Sunday, September 11, 2005

Iranian Society and History - drivers toward a more plural paradigm

Iranian influence in Lebanon has always been perceived by the overwhelming majority of Lebanese as cultural and religious. When we juxtapose Iran with Lebanon, most Lebanese imagine black chadors, mosques, bearded men screaming Allahu Akbar. Only today however, after the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanese territory are we beginning to perceive the role Iran plays in regional politics through Lebanon, and more specifically, Hizballah. The facade of Syria has been removed, and the Iranian role is now naked for all to see.

Now that that role in Lebanese affairs at both the cultural and political levels has become clearer than ever, it is probably high-time that we as Lebanese start learning what we can about Iran and its people. Being in the States, I can only learn and share with you literature that has been written in English (usually by Americans). In that sense, I am limited. But hey, something is definitely better than nothing. Here goes:

What We Must Learn From Iran is an article that was published in the Parade Magazine, which until today, I never knew existed. It just so happened that I had the time and patience to go through almost every section of Washington Post's voluminous Sunday Edition while at a Starbucks Cafe, and eventually discovered it. Anyways, the article is authored by Bruce Feiler, who is married to an Iranian woman. He wrote the essay after a visit to Iran. It is an interesting take on the characteristics of Iranian society today....

What We Must Learn from Iran - a Synopsis

Okay, the main thesis of the article is that Iranians and Iranian history is much more accepting of other cultures and faiths than the facade of the current regime would have you believe. Feiler provides us with evidence from daily Iranian life, Biblical reference to an historic Iranian figure, Cyrus, and an interview with a prominent figure in Qom to prove his point. He finally says that although he fears that the current fundamentalist grip on power is simply too severe, it would only take a look back "at the origins of faith itself" to find the seeds of [religious] coexistence that would ultimately help us all avoid an all-out religious war.

Evidence of youth rebelliousness in Iranian public life

With two-thirds of the population under 26 and lacking work, social restrictions had lessened. A friend explained that she now wore makeup outdoors and shook hands with male colleagues - something unthinkable five years ago. Another friend took us to a popular satiric film that poked fun at clerics. A woman at an internet cafe used her fake fingernails to e-mail her lover. Walking to dinner one night, my wife grabbed my hand. I slapped her away, saying, "We can be arrested!" Later we saw many lovers holding hands. Linda grinned as only a vindicated wife can.

Evidence of divisions within religious circles with regards to separation between "state & mosque"

...[W]e also met the wife of a Vice President who had opened a center for inter-religious dialogue [in Qom]. Mrs. Moussavi-nejad replied in response to a question that “like everywhere, there are fundamentalists here, but also open-minded people. Some prevail for a time, but then others succeed, as in America. I believe life will be better if we separate the spiritual aspects of religion from the political. If you read history, whenever religion has been used as an instrument for government, the religion has been harmed. Religion is too important for a few men to destroy.”

Historical evidence from Biblical References to Iranian tolerance

The Hebrew Bible mentions Cyrus the Great 25 times. In the Book of Isaiah, God calls Cyrus His "anointed one," mashiah in Hebrew, or messiah. "I call you by name," the text says. "I hail you by title." Cyrus is the only non-Israelite figure in the Hebrew Bible to earn such a distinction.

Born around 590 B.C.E., Cyrus forged an empire from India to Greece. While earlier leaders banned their enemies' religions, Cyrus respected [original emphasis] the religions of other people. He bowed down to his subjects' gods and rebuilt their temples. He issued what is called the first declaration of human rights. "I respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire," he declared, "and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them." His empire lasted 200 years.

Concluding Remarks

The impression I get from this article (and other reports from friends as well as published literature) is that Iranian society is gradually but surely resisting the forces of religious fundamentalism and asserting its demands on the clerics who have chosen to assume political responsibilities. I might be wrong, but I see this trend as an irreversable move away from the ideals of the revolution and ultimately, a threat to the clerics' hold on power. However fast change will come though, it is more than clear that the stereotypical image of Iran as a bastion of popular religious fundamentalism appears to be very far from the truth.


SYRIA said...

please leave comments there

carine said...

iran is a strange mixture. i guess it's important to remember the full heritage of the islamic revolution... although led by khomenei et al, it couldn't have succeeded without massive support from communists, feminists, and radicals of all stripes (who were, incidentally, promised a lot of things that were never delivered). in addition, the revolution transformed a lot of otherwise ordinary citizens into activists, who then subsequently have used those same skills to challenge the regime that produced them. and as you mention, there is a strong tradition of religious plurality in the country-- although obviously significantly diminshed since '79, i believe it remains much more vibrant than many understandings of the islamic republic account for.

anecdotal: an iranian friend of mine told me that nowadays, they (the liberal elites at least) to a large extent just carry on as they would elsewhere, despite restrictions-- they'll throw parties with alcohol, and at the end of the night, dad will get hauled downtown by the police, and released the next day. it's part of the routine-- jail has become, like a nasty hangover, the acceptable if distasteful cost of an otherwise great night. i have no idea if this is really widespread beyond her own circle, and certainly iranian jails can be much worse than she makes them sound, but i think it's an interesting story!

Hassan said...

Good post, Raja. Suddenly some one points to Iran the way I do. :)

We all agree on almost all their bad points, so here are some few good things we need to keep in mind, because this is where we can really learn form Iran.

1) Iran is one of the top Asian teams in most group sports.
2) They got lots of golds out of Cannes and almost every other film festival outside the US.
3) The voting age in Iran is 15. That's my favorite asset.
4) There are more women than men in Iranian universities. There is a very high participation of women in politics, reaching posts as high as VP.
5) One of the most vibrant cultural and intellectual societies in the region, with one of the highest newspaper licenses rates, mostly because they need to replace the newspapers that get shutdown so frequently!

The religious tolerance you talk about is very well known. It diminished in the Safavid age, I believe. You will find very good reading on such practices in this age in Colin Turner's "Islam Without Allah", Curzon Publishers. Not a very profound academic book, but definitely worth taking a look at.

Also about partying and the like, note that there already are underground mixed swimming pools in Iran, and non-muslim societies have their own social and sports clubs which one wouldn't imgaine as being in Iran. (Alcohol, no chadore...)

reem said...

Funny that you should post such an entry when I just read an article (FT magazine 3-4 sep 05)about Iran entitled ''enlightened empire''. The only difference is that it discussed the issue mainly in light of a current exhibition at the british museum in London about ancient persia treasures. The author discusses how the whole thing was almost canceled after the election of the hardliner Ahmadi-Nejad. He goes on to argue that the Persian Empire is often remembered as a ''hotbed of tyranny'', which is completely unfounded. In fact, it is believed that local religions were allowed to flourish, in particular under the rule of Cyrus, whom you mentioned Raja. During the cultural revolution, however, the sense of continuity with that heritage was voluntarily broken, also because the Shah associated himself with the ancient Persian rulers. Under the presidencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami, Iran seemed to open up gradually -but then Ahmadi-Nejad was elected to power. In conclusion, the author points to the role of culture and museums in particular to engage in controversial issues, and to bring people together under the political radar (Iranian senior figures are expected to show up for the opening of the exhibition, and this might be an opportunity for Iran and Iran to loosen up relations slightly, without stepping into the more delicate political courtship).