeans as a whole are aware of this fact. They may be critical of some aspects of the social relations in the U.S. but they are envious of the American democracy, the level of openness in the U.S.
My compatriots are not ignorant of these facts. So why do they sneer at the freedoms that exist in this country? Why do they seem oblivious that their sneer by itself is a clear indication of the freedom that they are enjoying! Their sneer is an expression of the democracy. It is both a reflection of the democracy that exists in the U.S. and also the reflection of the shackles of their cultural heritage. Without realizing that the latter is a constraint on their participation in this democracy. Cultural habits are a tough thing to break and these habits play a fundamental role in our perception of democracy.
In the countries of the Middle East one is not raised with the concept of individual freedoms. Children and youth are not educated in the norms of the civil society. One is not raised with an expectation of developing a sense of his individual being. We were not raised as individuals. An individual who is responsible for his actions and needs. We did not develop a sense of freedom with an individual mental space. A mental space that begins with self-interest, a sense of freedom to act for this interest. Our mental space was preoccupied with a hierarchy of social order that you were bound to observe and reinforce. Our actions were conditioned and trained in the first place to submit to the authority and act for the interest of the hierarchy – the family hierarchy, the extended family and the rulers. Our consciousness was fundamentally a tribal consciousness.
In Iran to listen or listening, "goush dadan" or "goush kardan" is not the same as to hear someone's spoken words, feel free to form your own opinion and act according to your own conviction. To listen means to hear and follow what you are hearing, to obey. You listen to the hierarchy and if you are not in the very bottom of the hierarchy then someone else is listening to you. For the émigrés, leaving Iran does not mean that you immediately become politically equal to everyone else. If you do not have to "listen" and no one else is "listening" to you, this is a bizarre situation psychologically. A situation that is difficult to adjust. This is the source of bewilderment, strangeness toward the democracy that they are immersed in. In some ways democracy is suffocating and it is not a source of strength. It is depressing, and the émigrés finds solace in the political apathy.
The émigré mopes about the lack of "real" democracy without realizing that the democracy really does not have anything to do with his or her wish list. Even at a higher level democracy necessarily does not have anything to do with "justice", "equality" or any other social and economic categories. It primarily defines a unique biological entity as a unique political entity who can act to the best of his/her capacity. This political individual is formed through the democratic process prevalent in the U.S., and there is no other more comprehensive process than the American process. This process enables the political individual to define his/her interests and act upon it.
"Real" democracy is not equivalent to lack of social problems or its disappearance. Democracy is the way for a collective approach to the problems and the continuous revisit of the same problem or an evolved form of the problem. It is exactly the existence of the problems that empowers the political individual to use the democracy to express his/her interest, opinion and input about the problem.
In Iran political individual does not exist. The émigrés in his/her social transition has a hard time to understand this aspect of political life in the West. He or she can take advantage of economic openness in the U.S. but full political participation is prohibitive as long as the democracy is seen through an aristocratic lens.