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The Iranian Impasse | The Nation

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The Iranian Impasse

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During the first months after the revolution, Khomeini's grip on power was tenuous, but the vastly popular seizure of American hostages in November 1979 strengthened his position. Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion of Iran, undertaken with Western encouragement and underwritten by the Arab Gulf states, galvanized patriotic sentiment to the benefit of the new regime. During this long war, which lasted until 1988, Khomeini accused his critics of treason and increased the pace of repression. A variety of new paramilitary groups aided the regime in carrying out a "cultural revolution" to "cleanse" the universities of secular and leftist students and faculty members. This harsh early period is the subject of Azar Nafisi's poignant memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran.

About the Author

Kevin B. Anderson
Kevin B. Anderson teaches at Purdue University. He is the author, with Janet Afary, of Foucault and the Iranian...
Janet Afary
Janet Afary teaches at Purdue University. She is the author, with Kevin B. Anderson, of Foucault and the Iranian...

The Islamic Revolution broke with the national, political, legal and social ethos of the Constitutional Revolution, though not entirely with its modern institutional apparatus, such as the Parliament, the media and the military, which it harnessed to its agenda. Islamist women attained leadership posts in the state, were recruited for the war effort and joined women's paramilitary organizations that enforced the state's rules of morality on other, more secular women.

After Khomeini's death in 1989, Ali Khamenei emerged as the new Supreme Leader, with Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as the new president. At this juncture, some disillusioned founders of the Islamic Republic slowly began to question the system, occasionally making common cause with more secular dissidents. The so-called New Religious Thinkers (now andishan-e dini) focused on the project of democratizing Shiite Islam, and their ideas gradually gave rise to a new civil society movement (nehzat-e jame'eh-ye madani), which helped elect President Khatami in 1997 and has continued to conduct a highly sophisticated debate about Islam, modernity and democracy. Some of the New Religious Thinkers, such as theologian Abdolkarim Soroush, have called for a re-examination of the tenets of Islam where they clash with religious tolerance. Others, such as cleric Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, have joined more secular human rights activists like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and journalist Akbar Ganji in calling on the government to ratify the United Nations Convention on Human Rights. But the Khatami administration was cautious and sought only to moderate the Islamist regime. In the summer of 1999, large-scale student demonstrations were crushed by hard-liners after Khatami refused to support them.

Jean-Daniel Lafond and Fred Reed's Conversations in Tehran offers a wealth of interesting interviews with members of the reform movement. Cleric Mohsen Kadivar believes that he and other reformists broke new ground in their criticisms of Khomeini's concept of clerical rule, showing that it had no basis in the Koran or the traditions of the Prophet. Reformists also called for religious reform along modern lines. Ali Paya, a reformist philosopher, thinks that the reformists succeeded in changing the public conversation and even "transformed the mindset of an entire generation" by popularizing phrases like "public sphere," "human rights," "rule of law" and "democracy." Others are less sanguine about the future. Javad Tabatabai, a former professor of philosophy, thinks that Iranian intellectuals have always tried to create an untenable amalgam between Islam and Western thought. And an economics professor notes that the economy was "Khatami's Achilles' heel"--Khatami and his reformist allies lost, in his view, because they failed to address the public's basic needs.

In his new book, Dabashi echoes some of these criticisms of the reform movement. He also reminds readers that many reformists played a role in the intellectual repression of the 1980s, especially at Tehran University. Yet Dabashi refuses to recognize the contribution that reformist theologians like Soroush, Kadivar and Shabestari have made to a more tolerant and democratic Iranian society. Dabashi also casts aspersions on Ganji's hunger strike outside the UN in 2006 in protest of repression inside Iran, arguing that "people like Ganji" are becoming "very natural bedfellows of the U.S. neocons."

In Dabashi's view, Ganji and other dissidents should have been "placing the Iranian situation within the larger geopolitics of the region," at a time when Israel had attacked Lebanon and the United States was threatening Iran. Never mind that Ganji denounced the invasion of Lebanon, or that he opposes strongly not only US military action against Iran but also its so-called democracy funding, or that Ganji enjoys considerable prestige among students and dissidents inside Iran because of his defiant behavior in the regime's courts and his hunger strikes at Evin Prison. Apparently, the timing of his protest was just wrong. That, unfortunately, has too often been the attitude of progressives toward Iranian oppositionists from the onset of the revolution, when the feminists were the first to come onto the streets against the new theocracy, in their demonstration of March 8, 1979.

Dabashi is staunchly critical of the Iranian state's racism, narrow nationalism and anti-Semitism. But while he styles himself as a feminist, he is surprisingly dismissive of contemporary Iranian feminists, who are often treated in his book as misguided at best and, at worst, fellow travelers of the Bush Administration. "Services" rendered to "the US imperial design" are attributed to Azar Nafisi, while the young Iranian-American feminist writer Roya Hakakian also comes under attack. Shirin Ebadi is accused of getting dangerously close to the neocons because she made the "unfortunate choice" of working with another liberal feminist, Azadeh Moaveni, the translator and co-author of the Nobel laureate's 2006 memoir, Iran Awakening. These are risible charges, since all of these feminists have opposed US intervention in Iran and have denounced US policies in the region. (For a feminist response to Dabashi, see Firoozeh Papan-Matin's forthcoming article in The Common Review, "Reading (and Misreading) Lolita in Tehran.") The main sin of the Iranian dissidents and feminists Dabashi assails seems to be their decision to devote more attention to human rights in Iran than to the critique of American imperialism.

Dabashi's discussion of Iranian studies is equally coarse. Take, for instance, his intemperate denunciations of the Columbia University-based Encyclopedia Iranica--an exemplary work of documentation that has paid special attention to Iran's religious and ethnic minorities and has substantial entries on feminists, homosexuality, slavery and numerous other subjects that cannot be discussed as openly inside Iran today--and of the flagship journal of the field, Iranian Studies--currently edited by Homa Katouzian, a leading historian of the Mossadegh era. The scholarship of the Encyclopedia Iranica and Iranian Studies, indeed of the entire field of Iranian studies, he opines, is "a direct descendent of old-fashioned Orientalism...now mostly inhabited by native scholars, a nativist disposition, and cast in entirely domesticated and (ultra) nationalistic terms." This kind of rhetorical overkill permeates Dabashi's book and is especially regrettable coming from the author of such nuanced studies as Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundations of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

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