Saturday, June 16, 2007

On Christopher de Bellaigue's The Struggle For Iran

When George W.Bush declared in 2002 that there was an "axis of evil" threatening world peace and stability, what surprised most observers was the appearance of Iran as a part of a triad alongside Iraq and North Korea. After all, although its government was hostile to America, Iran showed no signs of becoming a rogue state, and its regime was in part democratically constituted. But Bush's belligerent rhetoric not only thrust the spotlight upon Iran internationally, it also, as the journalist Christopher de Bellaigue notes in his new book The Struggle For Iran, decisively altered the domestic political climate in Iran.

A reform movement of modest proportions, opening doors to greater social freedom for Iranian people, was quashed by the hardline clerics who run the country. In the presidential elections of 2005, a divided electorate ended up voting in the fire-breathing Islamist ideologue Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to replace the relatively moderate and liberal government of Mohammad Khatami. "Iran's pro-democracy movement," writes de Bellaigue, "could not survive in the atmosphere of protracted crisis that Bush helped create."

De Bellaigue's book, his second about Iran, builds upon and serves as a companion volume to the first, the widely acclaimed In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs (2005), an impressionistic account based on his travels around the country as a reporter. In his new book de Bellague, now a resident of Tehran and not just a traveller, is more carefully focussed on explaining Iran to the world, refuting misconceptions about the regime and its people and adding nuance to the broadbrush arguments made about the country around the world. Bringing together long essays originally published in journals like The New York Review of Books and the Guardian, The Struggle For Iran thoughtfully illuminates the politics, history, social life, art and cinema (Iran's best-known export to the world after oil) of one of the world's oldest civilizations.

Bellaigue's book often harks back to the most decisive moment in the history of modern Iran - indeed one of the towering events of the twentieth century - the Islamic Revolution of 1979, in which the corrupt and unpopular monarch Reza Pahlavi was toppled by the forces of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini and his followers inaugurated "the modern world's only clerical state", in which an unelected Supreme Leader chosen by the country's most influential clerics held power alongside a democratically elected president, himself chosen from amongst candidates vetted first by the council of clerics.

Although there was widespread support for the Revolution in its first decade (especially since Iran was fighting a damaging war with Iraq for most of the eighties), in recent times Iran's staunchly religious, censorious, and socially conservative establishment has seemed more and more out of touch with a vibrant society in which three-fourths of the population is under thirty. Even so, the Iranian state plays a directive role in every walk of life and controls over 60 per cent of the economy, its inefficiencies compensated for by booming inflows of petrodollars as world oil prices escalate.

The struggle for Iran, then, is a struggle between the hardline establishment, able to cock a snook at the world because of its oil resources and nuclear technology, and of moderate and liberal forces who now find themselves in disarray in Ahmadinejad's Iran. But Bellaigue cautions the reader against making the fallacy, implicit in the attitude of the Bush government, that if the present regime is somehow toppled, the path will be clear in Iran for a western-style liberal democracy.

Even Iran's most liberal politicians, he writes, do not go so far as to demand a secular democracy - for good or bad, faith will continue to play a role in the construction of the state. As the failed experiment in Iraq shows, democracy, while no doubt the best kind of political system, only stokes resentment and rebellion when imposed from above. If democracy has to successfully take root in Iran, the perceptive Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan has written, it must be "framed in recognizable terms, based on familiar ideologies, and rooted in indigenous values and traditions". As the historian Maria Misra, whose book on India Vishnu's Crowded Temple is out later this year, observes:

The history of post-colonial states shows that democracy is most successful where it has been generated, at least in part, by indigenous traditions. Democracy came to India not because the British selflessly introduced it: democracy succeeded precisely because it was associated with opposition to British imperialism. It was fought for by a popular movement led by Mahatma Gandhi - a figure who blended the traditional and the modern into a seamless, but recognisably Indian, political system.
Propaganda campaigns such as the one launched by the Bush government last year, which budgeted $75 million "to broadcast US radio and television programmes into Iran, help pay for Iranians to study in America and support pro-democracy groups inside the country" may actually prove to be counter-productive.

As in his previous book, de Bellaigue is alert to the voice of the people, soliciting the opinions of Iranians across classes and ideologies. Additionally, his work highlights the wonders of pre-Islamic Persian civilization, a period of history that the present regime understandably seeks to obscure. He has a beautiful essay on attending group classes on the Sufi poet Rumi (Rumi believed, he writes, that an observant person who is ignorant of Islam's spirit is "more dangerous than an irreligious person"). Elsewhere, he notes the irony that Iran still owns the finest collection of Western art outside of Europe and America, put together by the former Shah's wife, even as the establishment has for three decades inveighed on the corruption of Western culture. The fascinating diversity of thought and practice of a complex society in flux - a necessary antidote to simplistic axis-of-evil, us-versus-them thinking - is opened up by this sophisticated and elegant book.

Some chapters from de Bellaigue's book are available online: "Who Rules Iran?", which describes a visit to the seminary town of Qom; "Lifting The Veil", a lovely essay on the Islamic Republic's collection of Western art, and "The Spirit Moves In Tehran", on joining other Iranians in classes on Rumi.

And some other good essays on Iran's society and politics: "Aunt Kobra's Islamic Democracy", a very funny and insightful essay by Reza Aslan, "The View From Tehran", a piece by the prominent investigative journalist and democratic activist Akbar Ganji; "The Democrat", a thoughtful profile of the theologian and reformer Abdolkarim Soroush by Laura Secor; an excellent interview with the Iranian intellectual and film critic Hamid Dabashi by Ramona Koval ("India has historically been a far more important factor in culture and civilisation in the moral and intellectual radar of countries such as Iran, but the people never talk about a place like India because we are trapped inside the east-west, secular-religious kind of dichotomy"); "Iran: Let the democratic process work", a piece by Dabashi; "Ideas whose time has come", a conversation between Danny Postel and the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo; and a discussion on democracy and human rights in Iran in the aftermath of the Revolution with the scholar Ladan Boroumand ("But in revolutionary situations, each actor projects its fantasy onto the leadership. And because Khomeini was discreet about his real agenda each social actor could fantasise about what the Imam wanted for Iran, and joined the movement on the basis of that fantasy"). See also Boroumand's essay "Prospects for Democracy in Iran".

And for those wanting to know more about the gimlet-eyed schoolteacher-turned-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Time magazine has a long interview with him here, and a superb photofeature here. Whatever his faults, Ahmadinejad is certainly not lacking in self-confidence - last year he sent President Bush an eight-page letter which begins, as if he was writing to none other than his granpa, "For sometime now I have been thinking..."

And some old pieces on Iranian films - "Hitchcock in Hijab" and "Anger in Tahmineh Milani's Two Women" - and writers - Hushang Golshiri and Houshang Moradi-Kermani.

[A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint]

1 comment:

Sharif said...

Thanks for the nice review, will pick it up. I am currently reading Dabashi's Iran: A People Interrupted where he similarly tackles the cultural and political history of Iran. I guess you can say it covers Shahnama to Reading Lolita in Tehran and more.