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.


Barmakid said...

Well, I don't know if a different kind of journalism at the time would have changed the course of events. Indeed, I think that sort of revelatory and ideologically unadulterated journalism existed, just not in the conventional sources of info like CNN, NYT, etc... Regardless, good piece Mina.

Admittedly, I was too young at the time (well, I wasn't born yet) to be as intimately familiar with the news being disseminated at the time as you may be, Mina. But I do know that Bazargan made one of the most resounding statements at the time, and it's beginning to be heeded, not just by secularists, but by the clerical establishment itself.

"With the help of numerous details and arguments, we have examined the velayat-e faqih from every side, both in its rational-political aspects, and from the angle of the Qur'an, Islamic tradition, and Islamic law (sharia), and we must judge it as 100 percent destructive. From a political point of view, the velayat-e faqih is despotism and means a regression back to the state we had hoped to overcome with the Islamic Revolution. From a religious point of view it is polytheism (shirk) and a totalitarian personality cult (far'uniyat)."

MrDonut said...

I think you're right. But I think you overestimate the degree to which anyone outside Iran gives a hoot, or the extent to which anyone anywhere does about anyone else. Violence is absolutely everywhere.

Your "international community" is made up of the same stripe of folk as makes up the media: wealthy, highly educated, terribly liberal, and therefore unwilling to "make waves" and lose their priviledged status, and this can happen very quickly. The guys at the top do not like change.

Members of minority religions are urged by their foreign co-religionists to stand their ground and die as martyrs, as if again the "international community" or the media will take note.

The world powers are always making plans of which they say nothing.

The Internet is indeed a better means of communication, if the education side of it can penetrate the halls of power. Somebody noted that all the turmoil in the world is only evidence of change, that society has its own periods of "global warming" and renewal.

Maybe God is putting the pressure on...someone once said, "there are no athiests in foxholes." And that's what the world seems to be turning into: one big foxhole.

barmakid said...

Mr. Donut...May I ask why you are so pessimistic? I bet people thought the whole world was a "foxhole" during WWI. And then they probably thought the same thing during WWII. Imagine what the Japanese must have thought!

And if I can say one thing about that hackneyed quote, "there are no atheists in a foxhole." What a load...

Is that suppose to ratify a person's belief in god? What does it mean when someone has to be frightened into believing into an afterlife? Does the person in the foxhole have the rational to ask, "what kind of twisted god would have me end up dieing in a foxhole!?" And why would god create the earth to just turn it into a foxhole?

Anyways, my point is that your pessimism is unfounded. But here's a more pressing (and relevant) question: Will the "Islamic Republic's third phase" be its last phase?

Darius said...

Hi Evan,
I tried replying to your email to me, regarding my post to G2k, but the email bounced (your mailbox is apparently full). Gary suggested leaving a note here. I'm fine with you forwarding that G2k email to your friend.