Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Islamic Republic 's Third Phase

Almost at the end of the third decade of the Iranian Revolution, it seems it is about the time to demystify what was for three decade intentionally confused and mystified. The whole world was shocked at the birth of this “monster” that no one knew anything about. American president Jimmy Carter said “he was surprised.” The deposed Shah of Iran seemed woken up by a nightmare. Empress Farah in her memoir claimed that “they had no clue about it.” The journalists went to Iran and returned with their mouths gaping in awe or dismay. The experts, with their display of shock, added to an already existing enigma and sense of mystery which the public sees around the Islamic Republic of Iran. And we Iranians did not do any better. All of us were waiting for a hint from those whom we thought were a little closer to religion, like Mehdi Bazargan. He did give us directions, though they were wrong. He was as shocked as everyone else. His Islam was very different from what was born and growing so fast, yet he still endorsed it.

Several books on Shiism were all new even to us Iranian. The clerics in Qom were given the status of Oxford and Cambridge dons by one western scholar, and Qom was described as another Heidelberg or Sorbonne. Iran and Iranians and clerics and Shiite Islam all fused into each others, wrapped up in a halo of mystery, and each expert and each journalist only added another layer. The whole country and its people became so unfamiliar even to us that I did not even dare to go back home, like many of us, for over twenty years.

The most distressing of all were non-Muslim scholars who were so zealous and defensive of the Islamic Republic and completely denied the sufferings of secular Iranians. Most of them became apologists for the Islamic Republic, as if criticizing it meant denouncing their own existence. Mandatory Islamic hejab for women was a horrifying imposition but was taken so lightly, the family laws changing to laws of Shari’a was another which was not given any attention, the problem of the religious minority, particularly the Bahai’s, was dismissed totally. I do not recall any of the Iranian (non-opposition) or Western scholars gave any weight to these matters except en passant. They defended the Islamic Republic so firmly and strongly that one wondered why they didn’t join the club and convert. Anne Marie Schimmel was at least honest enough to say “I prefer my glass of wine.”

On the other hand, there were those who made Iranians out to be some strange, somehow dangerous, species. I will never forget, night after night, listening to the news and commentators talking about “Allah,” as if Shiites worshiped some genie. I never figured out why it became a problem to understand that just as God is an English world for the deity, whom the French call Dieu and the Greeks, Theo and the Russians, Bog, some Iranian use the Arabic term Allah, though they themselves have one hundred and one names for Him in their own language—Khoda, Izad, and Yazdan being the most common. A simple matter as such was turned into a puzzle and amusing games for the nighttime shows on TV; and alas none of those experts in Shiism came to help.

Then came the “confusion” period, when every single sentence uttered by any of those clerics came as a mystified code which needed to be decoded, even simple words, such as moderate, money, punishments, apology, and independence. After every speech by Imam Khomeini or the Friday Imams of the time, everybody would fall over the Shiite dictionary to unravel its meaning. Then would come the analysis of the experts from various levels of the State Department or those think tanks in Washington D.C. or all the Middle Eastern Studies departments of the universities in the United States. It is interesting that after some thirty years, people are still referring to that the famous saying of Khomeini, who wished to “cut the hands of foreigner,” although this was simply a literary mistranslation of an expression used in Iran equivalent to “talking one’s hands off something.”

The whole artificial attempt to “understand them” was not only unhelpful, but only added to the confusion.  They mislead the public to a misconception that the Iranians got what they ask for and what they deserve: They want to be ruled by mullahs, they want to go backward, they like having their hands cut off, they want to be told how to perform every step of their most trivial affairs of life. Once, watching a documentary on PBS about the Iran-Iraq war, the reporter interviewed an Iranian war veteran on wheelchair. We could hear the veteran’s line being fed to him by his minder, i.e. that everything was staged. We wrote to PBS and reminded them of their obligation of professional honesty, and pointed out to them the futility of such phony documentaries. Some PBS flack wrote back that if a “nation” wants to portray itself as such, we have to cooperate and air it as they wanted! A strange sense of professionalism indeed!

In the last few years there were few books by journalists, The Last Great Revolution (at least its last half), Persian Mirrors, Neither East Nor West, and The Rose Garden of Martyrs, or travelogues, which tried to depart from the apologetic tradition of the academics and Middle East experts of the first two decades. However, each one of them very cautiously took off only one layer of the mystery. One explained that not all Iranian went to the front to get killed to be martyrs; war was run by a well-calculated manipulative machinery. Another explained that teenagers in Iran are the same as teenagers the world over, even a bit more cheerful and playful. Another revealed that in spite of all the efforts by the clerics to undermine the status of women, their presence and their influence in the overall society is still undeniable. But none took the trouble to explain the system of the government so the people won’t rush to the bunkers out of fear that Iran’s president who has no power as such would eliminate them from the earth. It seemed there was a limit to excavating this great tomb, one inch at a time would have to do.

And now finally it seems it is the time for demystification. I’m not sure that we have arrived at this stage since it is a convenient time, or it is just the American way of learning something. Perhaps the revolution has reached its zenith and now is going to merge and blend with Iranian culture to disappear, and this allows the observers have a better perspective. Books are being published which are more exposing, articles are written which are more revealing, clerics inside the country are saying things which makes one wonder why they hadn’t said them twenty-five years ago. People talk about the government’s corruption, clerics are criticizing clerics, and in spite of all the arrests on charges of endangering national security and social order, people are still outspoken. And we hear more and more the forgotten word “secular” in a variety of contexts. For the first time, thanks to internet, news travels over the boarders more freely. It might be for this very reason that journalists and commentators follow suit and are becoming more open to talking about Iran, however cautiously. In any case, I welcome this third stage; though, had we done this from the start, we would have been saved much trouble.
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Barbara Slavin, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies

Barbara Slavin is not the first journalist to become attracted to the puzzling and intriguing Iran’s political system, but is among the very few who admits that she is not so taken with this great revolution. As a matter of fact, she sees signs of decay in the Islamic Republic. In the very first few pages of the book, she says, “Having lived in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s and China a decade later, I knew a decaying revolution when I saw one.” In her twelve chaptered book, she covers her observation of the last ten years of the Islamic Republic with occasional flashbacks to earlier events, and her analysis of its complicated relationship with the United States.

Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies, is a clear departure from the previous Western reviews of the Islamic Republic, which tended not only to keep Iran in a mystical shadow, but accentuated its ambiguity. This book is a pioneer in demystifying what was in three decade intentionally mystified. In each chapter the author tries to explain simply as possible this hybrid of an old civilization and culture, modern technology and education, and religious revolution, and the three dimensions of Islamic Republic of Iran which are woven together and need to be untangled.

Twenty-nine years into the revolution, I did not expect to read anything new in this book, though I found it a very helpful manual in reading Iran’s Islamic Republic system of government. Its best part is the fourth chapter, “The Iranian Square Dance.” She not only draws a diagram of the various councils and assemblies and their place in the hierarchy of Iranian political system, but explains their role and the limits of their power. The collaboration among the various forces of the government and how they take turns whenever they are called for is compared to a square dance with the supreme leader in the middle and the rest around him waiting for their turn to come in the middle. Had this book been written before, we would have come to a much better solution for many of our problems. We would surely not have had the brouhaha over Ahmadinejad in Columbia University, but university president Bollinger might had found a chance to show a little wisdom and treat him more suitably in a way beneficial to all. I wish a copy of this book would find its way to the State Department for future use, if there is any future left for it to be used!

As I’m posting this article, we are all worried over the parliamentary election in late March. At this point I’m counting on “surprises” along the lines of Slavin’s square dance theory. It seems I’m not alone, since Behzad Nabavi, a reformist candidate from Tehran, considering the possibilities of being vetted by the Guardian Council, says “we are used to being nominated every other term.” More likely, he is counting on the square dance theory too.

Another part of the book I find interesting was the chapter on Ahmadinejad, as the president, as a person and, somehow, his becoming who he is. I wish in this chapter Slavin would have talked about the questions surrounding his dubious election. This election was not overseen by any human rights watchdog group and out of 1400 journalist who had gone to Iran to cover the election only handful remained for election day, the rest having to leave the country the day before election since their visas was not renewed as was promised, and the result of the election was what the Ministry of Internal Affairs has provided. None was mentioned.

The four chapters on the “Children of Revolution,” “Opposition,” “Reformists,” and “Mullahs” are very helpful in understanding not only the Islamic Republic but Iran itself.

If it had been written some six or eight years ago, we would not have had Ahmadinejad and his cronies in power today; Washington would have known that the reformists are not “irrelevant.” In these chapters, however, I wish Slavin had departed from the traditional formal journalistic style and been more creative, as she was in chapter four. Though she mentioned that “Iranians have surprised all of us many times and they might do again,” I think working within the framework of her profession did not allow her to go where real changes and surprises in Iran has always been initiated. Universities have been the front line of opposition in Iran in last seventy five years, and as the most important political institution, it deserved a chapter to itself.

Also totally missing was Iranian women as a political institution and not just a gender. Though the Islamic Republic refrains from acknowledging it, the position of women as the speaker of almost all the reform-minded and progressive groups and parties and as a token of credibility even for the fundamentalists indicates their undeniable importance in Iranian politics. They were not looked into as the decisive factors that they are, except as included among “youth” or some other group. The two elections of Mohammad Khatami and the sixth parliament as well as the last municipal election owe their victory to them.

The last three chapters of the book were devoted to the Iran – America relations: The conflicts between the White House and the State Department and between the various groups within them and the similar conflicts between their counterparts in Iran; also, the problem of timing: When Iran was ready, the U.S. was not and vice versa. Each one was dragged its feet to close the deal to delay for a more auspicious time. But two important questions were never raised in this book or elsewhere.

One is the hostility of the hardline cleric towards the Democrats in the United States. Were it not for President Carter, whose campaigned was centered on human rights, particularly in other countries, as he declared in his inaugural speech, the Iranian revolution would have taken a different course. As Mohsen Sazegara admitted to her, “We did not expect such a quick victory.” And indeed, the Islamic Republic owes its victory to this “suddenness” urged by Carter administration, and yet the first response was anger at him. America allowing the Shah to come to the United States was more of a pretext and was used as for domestic political consumption.

The other equally important question is the hostility of Bush administration, and even Clinton’s, towards the reformist Khatami government, in spite of their pro-democracy rhetoric. Though Slavin vaguely referred to it as a lost opportunity and a series of mishaps in the Clinton administration, she never raised the question of whether this was a failure or a matter of deliberate policy. I hope we do not have to wait another two decades to find out about to find out. I pray that the related documents were not among those which Oliver North and Fawn Hall brought to their shredding parties.

Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies undoubtedly helps understand Iranian complex system, although it does not touch the other more important part, American foreign policy. Still I believe, putting aside the political relation of the two countries, that there is something more important involved here. With at least two millions Iranians living in the United States, and several thousands of mixed families and all those born here, it is about time to start a process of ending that animosity. I think the book is successful in that regard. To a great extend, Iranians are alienated from the Islamic Republic, and to great degree she rightly viewed Iranians in opposition to the Islamic rulers. She mentioned even in her talks that if given a fair election Iranian would not elect any of the Islamists to office. The overall impression of Iranians in this book is a more balanced and gentle. They are portrait more sympathetically and humanely. The hostile, angry and unpredictable features which for decades were imposed on Iranian seems be fading away, to be replaced by a more tolerant and friendly one. Undoubtedly if this book is not the beginning of a relationship between Iran and the United States, which I think it is not, surely it is at least the beginning of de-demonizing the grand parents of thousands of American citizens.

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