June 5, 2007


Iran: Past the Paranoia: At once theocratic, secular, hostile, and modern, Iran is not America’s natural enemy. (Peter Hitchens, 6/04/07, American Conservative)

The Iranian state is...famous among its own people for being very bad at delivering grand projects. Tehran’s new Khomeini Airport has just opened after 30 years under construction. A supposedly ultra-modern TV and telecommunications tower stands unfinished on the capital’s skyline after 20 years of work. Several cities, promised metro-rail systems years ago, have yet to see a single train run. Tehran’s metro, sorely needed in that traffic-strangled megalopolis, is operating a few lines, but they opened years late, and there are far too few of them.

Many Iranians privately fear that their government’s clumsy fumblings with the atom will subject them to a Persian Chernobyl long before it endangers anyone else. In any case, if you wish to become frantic about Islamic bombs, then there is surely a better case for worrying about Pakistan, which already possesses such a bomb along with the missiles to hurl it about the region. Yet Pakistan, mysteriously, is our friend and ally, despite being a lawless military tyranny and the only country on earth to have an army unit specifically trained to mount putsches against its (rarely) elected governments.

In any event, it is idle and wrong to see Iran as part of an undifferentiated Muslim world. It is astonishingly distinct from its Arab neighbors and, come to that, from its interesting non-identical twin, Turkey. While Turkey is an Islamic state kept secular (so far) by a covert army dictatorship, Iran is a secular state kept Islamic by an overt clerical despotism. Iranians, as they will swiftly point out to you, are mostly non-Arabs. Nor are they, apart from an important but small minority, Turks. And their espousal of the Shia rather than the Sunni branch of the faith cuts them off, whether they like it or not, from most of the rest of Islam. This divide is far more important than most of us realize. We are aware of it mainly because of the Shia majority in Iraq and the influence that Iran can exercise through them. But what I did not properly appreciate before visiting Iran is that Shia Islam is for all practical purposes a separate religion. I had, on a visit to Iraq, been lucky enough to visit the Shia shrine cities of Najaf and Kerbala but only in search of opinion on the Anglo-American occupation. I had noticed that the mosques were interestingly different from the Sunni ones I had seen in Jordan, Egypt, Jerusalem, and England but had made little of it.

In the great Shia pilgrimage city of Mashhad, on the old Silk Road to China, I understood for the first time that this was something utterly apart, as separate from Sunni practice as a Sicilian Roman Catholic might be from a Scotch Calvinist. I have never felt so close to understanding the passionate pre-Reformation world of medieval Europe, its relics and devotees, its enormous, thronged, and gilded shrines. Passing through ever more ornate courtyards decorated with lovely blue-tiled recesses and overlooked by a dome apparently made of solid gold, I was able to look into the glittering center of the shrine of Imam Reza, one of the sad heroes of this tragic faith. All Shia martyrs were the victims of political, temporal defeat, some slain in unfair battle, others—like Reza—foully murdered by conspiratorial enemies. They are still mourned, as if these events had happened yesterday rather than more than a thousand years ago. The Twelfth Imam is thought to have disappeared from the world of men, only to reappear at an unknown date to restore the rule of peace and justice. [...]

The separation, whatever its reasons and origins, helps to reinforce a strong feeling that Iran is trapped in the middle of a world to which it does not really belong. Wander through Tehran, or any other Iranian city, at the delightful evening hour always pleasing in any Middle Eastern capital, soon after evening prayers have been called, when the sweet and cake shops are preparing for business and the lights are warm and bright. You will quickly notice that it is not—as it would be elsewhere—an all-male street scene. Women are walking about quite freely, and not in that hunched, submissive posture so common in the Arab lands. They are, especially in the more middle-class areas, consciously subverting the ridiculous dress codes imposed on them by the mullahs. The veil is plainly imposed, not willingly worn as it increasingly is by Arab women on the luxury shopping streets of London.

Clothes intended to be shapeless have been carefully nipped in and adapted to emphasize the waist, contrary to regulations. Headscarves are placed so far back on the head that they are barely there at all. Heels are high, and many walk and stand like Parisians. Every so often, squads of morality police still descend on the streets to try to enforce compulsory modesty. But the battle is undoubtedly lost. And that is important because it symbolizes the way in which the regime has failed to hold the hearts of the people in so many other ways as well.

A sort of public opinion does exist in Iran. Despite a still fearsome formal repressive apparatus, which swiftly and disgustingly punishes formal open dissent in newspapers or in street demonstrations, private conversation is quite unregulated, deeply irreverent, and totally fearless. Even in poor South Tehran, where the Islamic enthusiasts have more influence, I was told an unprintably rude joke about the Ayatollah Khomeini that suggested the old man was not very clever.

This private dissent has an interesting effect, a sort of passive resistance expressed by a lack of enthusiasm. The authorities have drawn back from the strict application of sharia punishments except in cities where the middle class is weak and the regime’s more fanatical supporters remain strong. In Mashhad, I was assured, public executions had become rare because they were unpopular, and people would not go to watch them unless the condemned man had committed some especially heinous and bloody crime. In private homes and in public places, the men and women to whom I spoke expressed dissenting opinions with amazing, sometimes alarming freedom. I had to ask myself from time to time whether I was in a tyranny at all.

What were those opinions? As in any proper country, they varied. I had dinner with a group of professionals, male and female, the women voluntarily veiled, where almost all said they had voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for president. The women, especially the younger ones, dominated the conversation. Would they vote the same way now? Hardly any would. They had done so, in any case, in the hope of change that they had not gotten. Many now found him embarrassing and disliked his aggressive talk.

In the great square at Esfahan, I talked to a group of teenage girls about to graduate from high school—one strictly veiled, one less so, one whose scarf was subversively far back on her head. They all thought war was coming, all believed that the U.S. was not a truly free country and that Iranians and Muslims were persecuted and mistreated there. These opinions arose from state-sponsored ignorance and were fanned by our own militant hostility. The students were not in themselves hostile to the West—like almost all Iranians, they yearned to live there. They were personally friendly and open to me. But they warned that an attack on Iran would drive them closer to their government. And this was not just their view. I heard the same from many far more liberal-minded and skeptical. Before the Iraq War, many such people were all but wishing for an American invasion to free them from the ayatollahs. But having seen what American liberation has done for Iraq and Afghanistan, they have turned away from any such thoughts.

The Islamic leadership knows this and is glad of the threats and grumbling coming from Washington. Once it was able to use the great national trauma of the war with Iraq to unite the nation around its leadership, much as the Kremlin used the war against Hitler to give itself legitimacy. Now memories of that war are growing weaker among Iran’s incredibly youthful population, and something else is needed to bind the state and the people. The mullahs also wish to close the gap between Shia and Sunni so as to make a united front against the Great Satan. They are using the crudest tactics to achieve this. While ordinary Iranian Shia are coldly welcomed in Sunni lands, Mahmoud Ahamadinejad is the hero of every Muslim cabdriver from Morocco to Malaysia because of his disreputable Holocaust denial. During Friday prayers, I heard a mullah urge reconciliation between Shia and Sunni, claiming that the wicked, slippery English had been trying to split the two branches of the religion for centuries.

Now, while we should be glad that a civil society is being reborn and that Iran’s alliance with the rest of the Muslim world is shaky, we should not be too optimistic or expect that we can return to the days when the shah was the embarrassingly loyal friend of the West. In the end, his devotion to Washington was one of the things that finished him off.

There is more than one Iran, and even the passionately Islamic version should not be dismissed with scorn or distaste, though some of it remains baffling or repellent to us. One of the most articulate and intelligent people I met was a young schoolteacher, the mother of a young child. It was clear that her relationship with her husband was that of an equal. Yet as we discussed propaganda in the classroom, I was greatly struck by her extraordinary, medieval, night-black robes, so intensely somber that they darkened the well-lit room in which we sat and so emphatically, ferociously modest that they represented an unspoken, passionate argument against secular modernity and all its works. Much less persuasive or sympathetic was the bearded, taciturn man in an Esfahan ironmonger’s shop close to that lovely city’s tourist arcades of carpets, beaten copper, and spices. This man’s wares were not so picturesque. Displayed on his shelves were the sharp, gray zanjeer chains employed by Shia zealots to lash themselves bloody during the fierce, miserable festival of Ashura. This marks the great defeat of Shia arms at Kerbala more than 1,300 years ago. Also on display were other, heavier chains with an equally disturbing but secular purpose. These are used as weapons and threats by the Basiji, a sort of pro-government Islamic militia that is deployed to intimidate any public expression of opposition, much as similar “people’s militias” were used by Warsaw Pact states to ensure the Communist Party’s rule went unchallenged.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 5, 2007 9:20 PM
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